A Dozen Essential Holiday Specials

Has anyone seen the egg nog?

It’s at this time of year that I make a desperate attempt to get into the spirit of Christmas.  It’s become a tradition – the holiday spirit I once possessed in abundance in my youth now sapped by too many chores and too much preoccupation with work.

Y’know… “adulthood.”

Christmas still gets me sentimental, tho.   It’s not that hard to close my eyes and think of my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, looking out the fogged up storm door to search for Santa’s sleigh.  The smell of fried seafood, too many desserts, and the TV always on.  Crying with Mom at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.  March of the Wooden Soldiers on Christmas morning.  A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol. Holiday classics 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.  Memorable music, quotable dialogue, unique animation, iconic characters, and most of all – a message – make these televised gems mandatory viewing whether you’re 8 or you’re 80.

A Dozen Things Buttons

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Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rankin/Bass’ groundbreaking stop-motion animated classic is half-a-century old and has some minor flaws that are hard to squabble over considering how difficult it must have been to film.  Inspired characters with inspired names abound.  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 most kids face during their formative years – being called names (bullying), a changing physique (puberty), independence (discovering who they are).

A minor gripe with Rudolph: 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 ‘Bumble’) was a truly scary sight when I first watched Rudolph.

The music, heightened by the golden throat of Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman, is a delight.  Hard to believe the guy who played Grade A a-hole Big Daddy in Cat On A Hit Tin Roof could add so much 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 spirits who visit the more obvious choice as Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck.  (You could say McDuck was “born” to play this role).

The Disney version likely introduced many to the Charles Dickens tale and the spirit of Christmas, and you have to give Walt & co. credit for the brave choice of including Mickey & Donald in smaller roles 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 the gold standard for 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 one of the sharpest satirical series on TV, and it always won major points for its timely holiday specials.  Season 3’s Christmas special focused on insane, 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 a full-on musical, including numbers like the celebrity-skewering “Christmastime In Hell” and a Jesus vs. Santa finale duet.    Wrapped around all of it is an insider-only live action nod to the infamously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special.

Show composer 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 unashamedly low-budget, produced by zombie godfather George Romero, and aired for about 4 years in the the middle ’80s, mostly in the wee hours of the night.

The creepiest and coolest things about Darkside were the opening and closing credits, featuring analog synths, haunting stills of large trees and spooky bridges, and seemingly narrated by Satan himself.

In “Seasons of Belief,” the great 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 shocking ending makes up for some bad acting by the kiddies and the actress portraying their mother (who appears to be at least 30 years younger than Marshall…nice job, casting director).  “Seasons of Belief” will scare your 5 year-old, but if you’re a bit warped and twisted, it will make you merry.

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

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 holiday-themed episode involves a traumatized Stimpy searching for his lost fart during the holidays.  It’s all so oddly touching, beautifully animated, and yet so absolutely ludicrous in its subject matter.  Then and now, Ren & Stimpy isn’t for everyone.  Your grandmother will probably hate it, but your 7 year-old nephew will probably love it.

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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 Frosty The Snowman.  Based on the Raymond Briggs book, and carried by a great Howard Blake score and wonderful animation, 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).

The Snowman‘s realistic conclusion might not melt your heart, but its sudden sadness reminds us of life and of loss rather than Christmas – and that’s what makes it so great.

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

This is not the greatest episode of the Twilight Zone.  It’s 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 epic series.

But then there is Art Carney, one of my favorite TV actors of all-time thanks to his incomparable, physical comic timing on The Honeymoners. (Cosmo Kramer and every other TV sitcom “wacky neighbor” owes quite a lot to Ed Norton).

Here, in another dimension, Carney shines as a soused Santa who discovers his purpose thanks to some Rod Serling-aided Christmas magic.  His emotional performance, and the episode’s religious and social undertones, overcome some poor sound editing and the occasional cheesy line.  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 rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”  Otherwise, The Children’s Television Workshop pulls out all the stops.

The plot: Oscar The Grouch tells Big Bird that Santa can’t deliver presents and fit down skinny chimneys.  Big Bird spends most of the next hour stubbornly determined to prove Oscar wrong, yet The Grouch’s logic addresses an issue that all kids growing up with 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.  It all has a great feel, 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, and that Big Bird was really a big bird and not an old white dude with whiskers who actually looked like Santa in real life.

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Ziggy’s Gift (1982)

I was never much of a fan of the Ziggy comic strip, a long-running one-gag, one-panel feature starring a short bald dude who was constantly under life’s cruel thumb, and whose only friend was his dog Fuzz.

Ziggy doesn’t talk – in the strip or in this special – but he’s mesmerizing here, a lone nice guy in a world filled with selfish stubborn people and petty crooks.

The story revolves around Ziggy answering an ad to become a street corner Santa, eventually crossing paths with some unique characters – an unnamed, vile thief, a turkey (torkey) salesman, and an Irish cop determined to crack down the crooked Santa ring that Ziggy has unwittingly involved himself in.

Creator Tom Wilson’s animation is original and absolutely beautiful, but the bow atop 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, great Harry Nilsson.

Ziggy’s Gift won a well-deserved Emmy award in 1982 and is available on DVD.  Go get it and show it to your kids.

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

The very first episode of 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 undeniably original and, thanks to good ratings and critical acclaim (the episode was nominated for two Emmys), set things in motion for 25+ seasons of an 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 this).

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

Animator Chuck Jones is one of the men responsible for making Bugs Bunny a household name, and his work here, aided by an unbelievable songbook by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss, himself, make Grinch iconic.  The theme song, sung by Tony the Tiger, is classic.  But the king of Mount Crumpit is Boris Karloff as The Grinch, perhaps the single most inspired bit of voice casting ever.

The Grinch has become a face of the season akin to Scrooge and Santa, and the character embodies both of his iconic predecessors as he turns from anti-establishment sourpuss to Who-loving roast beast carver after discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  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, not just because of the haircut.  I’ve been hopeful one moment, apathetic and depressed the next.  I’ve often fell short of grabbing “the brass ring” (or kicking that football) in spite of the passion and the good intentions.

I imagine I am not alone in those feelings, and it turns out Charles Schulz, in spite of his massive success, was the ultimate Charlie Brown (tho he supposedly was a little bit Snoopy, too).

The Christmas special’s jazzy soundtrack – from maestro Vince Guaraldi – is pitch-perfect, even if all the characters are not.  Lucy is a bitch, Pig Pen is a slob, Schroeder is a snob. Snoopy is obnoxious, Sally is materialistic. Even the sensitive Linus – the “voice of reason” – has major security issues revolving around blanket dependence.  Then there’s ol’ Chuck, whose myriad problems are center stage for nearly the entire episode.  “Everything I touch gets ruined,” he bemoans.

And that’s what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas poignant.  We all feel down at some point in our lives.  We’ve all had Christmases marred by tragedy, bad feelings, or circumstance.  So, in a way, we are these characters.

But Linus literally reminds us what Christmas is all about.  Not our problems.  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 ironic to see Snoopy and Charlie Brown plastered everywhere 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 long-running billion-dollar merchandising empire.

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 its distinct message, 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 went back to treating him like garbage, but for one magical night of ‘oooo-ooo’ing, the message sank in.

Oooo, oooo, oooo, everyone!

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