Top Ten Christmas Specials

It’s Not Christmas Without These Shows

I love Christmas specials. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I always looked forward to the upcoming Christmas specials as much as Christmas itself.  I remember checking the TV section of the newspaper for any upcoming holiday special and then plotting out my viewing plans: The Grinch-ABC- Tuesday at 8 pm; Charlie Brown-CBS-Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Rudolph-NBC-Friday at 8 pm.  Nothing was going to interfere with my viewing schedule.

As I grew into adulthood, I continued to enjoy those holiday specials with new perspective through my daughter’s eyes.  And I also enjoyed watching the new holiday specials created during her childhood.  I remember in the mid-80’s I decided to record every possible holiday special on the VCR for Heather.  I watched every special that year, pausing the tape for commercials, and filling three VCR tapes of which only one has still survived. Of course, today you don’t have to wait for specials to run on TV, you simply go to the store and buy the DVD.

The holiday specials have started already this year and I thought this would be the perfect time to announce my top 10 all-time favorite holiday specials.

10. The Little Drummer Boy (1968 Rankin-Bass stop motion animation) – I really wasn’t that fond of this special as a child but, as I grew older, I gained a nostalgic liking towards it. One of the few specials with a strictly religious theme, the story is both simple and familiar. After his parents are killed by thieves, the little drummer boy sets off on his own, accompanied by a few barnyard animals.  Filled with hatred towards mankind, he runs into con-artist Ben Hararmad voiced by Jose Ferrer.  Eventually, the little drummer boy ends up at a manager in Bethlehem. Greer Garson is absolutely fabulous as the narrator and listening to her tell the story is worth the watch alone…

9. Frosty the Snowman (1969 Rankin-Bass animation) – Based on the song that everyone knows, this special lovingly recreates the song in animation with the help of the infamous Jimmy Durante who narrates the show and sings the title song.  According to Wikipedia, “Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass wanted to give the show and its characters the look of a Christmas card, so Paul Coker, Jr., a greeting card and MAD Magazine artist, was hired to do the character and background drawings.”  I also love that the foil, an inept, Snidley Whiplash-styled magician, isn’t really that bad of a character.

8. The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985 Rankin-Bass stop motion animation) – Based on the 1902 story by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, this special stays fairly close to the original with only minor changes due to time constraints.  Most of you may not be familiar with the book or this special, but I love the non-traditional story of how the orphan Santa was raised in the forest of Burzee by a bunch of immortals and eventually ends up in the laughing valley of Hohaho distributing toys to all children, rich or poor.

7. A Chipmunk Christmas (1981 animation) – Dave, Alvin, and the rest of the Chipmunks gear up for the holidays in this all but forgotten Christmas special.  The story plot is simple. Alvin gives his harmonica to a sick little boy and then learns that he has been asked to do a harmonica solo at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve.  Alvin and his fellow chipmunks must find a way for him to earn money to buy a new harmonica without Dave finding out.  Eventually everything works out okay with a little help from Mrs. Claus.  It’s a cute story but the best parts are when the Chipmunks sing songs like “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).  It isn’t Christmas until I’ve heard The Chipmunk Song at least once.

6. The Christmas Toy (1986 Jim Henson Company Special) – This is the story about Rugby the Tiger who thinks he is special because he is the Christmas toy from last year.  When Rugby learns that it is Christmas again, he plots to go to the living room to get into a Christmas package.  When the previous year’s Christmas toy, a doll named Apple, explains to Rugby that he will be replaced with a new toy this year, Rugby refuses to accept his fate and ventures off to the living room.  The problem is that if he is caught out of place by a human, he will be frozen forever.  Accompanying him is the semi-ostracized cat toy, Mew the Mouse.  This is a wonderful and touching story about growing up, friendship, and helping others. Originally Kermit the Frog introduced the story, but was edited out of the DVD due to legal issues. He does appear in the VHS version.

5. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970 Rankin-Bass stop motion animation) – Loosely based on the song by the same name, this special tells the story of how Santa came to be.  Narrated by Fred Astaire who also sings the title song, it also features the voice of Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle/Santa Claus.  In this version, orphan Kris is raised by the toy making Kringles who have been banned by the toy hating Burgermeister Meisterburger.  When he grows up, Kris makes secret deliveries of the toys with the aid of his penguin friend. Yes, I said penguin.  Not only does Kris have to avoid being arrested by the Burgermeister, he also has to deal with the evil Winter Warlock, voiced by the wonderful Keenan Wynn.  In addition to the title song, other songs include “The First Toy Maker to the King” and “Put One Foot In Front of the Other”.

4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974 Rankin-Bass stop motion animation) – Based on a 1956 book with the same title, the special tells the story of how Santa wakes up with a cold one day before Christmas and decides to take a holiday and cancel Christmas. Santa is convinced that people have stopped believing in him and have lost the Christmas spirit.  Mrs. Claus sends out two elves and Vixen to Southtown USA to find some Christmas Spirit.  Along the way, the elves encounter the Heat Miser and his brother the Snow miser.  The story is narrated by the incomparable Shirley Booth, who also voices Mrs. Claus.  Mickey Rooney reprises his role as Santa.  I really get a kick out of the Miser Brothers and their “I’m Mister Heat/Snow Miser” song.

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 animation) – I am talking about the cartoon here, not the absolutely awful and distorted Jim Carey film version. Blah.  Nothing beats Dr. Suess being narrated by Boris Karloff, who also voices the Grinch.  You don’t need me to tell you the story because we all know it and love it-everything from his dog, Max to Cindy Lu Who to cans of Who Hash.  “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by an uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft (the same guy who voiced Tony the Tiger), has become a Christmas staple.  (Check out the Whirling Dervishes’ version of the song.) I also get all warm and fuzzy when despite losing everything, the Whos all gather around the tree in the center of the town singing, “Dah Who Doraze, Weclome Christmas. Come this way!”  Please pass me some of the Who roast beast.

2.  A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 animation) – One of the most beloved Christmas animations featuring Charlie Brown and the whole Peanuts gang.  Good old Charlie Brown is feeling down at Christmas time so Lucy decides that he should direct the annual Christmas show.  Despondent over the cast’s disregard for his direction, they send him out to pick up a Christmas tree.  When he returns with a forlorn real tree, the gang chastises him for not choosing a fancy aluminum tree.  Charlie Brown runs off with the tree determined to decorate it but believes he’s killed it when an ornament he places on it bends the tree to the ground.  The crew comes around, redecorates the tree to Charlie Brown’s surprise, and they all sing “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing.”

Some of the best moments include the amazing soundtrack by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi, Schroeder playing jingle bells with one finger, Snoopy impersonating all of the barn animals, and Linus’ solo explanation of Christmas. I just can’t imagine Christmas without good old Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.

1.  Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1965 Rankin-Bass stop motion animation) – Based on the song of the same name, this is the story of a little reindeer chastised because his nose glowed red.  The story is narrated by Sam the Snowman, voiced by Burl Ives who also sings such memorable songs as “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold”.  It starts with Rudolph discovering he is different and trying to hide his red nose. When his “abnormality” is discovered, all of the reindeer make fun of him except one doe named Clarice.Rudolph decides to run away with a cast-off Elf, Hermie, who wants to be a dentist.  Along the way, they encounter Yukon Cornelius, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Bumble, the Abominable Snow Monster of the North.

As he grows, Rudolph realizes that he can’t run away from his troubles and he returns home.  Santa informs him that Clarice and his parents have been captured by the Bumble and Rudolph sets off to save them.  With the help of his pals, they defeat and transform the Bumble and return to Christmas town just in time for Christmas.  When the fog makes Santa decide to cancel Christmas, Rudolph saves the day by leading the sleigh through the fog.  But before they visit any homes, they stop off to pick up the toys on the Island of Misfit Toys. Forty-four years later and I still love this special.

Well there you have my Top Ten List of Christmas Specials.  If you haven’t seen some of them, I suggest you track them down.  And if I missed any of your favorites, just leave me a comment telling me which ones. (I know that one of Erin’s favorites is Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey, which actually would have been number 11.)  Merry Christmas and happy viewing!!


9 thoughts on “Top Ten Christmas Specials

  1. Cindy says:

    My favorites are Miracle on 34th Street (with Natalie Wood) & It’s a wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. But as a parent,, I agree with ur top 10. My favorite was the Little Drummer Boy.

  2. AGREE!

    Except I’ve never seen #8 or #6.

    Why are all the best Christmas specials the ones that make you cry?

    Have you ever seen “The Snowman”? Boy, talk about crying. I watched that one year before going out to a party, and I could barely pull myself together. But it’s beautiful. I don’t think it’s shown much in this country (I saw it while I was living in Ireland), but it is on DVD. Highly recommended.

  3. I haven’t seen Nestor since I was 5. Actually, at 5 I never made it through the … um … beginning and my strongest memory of that is me and my mother (!!) sobbing inconsolably while my Dad watched, confused. I guess something great happens to Nestor.

    Santa Claus is Coming to Town was on ABC tonight, but they cut out Jessica’s song and Santa’s (admittedly creepy) sit on my lap, whisper a secret song.

    I always enjoyed “T’was the Night Before Christmas” with the little nerdmouse who pissed off Santa via a letter. It has the song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” which is on YouTube:

  4. What a great list! The only thing missing is Twas the Night Before Christmas. Great little animated film with a human family and the mouse family that lives in their house. It has hands down the BEST Christmas music ever…the songs are SO catchy. I have the songs running through my head right now!

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