A Dozen Essential Holiday Specials

Joy to the world.

It’s at this time of year that I make a desperate attempt to get into the spirit of Christmas, the whole Peace On Earth jazz.  It has become a tradition – the holiday spirit I once possessed in my youth now sapped by too many chores and too much preoccupation with work.  In other words, “adulthood.”  Not to mention an increasingly maddening attempt by the media and retailers to start Christmas the day after Halloween.  I want Christmas on my time, and that time to stop and smell the mistletoe has grown increasingly short.

When I think of Christmas, I think of my grandparents’ house, the smell of seafood frying in the kitchen.  I think of TV – crying with Mom at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. I think of March of the Wooden Soldiers on Christmas morning – of A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. They are as essential to my annual Decembers as pine needles and wrapping paper.

My love for holiday specials rolls even deeper.  Some of them are among my most favorite things in the world.  Be it memorable music and dialogue, unique animation, iconic characters, or best of all – a message – these televised gems make me wax nostalgic for my childhood, as most of us tend to do at this time of year.  Pass the egg nog.

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Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rankin/Bass’ pioneering, groundbreaking stop-motion animated classic is half-a-century old and has some minor flaws that are impossible to squabble over considering how insanely difficult it must have been to film.  This holiday staple based on the Johnny Marks song of the same name features inspired characters with inspired names.  Yukon Cornelius? A flying lion named King Moonracer who lords over an island of misfit toys?  What were these guys smoking and where can I get some?

Then there’s the story, about “fitting in.”  Rudolph faces the pressures that almost all kids face during their formative school years – being called names (bullying), dealing with a changing physique (puberty), and independence (discovering who they are).

A minor gripe with the special is that most of the adult characters are major league pricks, most notably Santa, who is completely out of character as a grousing, pompous douchebag.  But The Abominable Snow Monster (or the affectionately dubbed ‘Bumble’) is a revelation and was a truly scary sight when I first watched Rudolph.

Then there is the music, surprisingly heightened by the presence and golden throat of Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman.  Hard to believe the guy who played Grade A a-hole Big Daddy in Cat On A Hit Tin Roof could add so much that is warm and cuddly to the proceedings, but Big Burl pulls it off.  Great Bouncing Icebergs!

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Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Screened in theaters as a short preceding the Disney feature The Rescuers in 1983, Mickey’s Christmas Carol was a full-on event, with inspired “casting” that included Goofy as Jacob Marley and the odd, yet interesting choices of Jiminy Cricket, Willie the Giant, and Black Pete as the three spirits who visit the more obvious choice as Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck.  You could say McDuck was “born” to play this role.

Kids across the land surely became familiar with the classic Charles Dickens tale and the spirit of Christmas thanks to Walt and the gang.  You have to give Disney credit for making the brave choice of including Mickey & Donald in smaller roles and focusing on story rather than shoving the popular characters down our throats.

When MCC made its way onto network television a few years later, it was accompanied by other Disney shorts, including the hilarious The Art of Skiing, featuring Goofy at his pratfalling best.  Disney was top-of-the-mountain as far as animation for so many years and this was as good as it got.

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South Park – “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” (1999)

South Park is still one of the sharpest satirical series on television, and it always won major points for its timely holiday specials that aired every October & December.  Season 3’s Christmas special focused on insane-yet-catchy musical numbers featuring everyone from Hitler to Satan to one of TV’s most ingeniously written characters, Mr. Hankey, a cute talking turd who visits the boys of South Park every holiday season.

The episode is jam-packed with catchy songs, including the celebrity-skewering “Christmastime In Hell” and the Jesus/Santa duet finale that ends with Mr. Claus belting out Duran Duran’s “Rio.”  Wrapped around all of it is an insider-only live action nod to the infamously terrible Star Wars Holiday SpecialShow composer and pianist Marc Shaiman, who was once Saturday Night Live‘s resident pianist and musical director, provides the amazing soundtrack, which spawned a top-selling album and critical acclaim, all inspired by a singing dookie.

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Tales From The Darkside – “Seasons Of Belief” (1986)

Tales From The Darkside is not exactly the pinnacle of anthology horror/sci-fi series (typically outclassed by Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories on NBC, which incidentally has a pretty cool Christmas episode entitled “Santa ’85”).  It was produced by zombie movie god George Romero, ran for about 4 years in the the middle 1980s and aired mostly in the wee hours of the night.  The creepiest and coolest things about Darkside were the opening and closing credits, all spooky analog synths, haunting stills of large trees and spooky bridges, and seemingly narrated by Satan himself.

In “Seasons of Belief,” veteran character actor E.G. Marshall, who appears in two of my all-time favorite movies, 12 Angry Men and Creepshow, spins a yarn about a mythical creature named The Grither with “fists the size of basketballs” to scare his bratty kids on Christmas Eve.  The whole thing is a fairly smart take on the tale of Santa Claus with one kicker of an ending that makes it memorable in spite of the bad acting by the kiddies and the actress portraying Marshall’s wife (who appears to be at least 30 years younger than him…nice job, casting director).  It’s certainly non-traditional and not for your 5 year-old, but if you’re a bit warped and twisted – as I am – it comes highly recommended.

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The Ren & Stimpy Show – “Son Of Stimpy” (1993)

Speaking of warped of twisted, I was pretty much obsessed with mad genius John Kricfalusi’s cult gross-out cartoon Ren & Stimpy during its short, controversial and memorable run on Nickelodeon.

The plot of this particular episode involves a traumatized Stimpy searching for his lost fart during the holidays.  This special is so oddly touching, beautifully animated, and yet so absolutely ludicrous in its subject matter that it’s easy to admit that it is not for everyone.  Your grandmother will probably hate it, but your 7 year-old nephew will probably love it.  Me?  I’m all in.

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The Snowman (1982)

Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Short, this tale of a boy who builds a snowman that comes to life is far superior to the more popular Rankin/Bass production of Frosty The Snowman.  Based on the Raymond Briggs book, beautifully animated and carried by a great Howard Blake score, The Snowman contains only a few lines of dialogue – all uttered within the first 30 seconds of the special (and in some versions, introduced by the legendary David Bowie) – and remains engrossing in spite of it.  The UK production’s realistic ending is not all tinsel and mistletoe, rather a sudden sadness that is more indicative of life and of loss than of Christmas.

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The Twilight Zone – “The Night of the Meek” (1960)

This is not the greatest episode of the amazing, groundbreaking Twilight Zone by any means.  Neither spooky nor scary, it has some goofy moments, and slightly off-putting cinematography due to the fact that it was filmed on video rather than film thanks to budget cuts during Season 3 of the series.

But then there is Art Carney, perhaps my favorite television actor of all-time for his incomparable work as Jackie Gleason’s best pal Ed Norton on The Honeymoners, and one of TV’s greatest physical comedians.  Here, as a soused Santa who discovers his purpose thanks to some Rod Serling-aided Christmas magic, Carney shines, showing a great range of emotions in his performance as a back alley St. Nicholas.  The episode’s commentary on poverty and the religious undertones of “the meek shall inherit the Earth” make it that much more powerful in spite of some poor sound editing and the occasional cheese.  A must-see.

 

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Christmas Eve On Sesame Street (1978)

This special was a staple on PBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the few holiday-themed specials to actually air on Christmas Eve.  The songs are cheesy as hell, specifically the main theme of “Keep Christmas With You” sung by Sesame Street’s Bob, and Bert and Ernie’s generic rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” but otherwise The Children’s Television Workshop pulls out all the stops here.

The plot revolves around Oscar The Grouch convincing Big Bird that Santa can’t possibly deliver all the presents to the kids around the world and fit down skinny chimneys.  Big Bird spends the episode stubbornly determined to prove Oscar wrong, yet The Grouch’s logic addresses an issue that all kids growing up on Santa eventually have to deal with – that suspension of disbelief, and the inevitable loss of innocence.

A secondary plot line features Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper in a clever retelling of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.  The hour-long episode has a great feel, wonderful music, a very funny (if somewhat disturbing) sidebar involving Cookie Monster eating everything in sight while fantasizing about the cookies he hopes Santa will bring, and an interesting first act with costumed adult-size Sesame Street characters ice skating in ’70s-era New York City.

When this was first broadcast, and even tho Santa is never actually seen (cleverly represented only in shadows and voice), I firmly believed that the real Santa was involved in this production.  Of course, back then, I also believed that Sesame Street was a real street instead of a sound stage, and that Big Bird was really a big bird and not really an old white dude with whiskers who actually looked like Santa in real life.

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Ziggy’s Gift (1982)

I’ve never been much of a Ziggy fan, a long-running one-gag, one-panel comic strip that featured a short bald dude whose only friend seemed to be his dog Fuzz and who was constantly under life’s cruel thumb.  Ziggy doesn’t talk – in the strip or in this special – but he’s mesmerizing all the same, a lone nice guy in a world filled with selfish stubborn people and petty crooks.

Tho seldom seen by the masses, everyone who I’ve turned Ziggy’s Gift on to has praised it for its unique look at the holiday season. The story revolves around Ziggy answering an ad to become a street corner Santa, eventually crossing paths with an unnamed, vile thief, and a stereotypical Irish cop who is determined to crack down the crooked Santa ring that Ziggy has unwittingly involved himself in.

The special’s minor characters – the cop, the thief, the crooked Santas and their ringleader, and a hilarious turkey salesman – are all inspired, and creator Tom Wilson’s animation is original and absolutely beautiful.

The bow on top of this little-seen Christmas gift is the music – an uplifting jazzy score and title theme composed and performed by one of my heroes – the late, fantastically great Harry Nilsson.  Ziggy’s Gift won a well-deserved Emmy award in 1982 and is available on DVD.  Go get it.

 

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The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)

The very first episode of the legendary The Simpsons is crudely animated and far from perfect (Homer sounds like Walter Matthau, Moe looks like a sloth), but its groundbreaking debut on the then-brand-new FOX Network was immediately undeniable and, thanks to good ratings and critical acclaim (the episode was nominated for two Emmys), set things in motion for 25+ seasons of this animated institution.

There are more fun – and funny – holiday-themed episodes of The Simpsons out there, but this one is a must-see if only to witness how something so magnanimous began so humbly and imperfectly (South Park‘s viral-before-viral-was-viral “The Spirit Of Christmas” video is another fine example of how big things start small).

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Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Top-notch animation from Chuck Jones – one of the men responsible for making Bugs Bunny a household name, an unbelievable songbook by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss, himself, the classic theme sung by Tony the Tiger, they all make Grinch iconic.  But the cherry atop Mount Crumpit is Boris Karloff as The Grinch, perhaps the single most inspired bit of voice casting ever.

The Grinch has become as iconic as Scrooge and Santa Claus at this time of year, and the character itself embodies both of his iconic predecessors as he turns from anti-establishment sourpuss to Who-loving roast beast carver after discovering that the true meaning of Christmas is being with each other.  There is no greater holiday special than this.  Except…..

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A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

I’ve always related to Charlie Brown (I’ve had the haircut for awhile) – hopeful one moment, apathetic and depressed the next, never able to truly grab “the brass ring” in spite of hard work, passion, and whatever good things happen in my life.  I imagine I am not alone in those feelings, and it turns out Charles Schulz, in spite of all his many successes, was the ultimate Charlie Brown (tho apparently he had a little Snoopy in him, as well).

A Charlie Brown Christmas is not perfect, although the pitch-perfect jazz soundtrack from maestro Vince Guaraldi is.  Its characters are all flawed, just as its creator is.  Lucy is a bitch, Pig Pen is a slob, Schroeder is a snob, Snoopy is obnoxious, Sally is naive and materialistic. Even Linus – the “voice of reason” and the most sensitive of the bunch – has major security issues, what with his blanket dependence and all.  Then there’s ol’ Chuck, whose problems are too long to list and the focus of nearly the entire episode.  “Everything I touch gets ruined,” he bemoans.

And therein lies the true perfection of the special – we all feel down about something at some point in our lives, we’ve all had Christmases marred by some tragedy, bad feelings, or circumstance that didn’t make it live up to how Christmas in the 20th (and now 21st) century is represented – candy canes and mistletoe and presents and tinsel.  But that’s not what Christmas is all about, rather Peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men.   For those who celebrate, it’s supposed to be about the birth of Jesus.

This was a very strong message 50 years ago.  If commercialism was rampant in 1965, imagine what Schulz would think of the present day.  It’s the ultimate irony that you still see Snoopy, Charlie Brown and friends plastered all over the place around this time of year, as it was the success of this special so many years ago that opened up the floodgates for Schulz’s billion-dollar merchandising empire that still exists today.

The fact that A Charlie Brown Christmas is still one of the most beloved – if not the most beloved holiday special ever – is testimony to the distinct message it sends even after all these years: Be Nice To Each Other.

In the end, Charlie’s friends practice what Linus so eloquently preaches by decorating his tree and ‘oooo-ooo’ing over the closing credits.  I’m sure on December 26th, they reverted back to treating him like garbage, but for one magical night of ‘oooo-ooo’ing, the message sank in.

We could all use some more ‘oooo-ooo’ing in our short time on this planet together.

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