TV Christmas Specials

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Televised Christmas specials are as integral to the celebration of the season as trees, ornaments, and presents; and yet the Christmas special as we know it didn’t become a TV staple until the 1960s, when many of the genre’s perennial favorites were originally produced. And some once-popular subgenres of the special—like the variety show, the newspaper-comic-strip adaptation, and the cheesy Christmas versions of cheap-o Saturday morning cartoons—have either fallen by the wayside or have been reduced to post-modern irony-fuel in recent years. Simply put: There’s more to the history of the TV Christmas special than just The Island Of Misfit Toys and The Gospel according to Peanuts. And thanks to basic cable, video stores, and streaming video services, there’s almost no aspect of Yuletide nostalgia that we can’t revisit.

TV Christmas Specials 101Still and contemplative, yet imbued with the punchy rhythms of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a fixture of the Christmas programming schedule since 1965—though it gave executives at the network that originally aired the special a serious case of seasonal anxiety. Schulz and director Bill Melendez famously fought the brass at CBS to keep the special’s key scene, where security blanket-toting Peanuts sage Linus recites a passage from The Gospel Of Luke, a move David Michaelis’ Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography notes was motivated less by a sense of evangelism and more from a desire to remind viewers of the solemn origins of the holiday celebrated within the special. still, for all the time it spends trawling Charlie Brown’s Christmas-related neuroses, the special ends on a joyous note, and the lo-fi charms of its non-professional voice cast and simple-yet-expressive animation retain a pleasantly transportive power.

Marked by a similarly endearing sense of scruffiness, 1964’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was the famed Rankin-Bass production house’s first foray into rendering Christmas traditions in “Animagic.” Subsequent specials and movies would refine Rankin-Bass’ signature stop-motion style, but Rudolph remains its quintessential effort at filling the gaps between the lyrics of a favorite Christmas carol. Insidiously catchy musical numbers from “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” songwriter Johnny marks and narration by Burl Ives (as Sam The Snowman) helped set the template for future specials, but Rudolph would be nothing without its colorful cast of supporting characters—none of which marks apparently felt worthy of inclusion in his original song. Hermey The Elf, Yukon Cornelius, and The Abominable Snow Monster of the North serve as welcome additions to the North Pole canon, as well as a preview of battier stop-motion creations to come.

In 1969, Rankin-Bass tackled yet another classic Christmas song in Frosty The Snowman, and put the stop-motion aside in favor of cel animation. unlike Rudolph, which spends nearly an hour setting up the premise of the original song, Frosty imagines what happens after a group of kids inadvertently bring their snowman to life. answer: A lot of unsafe, non-adult-approved hijinks, including an impromptu, ill-advised trip to the North Pole without proper winter gear. (“we don’t care what grown-ups say.” This is an actual line of dialogue in Frosty.) The special has become one of the networks’ annual staples—CBS, in this case—even though there’s not much to it beyond Jimmy Durante’s raspy narration and Jackie Vernon’s dim, galoot-y voice as the icy golem of the title. 

In many ways, 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town was a pivotal production for Rankin-Bass. The animation is of higher quality than many of the company’s earlier specials, but the storytelling still has the appealing, episodic quality of Rudolph, and isn’t as forced as the company’s later efforts would be. Positioning itself as, essentially, a straight-faced biopic of Santa Claus, the special tells the story of young Kris Kringle, a boy who has a series of adventures involving a Winter Warlock and a toy-hating politician named Burgermeister Meisterburger. The special also boasts terrific voice work from Fred Astaire (as this special’s celebrity Rankin-Bass narrator), Mickey Rooney (as Kringle/Claus), and Paul Frees (as Herr Burgermeister). Filled with fun ideas and intricate wood-figure animation, Santa Claus might be the Rankin-Bass high-water mark, and it also represents the company’s increased interest in squeezing high fantasy into an otherwise typical Christmas special.

Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones produced one of the most famous Christmas specials when he turned his attention to a book by Dr. Seuss with 1966’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Featuring the vocal talents of Boris Karloff, the special is a rough revision of the Christmas Carol story, where a mean, angry old cuss finds himself heartened by a series of Christmas miracles after he resolves to “steal” Christmas from a small town populated with Seussian whozits and whatzits. (Jones has great fun animating many of Seuss’ stranger contraptions.) The Grinch’s sneaky, slimy attempt to rob every Christmas gift and Christmas tree in Whoville is entertaining, but the special works because of its surprisingly sentimental climax, one that comes by its emotion honestly, as the Grinch realizes the Christmas spirit is indomitable, no matter what he does to stop it. The special also features great songs, including “You’re A mean One, mr. Grinch,” performed by Thurl Ravenscroft.

Richard Williams’ 1971 animated version of A Christmas Carol was so acclaimed at the time of its first airing that it won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film (and forced the film academy to change its rules about TV specials being eligible for that award). It’s little-seen today, perhaps because it features many eerie and occasionally terrifying scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge confronts both the despair of the poor around him and what awaits his soul if he dies in his present miserly state. It’s too bad the special has mostly disappeared, because it’s perhaps the best television version of Charles Dickens’ oft-adapted novella about the misanthropic Scrooge and the series of ghosts who serve him some historical perspective on his life. Williams based his animation on the original wood-cut illustrations that accompanied Dickens’ tale, which lets the film gorgeously evoke the Victorian era. Williams also includes many of the smaller interludes from the Dickens story that other adaptations leave out, including a tour of the working men of England and how they spend the holiday. Featuring excellent voice work from Alistair Sim—himself one of the best Scrooges of the many film versions of the story—the special is rich in holiday spirit and beauty.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future would eventually receive their most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational interpretation courtesy of the 1992 theatrical release A Muppet Christmas Carol—the first Muppet feature made after Jim Henson’s death. Henson’s characters routinely gathered together for the holidays while he was still alive too, and 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas even features a cameo from the bearded puppeteer, who cleans up after the Yuletide shindig that mixes the casts of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. despite a guest list that includes monsters, Fraggles, a sentient snowman, a jive-talking turkey, a psychedelic rock band, and a 8-foot-2 yellow bird, the special miraculously avoids feeling overstuffed—even when it feels like the frame is about to burst from the sheer volume of felt and fur. Credit the zippy, vignette-based plotting and the authentic family-reunion atmosphere, the obvious byproduct of gathering so many Muppet performers together for a single project. Watch out for the icy patch and avoid the DVD release, which omits such key scenes as Fozzie’s duet with his newfound, snowbound comedy partner.  

Intermediate WorkOften cited as the first animated Christmas special, 1962’s Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is also one of the first TV shows to place an existing character within the rough outline of Charles Dickens’ book. Here the nearsighted bumbler mr. Magoo (voiced as always by Jim Backus) appears on Broadway in a musical version of Dickens’ tale, with songs by famed composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. after the “this is just a play” framework is established, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol delivers a shortened but still potent take on the story, with Styne/Merrill numbers like “alone In The World” charting Scrooge’s gradual emotional softening. The show was such a hit it opened the floodgates for Christmas cartoons on TV, and inspired the short-lived NBC series The Famous Adventures Of mr. Magoo, which stuck Quincy Magoo in different literary/historical adventures each week.

One reliable way to re-stage Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been to cast it with the stars of other popular properties. everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone has done it, but the gold standard remains 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which crams nearly every major Disney animated character into the Dickens tale. Mickey Mouse becomes Bob Cratchit; Rat and Mole from Wind In The Willows become the solicitors who irritate Scrooge; the Giant from “Mickey And The Beanstalk” plays The Ghost Of Christmas Present; and so on. The special was a spinoff of a popular record album featuring the great Alan Young doing a Scottish take on Scrooge as Scrooge McDuck. Young almost wasn’t asked to perform in the special, but he ultimately reprised the role, and good thing, too: Young’s Scrooge is crotchety enough to be believable as a miser, but also warm-hearted enough to be the star of a children’s special. The short originally opened in theaters but became a holiday staple on television throughout the ’80s.

The simple, lightly plotted Christmas Eve on Sesame Street remains the best of several attempts by Children’s Television Workshop (or other production companies) to craft an enduring Christmas special featuring the beloved Sesame Street Muppets. Featuring much of the original cast of Sesame Street—including Muppet performers Jim Henson and Frank Oz—the special tells three small stories about the night before Christmas on Sesame Street, including Big Bird’s attempts to find out how Santa will get down newer, narrower chimneys after Oscar says such a thing is impossible; Bert and Ernie’s earnest reenactment of O. Henry’s Gift Of The Magi; and Cookie Monster’s effort to write a letter to Santa asking for cookies (foiled by his hunger, which causes him to devour his writing implements). The Big Bird plot especially captures the wide-eyed, childlike wonder of the very notion of Santa Claus, and the special as a whole features some fun footage of new York City in the late ’70s. Winner of an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program, the 1978 special beat out another Sesame Street Christmas program (about which more in a bit).

Though not as popular as Rankin-Bass’ best-known productions, ’Twas The Night Before Christmas has run perennially since its 1974 debut, and features some of the best songs and storytelling in the entire R-B catalog. A simple tale about a too-smart-for-his-own-good mouse who writes a letter that convinces Santa to give his hometown the brush-off, ’Twas The Night is fast-paced and unfussy as it recounts the town’s plan to win Santa back with a fancy clock. though the special falls back on Rankin-Bass’ recurring theme of capricious Santas—while taking what seems to be a defiantly anti-egghead stance—its “even a miracle needs a hand” message ultimately celebrates industriousness, and allows that even intellectuals can find room in their hearts for the spirit of Christmas.

In the grand tradition of dickish Rankin-Bass Santas, Mickey Rooney’s second outing as the jolly old elf in 1974’s The Year Without A Santa Claus finds the fat man’s faith in humanity shaken, as he decides to call in sick on the only day of the year he’s obliged to do any heavy lifting. But all that’s ultimately secondary to a subplot that introduces the squabbling, weather-controlling stepbrothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser. Played to the hammy hilt by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn, respectively, the characters are more than just prime examples of Rankin-Bass’ inspired character design; they’re scene-stealers of the highest order, who serve as a distraction from what’s often a wonky and maudlin adaptation of Phyllis McGinley’s 1957 picture book. The Miser brothers also represent a peak for Rankin-Bass’ economical sense of creativity, squeezing two toe-tapping ditties from a single Maury Laws tune.

Jim Davis’ Garfield was on its way to becoming a tired gag-delivery system by the time A Garfield Christmas Special debuted in 1987, so Garfield’s good old-fashioned Christmas on the Arbuckle family farm may be one of the last products of Davis’ media empire untouched by the workmanlike malaise that would eventually envelop Paws, inc. The special boasts the heart its source material has lacked for years, even as it makes room for some colossal seasonal grouchiness from its titular orange tabby. The special tips over into “mushy” around the time Grandma Arbuckle starts waxing nostalgic about her late husband; but thankfully the same can’t be said of the velvety purr of Lou Rawls, who contributes vocals to the soundtrack’s pair of horn-laden standouts, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and “You Can Never Find An Elf when You need One.”

One of the greatest miracles of the Christmas season is how it makes the thickest sap palatable. The 1977 Fat Albert Christmas Special slathers on the hokey-ness: It features a homeless family that arrives at fat Albert’s junkyard clubhouse just as the mother’s about to have a baby, and it features a widowed miser who intends to knock the clubhouse down before The Cosby Kids can stage their annual Christmas pageant. And yet, as the various crises move toward their happy resolution, and as the miser looks up at the Christmas star shining in the sky and asks his dead wife if he’s doing okay, it’s hard not to get choked up. It’s also hard not to appreciate the rare Christmas special that acknowledges the truly underprivileged, as opposed to “the kid who pissed off Santa.”

Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed disavowed the 1991 animated adaptation of his Christmas book A Wish for Wings That Work, suggesting that maybe his sense of humor was ill-suited to television. Certainly A Wish for Wings is pretty stilted at times, alternately crass and cloying as it tells the story of Opus the penguin’s desire to fly. But Christmas is a forgiving time, and A Wish for Wings That Work isn’t as bad as Breathed thinks. Opus’ fantasy sequences combine old movie footage with animation in imaginative ways, and his big meet-up with Santa Claus—and the unconventional granting of his wish—is touching, as holiday happy endings typically are. And though Opus’ voice doesn’t sound quite right (Breathed reportedly wanted Sterling Holloway), just seeing the Bloom County characters in motion is a treat for anyone who read the newspaper comics regularly in the ’80s.

TV Christmas Specials

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