It’s that time of year when TV stations start airing their annual selection of Christmas specials. Well, OK, technically that “time of year” started the day after Thanksgiving; I notice some of the cable stations such as ABC Family are going into absolute glut mode already. The production of Christmas specials seems to have taken a minor nosedive from the 1990s onward, though there have been a few produced in recent years (often as an easy way to get further use out of 3D models from animated movies). But there is no shortage of Christmas specials when we turn our eyes to the past. There are dozens, possibly even hundreds of specials — and I’m only counting actual TV specials, not episodes of TV series, not movies, and not even TV movies (for the record, I’m drawing the line at one hour.)
I haven’t seen every Christmas special made, of course. And I hope to be able to watch some more this season and in seasons to come. But I’m comfortable enough with what I’ve seen to pick my top ten.
#10: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
I went back and forth a lot on which Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas special was going to take the #10 spot on this list. It was between The Year Without a Santa Claus and Here Comes Santa Claus (which can be considered an honorable mention). Ultimately, I decided that although Here Comes Santa Claus probably has the better story, The Year Without a Santa Claus is just a bit more fun. The reason can be summed up in two words: “Miser Brothers”. Heat Miser and Snow Miser, with their catchy musical sequence, have acquired a popularity that outstrips the special itself, even receiving a special of their own decades later, even though Rankin/Bass itself had shut down by that point.
#9: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
There are many, many Muppet Christmas specials — almost enough to make a top ten list entirely consisting of them, at least if one includes side projects such as Sesame Street. Of the straight-up Muppet specials, this one might be the best, and is almost certainly the purest. No parodying of existing Christmas films (as in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie), no shoehorning in unknown kids for the Muppets to relate to and help out (as in A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa). Those specials are all right, but they don’t have the simple pure charm of A Muppet Family Christmas. In this special, Fozzie invites the whole gang over to his mother’s house in the country for Christmas. It’s just a simple extended family get together… and the whole extended Muppet family does indeed get together. The Muppets are there, the characters from Sesame Street show up, and so do the characters from Fraggle Rock. Even the Muppet Babies show up in flashback in puppet-form. And at the end, so does Jim Henson himself. It’s the kind of special that sadly can’t happen today, with the properties split among different companies. Even getting the DVD is a difficult prospect.
#8: Prep & Landing (2009)
By far the newest entry on this list, Prep & Landing is something of a rarity for specials made in recent years. Not only is it a modern Christmas special, animated using CGI, but it’s not based on any prior existing franchise. This might be because it’s by Disney, and not by Dreamworks, who seem fond of re-using their movie characters in TV specials (not that I’m really knocking that, though sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit.) Prep & Landing tells the story of Lanny and Wayne, two of Santa Claus’s elves, whose job is to ensure that Santa Claus is able to safely land on the roof of every child’s house. It’s a fun look at a side of the Santa Claus business that is usually left unexplored. It spawned a few short sequels, and one full one, but the original is still the most fun.
#7: The Christmas Toy (1986)
Another Jim Henson production, this special features mostly new characters — though Kermit the Frog provides the intro and outro on the original TV version (sadly, the same cross-company politics mentioned above leads to him being cut on current DVD releases.) In The Christmas Toy, toys come to life whenever their owners aren’t looking. They have fun and interact with each other, and have their own wants and desires. But there’s a danger to them, in that if they’re ever spotted out of place, they’ll be “frozen” — unable to move on their own ever again. Rugby, a stuffed tiger and the favorite Christmas present of his owner the year before, runs the risk of that danger when he misunderstands the nature of Christmas, and seeks to reprise his role as the Christmas toy in the box. Things are complicated further by the year’s current toy, Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids, an action figure who doesn’t understand that she’s a toy and thinks she’s landed among aliens. It’s a fun Christmas story with a solid heart to it as Rugby has to put things right for his friends.
#6: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Rankin/Bass produced nearly a score of Christmas specials over the years, but the first is still the best. The story had been created as a promotion for Montgomery Ward in 1939, and then turned into a song by Gene Autry. It became a Christmas classic, and Rankin/Bass acquired the rights to create a stop-motion animated special in 1964. It would become a classic in its own right. Though there were several follow-ups, and many of their Christmas specials are rightly regarded as classics, it’s the original that is still the most popular of the bunch.
#5: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has seen many, many adaptations over the decades, both in film and in TV. But as far as TV specials, the most fun might be Mickey’s Christmas Carol. In what is probably an inevitable move, Donald’s Uncle Scrooge plays the character who gave him his name, the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge. Mickey plays Bob Cratchit, Goofy plays Jacob Marley, and the giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk plays the Ghost of Christmas Present. The other characters are likewise filled with characters from the classic Disney cartoons. It makes for a fun and child-friendly rendition of the story while never deviating from the original story in any significant way.
Edit: I have since learned that this was originally a theatrical release, preceding re-releases of The Jungle Book (in the U.K.) and The Rescuers (in the U.S.). But I’m leaving it in anyway.
#4: A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
Ostensibly, dinosaurs don’t have much to do with Christmas. But these guys, who bear a passing resemblance to Siskel and Ebert, serve as the hosts to A Claymation Christmas Celebration. “Claymation” is often used a generic term for clay stop-motion animation, but it’s properly used for the creations of Will Vinton — whose company was eventually purchased by Laika, who continue to make Claymation films today (they just had a new one, ParaNorman, this year.) In the mid-80s, Vinton’s work was at the height of its popularity, with his work for the California Raisins board creating a surprise hit character franchise. The California Raisins make an appearance in this special, but it’s just one out of a set of Claymation music videos for both semi-modern Christmas songs and traditional Christmas carols. Some of them are played traditionally, and others are updated, and it’s all done with a big sense of fun. And it also answers the question of just what people are doing when they come a-wassailing.
#3: A Garfield Christmas (1987)
Garfield had already had several TV specials, including a very successful Halloween special. But it wasn’t until 1987, nearly ten years after his comic strip debut and following six other specials, that he finally had a Christmas special. The special was surprisingly family-oriented, featuring Jon’s family, usually out of the picture in the comic strip and other TV specials (though Grandma, easily the break-out character of A Garfield Christmas, would show up again for the Thanksgiving special the next year). The special showed that the fat cat could manage to be both funny and heartwarming at the same time. A favorite for many, it aired for several years on CBS; curiously, it doesn’t seem to get much airplay any more.
#2: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
One of Dr. Seuss’s most popular stories came to television in this animated special, with Boris Karloff providing the voice of both the Grinch and the narrator. Thurl Ravenscroft sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, a song full of witty insults to the villain which gets significant airplay on Christmas radio stations even today. There have been a few Grinchy follow-ups for other seasons, and even a live-action film starring Jim Carrey, but the original tale of the small-hearted Grinch robbing the Whos of Whoville of all their festivities is still one of the most popular Christmas specials of all time, and deservedly so.
#1: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Was there ever any doubt? A Charlie Brown Christmas is still one of the most popular Christmas specials of all time, running every year (often multiple times) even nearly 50 years after its original debut. Mixing humor and a starkly anti-commercial message (that is often overlooked by the very people airing it, as well as the heirs to the Peanuts franchise), it’s one of the few specials to acknowledge the religious origins of the holiday, and to do so in a humble non-obnoxious manner. Most of the specials that were made after it are openly trying to ape it to a greater or lesser degree, and all are hoping to capture the same level of success. The makers of the Peanuts specials themselves have tried to recapture the lightning more than once over the years as well. But it’s still the very first Peanuts special that is one of the most fondly cherished Christmas specials of all time.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Christmas Specials. There are a ton of specials that couldn’t make the cut, even just counting those that I’ve already seen. No doubt in years to come I’ll post a follow-up with the next top ten. In the meantime, if there’s one of your favorites that didn’t make the cut, and you think deserved a spot, let me know in the comments.