I became dangerously close to missing the appropriate window to post this, primarily due to being on holiday vacation and simply not having the time to sit down at my computer for an hour or two. But nonetheless, here it is. I’m usually pretty conservative with the amount of holiday specials I watch in a given season, but I decided to try something a little different this time. Throughout the month of December, I binged through pretty much every made-for-TV Christmas special I could find, including special TV episodes and some variety shows. It was basically my quest from the very start to find the best of the bunch, including all the weird stuff and little seen gems. That includes everything from the classic Rankin/Bass specials to… well, whatever the hell Alpha’s Magical Christmas was.
There are still some that I have not yet seen (and rightfully so, as is the case with Star Wars Holiday Special), but I basically skimmed and scoured through every one of these lists I could find and watched the ones that I’m sure would be the most interest of me. I averaged about 10-15 viewings of these specials per day during the second half of December, making my total number of special watched somewhere in the 100s. My discoveries made me realize that the animated Christmas specials are the ones that stand out to me the most. It’s most likely because I’m already pretty biased toward animated stories over live-action ones, but they also just tend to feel more Christmassy than the live-action ones. I think there’s this level of freedom we give to animation in terms of how much sentimentality they’re allowed to project, because animation is still considered kids fare by many. Live-action films that basically recreate the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life often end up feeling too schmaltzy for their own good, while animated films are given a bit more freedom. Also, much of what I watched featured characters that I were already familiar with, so seeing them take time out of their daily adventures to celebrate the holiday is usually a delightful novelty.
Anyway, as you could probably surmise, the purpose of this point is for me to rank the best of the best here. This is strictly for TV specials, primarily those only about 20-60 minutes in length, and does not include feature films or theatrical shorts. To be fair, though, only about the top three or so are firmly ranked, while the others are free to be interchanged given whatever mood I’m in.
A FEW HONORABLE MENTIONS…
- Recently, I had come to the pretty tragic realization that puppetry most likely does not count as animation. Thus, I had to remove my inclusion of both The Christmas Toy and A Muppet Family Christmas from this list. Both are absolutely charming and I would highly recommend them to any Christmas playlist out there; they just don’t exactly fit for the purposes of this list. However, if I were wiling to stretch the rules to include the work of Jim Henson, A Muppet Family Christmas would undoubtedly be #1. It’s pretty impossible to watch that one and walk away in even a remotely bad mood.
- When I started this project, I wanted to make it all about the winter holiday season as a whole. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to find much diversity regarding the range of holiday specials that aren’t strictly about Christmas. Hanukkah cartoon specials are pretty much nonexistent, save for The Rugrats: “A Chanukah Special”, which handled the teaching of the tradition with an amazing amount of sensitivity fit for both kids and adults. Likewise, even though Kwanzaa is briefly mentioned in shows like The Boondocks and Arthur, the only cartoon special that devotes a good chunk of its time to the holiday is The Proud Family: “7 Days of Kwanzaa”. I would also highly recommend this special, mainly due to its smooth integration of the holiday into the show’s formula, but also because the episode is often pretty hilarious.
- With the original rules in place, I really wanted to add Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. Even after I decided to make this strictly a Christmas list, I wanted to make an exception for it so badly, but in the end I decided against it. Truth be told, though, this is one of the strongest of the Rankin & Bass holiday specials, including some of the more interesting characters and themes of their entire repertoire.
Now, on with the list!
13) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In a way, I kind of see this as just a placeholder for Rudolph’s Shiny New Year… but I think it rightfully deserves a spot on this list as well! This was the very first of the string of infamous Rankin & Bass holiday specials of the 60s and 70s, and you could do a whole lot worse of an introduction. It delicately takes from its classic source material to carve out characters of yore – as well as some new faces – into full-fledged personalities and images. I had watched this countless times as a kid, but this most recent rewatch came over ten years later. Some aspects of it don’t quite hold up (the animation is some of the duo’s most stilted, the story isn’t the most polished, Burl Ives is less than charming), but there’s no denying that its prevalence in the holiday season is admirable and fully deserved.
12) The Town That Santa Forgot
The Town That Santa Forgot was a Christmas special that, truthfully, I myself have forgotten about up until looking up viewing possibilities. I watched it a couple times on Cartoon Network in the 90s and it never even crossed my mind again until this last viewing. The story is as simple as can get, detailing the attempts of a greedy boy who writes a mile-long list to Santa demanding an abundance of toys all to himself. Santa and his elves misinterpret these demands as coming from an entire village of impoverished children and… well, you can probably guess where it goes from there. The moral is paper-thin, yet Dick Van Dyke’s whimsical rhyming narration is somehow very effective and surprisingly tugs at the ol’ heartstrings from time to time. Not to mention that I carry a certain amount of nostalgia for the animation style of this, with its simple lines and colors so reminiscent of this particular era of Cartoon Network.
11) Santa Claus is Coming to Town
I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely, 100% satisfied with the ways that Rankin/Bass specials and the ilk tend to take their own liberties with familiar source material, but I think the directions that the story takes in Santa Claus is Coming to Town are some of the most satisfying. The narrative of Santa’s rise to infamy is a story that practically writes itself, but this film has not only an enjoyable story but colorful characters and some pretty cool songs as well. Fred Astaire is a terrific narrator, and although I’m not a fan of Mickey Rooney as a whole, his voice work as the titular Claus is pretty fun. It’s taken me way too long to get around to this one, and it’s probably one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve stumbled upon this season.
10) Mickey’s Christmas Carol
Now, I know that this is technically a theatrical featurette and for that reason alone it could be disqualified. However, I know this feature from front to back and my experience with it has solely been from watching it air on cable TV during Christmastime in my childhood, so I’ll allow it. One thing I noticed with many Christmas-themed TV episodes is that many of them really love to remake A Christmas Carol, yet very few of them are successful at adding their own spin to it that we haven’t seen done dozens of times over. This is precisely what Mickey’s Christmas Carol excels at. To me, Goofy is the definitive Jacob Marley; Mickey and family are the definitive Cratchits; Pete is the definitive Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come; and of course Scrooge McDuck is the most perfect cartoonification of Ebenezer himself. I’m aware of all those other live-action renditions of the tale that are excellent in their own ways, but Christmas and cartoons fit together for me like peanut butter and jelly. Therefore, one will be hard-pressed to find another version of A Christmas Carol that means more to me than this one. Disney just does Christmas so wholesomely, it’s hard not to love it.
9) Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
This might be the single darkest Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and quite possibly the most overlooked. I know that I always seemed to pass this one over up until this past month. Beginning with Rudolph, the duo seem to have a real affinity for social outcasts, individuals who are singled out for what is deemed an irredeemable defect, physical or otherwise. Nestor is one of the studio’s cutest creations and his story is so sad, it’s hard to come to terms with what might exactly be the point of it all. Of course, it all ties up in the final third in yet another retelling of the very first Christmas, though I think the religious nature of its conclusion helps rather than hampers the overall effect. While looking back on the whole Rankin/Bass filmography, this is one of the ones on which I tend to think of the most fondly. I’m pretty excited to make this a future staple of my holiday viewings.
8) Frosty the Snowman
If I wanted to, I could nitpick the hell out of this. I could pull out every plot hole or awkward interactions between characters or clumsy animation of which Frosty the Snowman is so full. But to do so would miss the point – it is because of its shameless simplicity and kid-like nature of storytelling that makes this particular venture so charming. I’ve written elsewhere about the nostalgia for this film I hold so near and dear, and that may be the primary reason that keeps me from ranking this particular special any lower. I wouldn’t dare! As far as I’m concerned, the song came after the film, virtuously inspired by the wintry enchantment so perfectly encapsulated in every frame of this cartoon. If there was any Christmas special that perfectly captured what the holiday meant to me as a little kid, this is the one – more so than The Snowman even. But more on that later.
7) Pinky and the Brain: “A Pinky and the Brain Christmas”
A little bit of background – although I love The Animaniacs to bits, I never really got into the Pinky and the Brain spinoff series. I’m not even sure why! All of the best writers and voice actors are involved and the humor is proven to be just as sharp and clever as that which is found in its parent series. And thus is the case with the series’ beloved Christmas episode, much of which is devoted entirely to making an absolute mockery of the sterile commercialism of the holiday. The humor, as always, is consistently sharp and clever, but it’s the heartwarming ending that really kicks this one up a couple notches for me. I’m not even ashamed to admit that I even shed a tear or two during this finale – but then again, I always end up falling prey to these moments of overt sentimentality anyway. Still, this isn’t one that should be missed.
6) Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
Now, here’s one that really surprised me! As much as I’ve emphasized how much Mickey’s Christmas Carol means to me on a personal level, at its hardest, shelliest core, it really is just another Christmas Carol retelling. Its source material has become stale over time and despite the terrific imagery that comes with it, it can’t really save itself from its stiff narrative structure. Once Upon a Christmas, on the other hand, offers three adorable Christmas tales featuring some most beloved Disney characters, each of which offering its own special twist to the holiday. From Huey, Dewey, & Louie enduring a Groundhog Day-like phenomenon to teach them a moral lesson; to Max having doubts about Santa’s existence, while Goofy attempts to quell these threats to childlike innocence; to Mickey and Minnie recreating “The Gift of Magi”, with a finale that is predictable though irresistibly charming. The look and feel of this special is undeniably Christmas-like and there’s so much to enjoy in each of the three stories. For Christmas lovers like myself, this special is an absolute delight.
5) The Simpsons: “Marge Be Not Proud”
Is there any sadder tale around Christmastime than that of the kid whose dignified innocence is yanked away inexplicably? Christmas is the perfect time to be young, yet Bart is treated as an adult as a form of punishment for the naughty crime of shoplifting. Somehow, through the show’s consistently impeccable writing and frame of reference, this seems like the most tragic fate to ever befall a child. Golden era Simpsons is always worth making a fuss about, and while I much prefer their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes over anything else, this is a stellar example of how the show takes their own liberties with traditional yuletide themes in their own groundbreaking style. As with practically every episode of this era, it’s sharply humorous from start to finish, while also balancing a hefty amount of emotional appeal when the time calls for such. Most importantly, though, this is one of my favorite episodes that strengthens the relationship between Marge and Bart, a fitting interpretation of the ways that a son can betray his mother – and vice versa.
4) Hey Arnold!: “Arnold’s Christmas”
Although I watched many Christmas episodes of animated shows this past month, there were very few that I found fit to make this list. I wish I could conjure up a more satisfying reason why, but I think it comes down to finding a balance between originality and tradition storytelling in its narrative. Many holiday episodes often try to put their own spin on the holiday norms, which is all fine and dandy until it simply no longer feels Christmassy. At the same time, however, there’s a reason why the hundredth retelling of A Christmas Carol feels so tiresome. This is where I think Hey Arnold!‘s Christmas special succeeds, namely in placing the traditional holiday traditions of togetherness and the spirit of giving in the context of loss and grief. The series has never been afraid to take on difficult issues dealt with by kids in an urban environment, but the adults in Arnold’s boarding house often have much deeper, more intriguing stories than that which with they are initially introduced. Mr. Hyunh’s pain is concrete and realistic, making Arnold and Gerald’s tireless efforts to help him out all the more endearing. Though one of my absolute favorite things about this episode is the way they develop Helga’s arc. Helga is far and away my favorite character on the show, and her growth in discovering the magic of helping others out of the goodness of her heart is such a beautiful phenomenon to watch unfold. And yes, I did cry at the end of this one as well. Even though this one has never been a regular staple in my seasonal watching schedule, it has undoubtedly left a mark in some of the most beautiful ways.
3) The Snowman
I must admit that The Snowman has never been a staple of my childhood, like I’m sure it has for many others. Since I’m from the US, I never really caught it showing on my TV at all; I never even watched it until well after I had turned 18. Moreover, having lived my whole life in California, I have never seen the snow and am possibly as detached from the context of The Snowman as one could get. Nonetheless, I love it. I love its picture book method of storytelling; I love its wordless, speechless narrative; I love the fantastical adventures on which we’re taken by the titular snowman; I love “Walking in the Air”. While watching this, though, something just hurts. Even before the suddenly tragic ending, the painful nostalgia of childhood lost just pervades through the entirety of this formless tale. It’s just all so beautiful in a grown-up, adult kind of way, yet has somehow become remembered as particularly palatable for children, as fleeting as their time inevitably is. It’s a magical sort of film that only comes around once in a great while.
2) A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you would have asked me a year ago what my favorite Christmas specials would be, there was no way that A Charlie Brown Christmas would be ranked so highly. Maybe it’s because it’s my mom’s favorite Christmas special, but I always found it to be both awkward and cloying in its delivery of its message. More than anything, however, I think my formerly strict renouncing of anything related to Christianity automatically made me turn my nose at the scene wherein Linus gives his heartfelt oration of the annunciation to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke. Nowadays, I don’t mind that scene much at all and I love practically everything else about this film. Upon this last rewatch, I realized that this is probably the closest that any film has gotten to depicting the modes of depression I usually endure around the holiday season. Much like Charlie Brown, I find it increasingly more and more difficult to relate to others around me, particularly in the bliss and joyfulness others seem to find in the holiday season. We both seek refuge in things that feel the coziest – Charlie Brown has his flimsy pine tree; I’ve got my cartoon TV specials – and we both feel frustrated when others can’t understand our feelings. Now, I still love all the little scenes in between, such as the images of the children ice skating and dancing to the tune of Vince Guaraldi’s tranquil score. But now that adulthood has left me jaded by the simplicity of its humor and animation, I’m left with the bigger picture that has, undoubtedly, left an even more profound mark on my Christmas vision. I don’t know how I ever doubted the genius of this one.
1) Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
With how much I love The Nightmare Before Christmas as a Halloween staple and other similarly dark subversions of otherwise happy, joyful holiday fare, there was no way that How the Grinch Stole Christmas wouldn’t be my #1 animated Christmas special. At its core, it really is just a blending of a multitude at talents displaying the very best of their talents. Dr. Seuss! Chuck Jones! Boris Karloff, June Foray (kind of), and Thurl Ravenscroft! From the Christmassy colors and images, to Seuss’ beautifully whimsical prose, to the sly and slimy personification of the Grinch himself (complete with Karloff’s untouchable voice work) – this is one of the few specials that I have always loved with not a doubt in my mind, and I’m pretty sure I always will. Although now that I know so much more about Chuck Jones than I had back in the day, it’s hard not to see his fingerprints all over this one, yet there’s more than enough breathing room given to the truly Seussical environments of Whoville that nothing else since has even come close to touching. This Christmas special forever gives me the hope that any sad, solemn soul can be so touched by the wholesomeness of the season that their heart grows three sizes too big. It’s basically everything I love about the season wrapped up in a neat little package, set to the tune of the effortlessly slinky “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, a karaoke bucket list item for myself. I love this film with every inch of my cold, wintry heart, and at this point it shouldn’t be too hard to see why. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks!
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