The holiday season is upon us once again and along with snowstorms, visiting relatives, and frantic last minute gift shopping, that means holiday specials on TV. Seasonal specials have become part of our holiday traditions, something we come back to every year along with the old decorations to remind us of and connect us to holidays past. We all have our old favorites, but there’s always room for a few new ones to add to the yearly rotation. Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favorite Christmas specials. Some are well known classics, while others are a little less well known. So get your hot chocolate ready and prepare to revisit some of the old greats and discover some new ones.
Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas
What’s It About? Emmet and his mother have fallen on hard times and are struggling to make ends meet, let alone get each other Christmas presents. They both decide to enter a local talent show, each hoping to use the cash prize to buy the other a special gift.
Why Do I Love It? I saw this special a few times in my childhood, but I didn’t exactly grow up with it. It’s as an adult that I’ve really come to appreciate it. Emmett Otter is just about everything I love about the Muppets, a gorgeous mix of then state-of-the-art technology and masterful puppetry with a story that is at turns, funny, sad, and sweet without ever becoming saccharine. And if you can track down the original cut, Kermit’s there to boot.
My Favorite Thing The music. This is right up there with The Muppet Movie when it comes to showcasing some of Paul Williams’ best work. Every single song is a tour de force, but my personal favorite is the gentle hymn “When the River Meets the Sea.”
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
What’s It About? All of Sesame Street is excited about the approaching holiday. But when Oscar challenges Big Bird to explain how big fat Santa can fit down all those skinny little chimneys, the bird starts to worry that Santa will fail and no one will get any Christmas presents.
Why Do I Love It? More Muppets always helps. Beyond that, this is a really top-notch special, with great moments for nearly all of the characters from this era of the show. From Bert and Ernie playing out their version of “The Gift of the Magi” to Kermit and Grover interviewing kids to learn about Santa, there’s a lot to love here. Even if you’re really not feeling the Christmas spirit, you can enjoy Oscar, who expresses his distaste for the season in the bluntly titled song “I Hate Christmas.”
My Favorite Things It’s a tie on this one. I can’t decide between the beautiful little moments between Bob and Linda during the song “Keep Christmas With You” that subtly underline the relationship between them and Cookie Monster’s hilarious attempt to get a last minute message to Santa.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
What’s It About? Every Who down in Who-ville likes Christmas a lot, but the Grinch…oh this is a total waste of time. You know what it’s about.
Why Do I Love It? It’s a wonderful little fable and an adaptation of a children’s picture book that doesn’t fall into the trap of completely reworking the story to fill a time slot. It stays faithful to the story and has even managed to eclipse to the original. Ask just about anyone what color the Grinch is and they’ll answer “green,” even though the original illustrations are black, white, and red.
My Favorite Thing Three words: Chuck Jones animation. Every expression, pose, and scratchy little line is just a joy to behold.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
What’s It About? For anyone who’s been living under a rock since the 1960s, this is the story of perpetual loser Charlie Brown, who is not feeling the Christmas spirit. He tries and largely fails to direct the Christmas play, purchases the world’s saddest Christmas tree, and finally learns what Christmas is all about.
Why Do I Love It? I’m a pretty secular person, so a lot of the more bluntly religious Christmas specials aren’t among my favorites. What sets this one apart for me is how much time the special spends on that gloomy, unfulfilled, depressed feeling that pervades the holiday season for Charlie Brown. By paying attention to everything that’s hard about the Christmas season, the special earns the right to celebrate one of the things that’s good about it.
My Favorite Thing The voice work. Having actual children voicing child characters doesn’t always work, but it’s a perfect fit for this show. Profound, cutting, and depressing ideas coming out of the mouths of kids is a big part of the appeal of Peanuts, and real kids stumbling through lines they barely understand or spouting such morose sentiments as “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” or “Everything I touch gets ruined” just drives the concept home.
Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol
What’s It About? Miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge has no use for Christmas, but the Ghosts of…this is even more pointless than describing the plot of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
Why Do I Love It? “A Christmas Carol” may be the most filmed story of all time, so there’s no shortage of good versions to pick from. This whirlwind adaptation may not be the best retelling of the story – Tiny Tim’s death almost gets lost in the shuffle, but it is a beautiful piece of animation directed by Who Framed Roger Rabbit animation director Richard Williams. It features Alastair Sim from the 1950s A Christmas Carol as the voice of Scrooge and the most terrifying depiction of Jacob Marley I’ve ever seen. Rights issues have kept it from being seen on TV or DVD for a while, but it is available on YouTube.
My Favorite Thing The darker and more obscure aspects of the story that the special highlights (while ignoring Tiny Tim’s passing). Most notable are the scenes showing how everyone from poor miners to a lonely sailor at sea are still celebrating the season to the Ghost of Christmas Present revealing Mankind’s outcast children, Ignorance and Want.
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol
What’s It About? When a spaceship with his two companions on board is moments from crashing, the Doctor must convince a heartless miser to save the day by making a few trips to his past, present, and future Christmases.
Why Do I Love It? I love Doctor Who and the annual Christmas special is one of the highlights of the season for me. This is absolutely one of the best, taking the basic concepts of the Dickens story and crafting them into a new story full of fun, drama, and genuine emotion. It’s no small feat to breathe new life into a story as well known as “A Christmas Carol,” but Doctor Who pulls it off.
My Favorite Thing The Doctor’s take on Christmas Yet to Come. I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a really clever twist that just works beautifully.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol
What’s It About? The same thing every other version of “A Christmas Carol” is about. Only this time, Scrooge and Cratchit are a duck and a mouse.
Why Do I Love It? It’s Disney, which is a good start from my perspective. And it features early work from a number of Disney animators who would go on to become the studio’s top talents. It’s also a very solid adaptation of the story. Yes, it omits material, as most versions do. But it still manages to hit all of the right emotional notes. Cratchit/Mickey holding Tiny Tim’s crutch and resting it tenderly on his grave may not be strictly Dickens accurate, but it’s no less heartbreaking.
My Favorite Thing Alan Young as Scrooge. This was Young’s first outing as the animated Scrooge (after voicing the character on a Disneyland Records version of the same story) and a lot was riding on his performance. Right from the start, Young absolutely nails the part; not just the Scottish accent, but the emotion in every single line, making what could have been yet one more retread of the Dickens story into something genuine and special.
A Muppet Family Christmas
What’s It About? The entire Muppet gang decides to spend Christmas at Fozzie’s mother’s idyllic farm. Unfortunately, no one told Fozzie’s mother.
Why Do I Love It? Of my three favorite Muppet Christmas specials, this is the one with the least plot. There’s some drama with Miss Piggy getting stuck in a blizzard on her way to spend Christmas with her frog and the Swedish Chef considering Big Bird for the role of the Christmas turkey, but that’s about it. It’s mostly just an excuse to throw a bunch of Muppets together and have them sing Christmas carols and do Christmasy things. But the lack of a strong storyline actually makes Muppet Family Christmas feel like a genuine peek at somebody’s particularly crazy family holiday gathering. It’s a bunch of great little moments and interactions between characters who would normally never get to meet each other, topped off with the kind of craziness that comes with any family’s holiday celebration.
My Favorite Thing Bert and Ernie’s conversation with Doc of Fraggle Rock, which offers new insight into how life on Sesame Street works.
What’s It About? A boy builds a snowman that comes to life and treats him to a night of adventures, culminating in a visit to the North Pole.
Why Do I Love It? This was a childhood favorite of mine. It’s a great, simple Christmas story, told wordlessly like the picture book it’s based on. As an adult, I love it both for the nostalgia of watching something I saw so many times as a kid and for the sheer amount of work that went into the gorgeous visuals and haunting score.
My Favorite Thing The animation. This is an unbelievably beautiful special, created with crayons and pastels to perfectly replicate the look of the book’s illustrations. Just look at the details and the camera work in the above clip. LOOK AT THEM.
Peace On Earth
What’s It About? An old grandfather squirrel tells his grandchildren the story of how humans disappeared from the world.
Why Do I Love It? This is a theatrical short rather than a TV special, but I’m going to count it anyway. At first blush, it looks like a typical cute animal cartoon of the late 1930s, though only if you ignore the partially shattered stained glade window and the discarded weapons that the animals’ town is built out of. But it quickly becomes something very different when the young squirrels ask their grandfather what “men” are after hearing the phrase “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” The cartoon then moves from cuddly animals to a shockingly grim depiction of humanity bringing doom upon itself through humans inability to stop fighting amongst themselves. The short was released not long before the beginning of World War II, a time when its anti-war sentiment would have been particularly rare. Even today, it’s hard to think of another cartoon that suggest that if we don’t change our ways, we will only have peace on Earth when humans are no longer around to prevent it.
My Favorite Thing The fate of the last two humans. In the short’s most chilling moment, the only surviving humans shoot each other from across a battlefield. The naturalistic animation keeps the scene feeling real and makes the idea that the only people left on earth would rather kill each other than make peace all the more tragic and terrifying.
He-Man and She-Ra – A Christmas Special
What’s It About? Christmas comes to the planet of Eternia when two children from Earth are accidentally…
Sorry, I can’t do this. Not even as a joke. I actually find both of these Filmation cartoons charming and fun, but the Christmas special is quite possibly the stupidest holiday special ever conceived (except for that one about Life Day that we don’t talk about). I can suspend my disbelief with the sword and sorcery/tech planet, the talking green and orange tiger, or Orko’s girlfriend’s little brother who wears a baseball cap. But there is just no way that I can believe that the guy with a skull for a head suddenly gives a crap about what happens to two kids and a robot puppy because it’s Christmas.. Said train wreck is above, in its entirety, should you want to ruin your holiday season.
Happy Holidays to one and all, whatever specials you celebrate with.