The spirit of Christmas specials, conclusion: Beyond Charlie Brown and the Grinch!




It is my great belief that the two most important gifts one can give others are new moments of happiness, and a chance to relive moments of happiness from the past. (I suppose organ donations and tickets out of soul-crushing poverty are good as well, but there’s only so much you can do with a blog post.)

So for the conclusion to my look back at Christmas specials long gone, I decided to look at some deep cuts — some specials not seen in a while, or only half-remembered.

Before I go further, I want to take a moment to give proper respect to A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, two specials that have maintained their reputation for nearly five decades. Indeed, hardly a Christmas goes by without Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy soundtrack for Charlie Brown playing at my family’s house on Christmas Eve.

Why are they so popular, and why have sequels, remakes and whatever that godless Jim Carrey/Ron Howard movie was paled in comparison? It might just be the series of happy accidents that made them come to life — the limitations of TV budgets and schedules.

Charles Schulz was never completely happy with A Charlie Brown Christmas — he thought it looked cheap and the animation was terrible — but getting actual kids to voice his characters, a gentle-yet-moody soundtrack and humor taken directly from his strips gave it an intimate, relatable quality that many Christmas specials lack.

And How The Grinch Stole Christmas was a wonderful alchemy of talents — the whimsy of Dr. Seuss combined with the deadpan of animator Chuck Jones and the dulcet tones of Boris Karloff for the narration. Of course there’s some nice anti-materialism messages in there, but they’re small, simple stories that focus on bringing humor and poignancy to the overwhelming, sometimes frustrating nature of the Christmas season.


All right — so what are some of the other great Christmas specials you haven’t seen in a while?
Let’s do some organizing here.

The Henson Playlist

Jim Henson and the Muppets were wonderful at capturing the lower-scale intimacy of the holidays — 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas has little plot other than getting as many of the Muppets as possible to Fozzie’s mom’s house for Christmas, and even finds ways to bring in the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock characters. The special’s been annoyingly edited on DVD, but an unedited version (with original commercials for maximum nostalgia!) is on YouTube. Few things make me smile like Jim Henson’s little cameo at the end.


As a kid, I felt a particular resonance with the Henson-made The Christmas Toy, about a self-absorbed stuffed tiger who discovers his favorite-toy status will likely be eclipsed by the arrival of a new Christmas toy (a Star Wars/Barbie hybrid named “Meteora”) this year. It (briefly) made me question my myopic childhood and tendency to cast older toys away for newer ones; see if it has a similar effect on your own offspring.


Now that I think about it, Toy Story got considerable mileage out of a similar premise, with Buzz Lightyear a more merchandise-friendly version of the delusional Meteora.

For many, a favorite will always be Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, based on a book by Russell Hoban, author of Bedtime for Frances (and the near-incomprehensible post-apocalyptic literary novel Riddley Walker). It’s a touching look at an impoverished family sacrificing much to try to make a better life and finding some triumph. Still, like many fans, I maintain that the “evil” Riverbottom Nightmare Band really was better. It's on DVD with The Christmas Toy.

There are a number of other Muppet Christmas specials, including the theatrical Muppet Christmas Carol and some recent TV-movies (I might be the only person I know that liked A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, with an It’s a Wonderful Life riff that sees Miss Piggy reduced to Miss Cleo and Scooter cage-dancing to Nine Inch Nails. No, I couldn't find a clip).

However, I must give props to Henson and friends for actually covering the Jewish high holiday with episodes of the Israeli seriesShalom Sesame, which also aired in the US. Jeremy Miller from Growing Pains learns about Challah, here’s a bit about a missing menorah, and can anyone really beat Grover in “Mitzvah Impossible?”

Favorite Characters Meet the Holidays

Mr. Magoo might mostly come across as horribly insensitive to the visually-impaired these days, but his take on Dickens with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is still one of the best, with great songs by the writers of Funny Girl that hold up, "razzleberry dressing" or no.


I have to give major props to He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special (also available on Netflix Instant) for being The Most 1980s Christmas Special Ever. The sheer number of weird colorful characters is appealing to fans and people who only vaguely remember this in drug-like nightmares, but can anyone hate on a special where even Skeletor is infected with the Christmas Spirit?


Similar things might be said for the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, where Pee-Wee Herman and friends welcome the likes of K.D. Lang and Grace Jones.



And for sheer obscurity, one can see how Pac-Man and friends save Santa in Christmas Comes to PacLand, or have an entire episode of The Nanny rendered in the style of its animated opening sequence in The Nanny: Oy to the World, where she teaches her selfish charge all about Christmas despite being, well, Jewish. Oy, indeed.


Hanukkah has a hard time getting a break, people.

The Brits

British entertainment (or at least what we’ve seen of it) has always been a mite darker and more melancholy than that of the Americas. I still can’t explain Benny Hill.

Many of their best Christmas specials are no exception. One of my favorites is The Snowman, an Oscar-nominated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ classic wordless children’s book. It’s the simple story of a snowman that comes to life and take a boy on a magical trip to Santa’s workshop, rendered in a gorgeous watercolor style. The flying sequence, sent to the song “Walking on the Air,” still gives me goosebumps, and it adds a nicely sentimental sweetener to the book’s downbeat ending.

Here's the full version, introduced by David Bowie. It's rather odd to think the little boy grew up to be him.


Along those lines, I recommend another children’s book adaptation, The Angel and the Soldier Boy, which features a wonderful soundtrack by the Irish folk group Clannad, and chronicles the adventures of a couple of Christmas decorations who try to save the contents of a little girl's piggy bank from some pirate toys. I discovered this a few years ago when the book was recommended to me by a girl I was dating, and I got her a drawing of the characters from the original illustrator. She dumped me anyway.


A particularly British Christmas special is The Forgotten Toys: The Night After Christmas, about a couple of unclaimed charity toys voiced by Bob Hoskins and Joanna Lumley. The tale serves as a pretty straight metaphor for homelessness, and it’s only in the very last seconds that the toys get a happy ending. This inspired a short-lived and more upbeat series a few years later that had them wandering from adventure to adventure, but I was drained enough from this one to let their happy ending stand.


The Outliers

Richard Williams is one of those people I find fascinating, someone who literally wrote the book on animation and completed wonder after wonder (including the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), while working on his dream project, The Thief and the Cobbler, which was ultimately taken away from him.

Among his masterworks were two award-winning Christmas specials. One was a 1971 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that proved so good it was submitted for, and won, the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It’s one of the closest adaptations of the original work, with several scenes left out of most versions, and is absolutely terrifying with its depiction of a cold, Victorian England, inspired by the engraved illustrations of the original story by John Leech. It also features Alistair Sim from the live-action classic Scrooge reprising his role as the title character; you can watch it here.


A decade later, Williams won an Emmy for Ziggy’s Gift, a brighter-but-still-melancholy tale that takes the luckless comic strip character and deposits him in an almost crushingly-real urban environment, where his efforts to become a street Santa lead to his inadvertently joining a con man’s fake-Santa ring.


With its washed out scenery, Damon Runyon-esque cops and crooks, and painfully real depictions of cold and poverty contrasted with the adorable, silent Ziggy, it’s one of the darker Christmas specials. Still, it finds room for a sweet, upbeat ending and Harry Nilsson’s trite song, “Give, Love, Joy.” They might be clichés, the song points out, but that doesn’t make them untrue.

Another comic strip gets a rare dose of animated life in A Wish for Wings That Work, which takes Berkeley Breathed’s Opus character from his various comic strips and puts him in a tale where he faxes Santa a letter with a wish for wings that let him fly — although he of course finds his own penguin-abilities are useful enough when the time comes. It’s not as cutting as some of Breathed’s strips, but it still has a darker, edgier tone than most Christmas specials, complete with the vile Bill the Cat as Opus’ sidekick. It finally came out on DVD in 2007.


Also worth checking out on DVD is Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration, a collection of lovely carol-themed shorts by the California Raisins grandmaster. I still love the funky version of “We Three Kings” with the “Star of Wonder” bit performed by doo-wopping high-top-wearing camels.


A few more, very quickly:

A Very Merry Cricket is Chuck Jones’ sequel to his adaptation of the great children’s book The Cricket in Times Square. While it doesn’t quite capture the charm of the book or the special, it has its moments, including a look at the overwhelming cacophony of ads in New York City that’s a dead-on look at the commercialism of Christmas.

— I’ll always be fond of the live-action take on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, where a group of rowdy, impoverished kids wind up finding more meaning in the Christmas story than the better-off “good” people putting on the show. “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

The Gift of Winter is a little-seen Canadian special featuring monochrome characters later reused in the better-known special Witch’s Night Out. It’s not as good as the latter but is still quite charming, and for an interesting bit of trivia, it has voices by Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner before Saturday Night Live started.

— I’ve avoided putting too many Christmas episodes from regular TV shows on here, but I have a fondness for The Tick Loves Santa from the great 1990s comic book adaptation, where the eponymous blue superhero’s love of the jolly fat man gets in the way when a crook in a Santa suit develops the ability to make thieving duplicates of himself. It takes a visit from the real thing to get the Tick to raise his fist against the bad guys, which he does with a “Feliz-Navi-DEAD!”


— The children’s book adaptation Olive, the Other Reindeer has a vivid visual style, Drew Barrymore as an adorable dog trying to help Santa, and Michael Stipe as a signing irate trucker. ‘Nuff said. (For unrelated reasons, Barrymore recently named her new daughter Olive).


— And last but not least: I have a weird fondness for Santa vs. the Snowman, a CGI short often shown in IMAX theaters where an innocent misunderstanding between the title characters results in an epic battle with rocket-hoofed reindeer and giant walking robo-Igloos. That’s just the kind of thing I can respect. Of course there’s a happy ending.


The only Kwanzaa special we could find was A Rugrats Kwanzaa. Let this change!

I hope this piece has brought back some memories to y’all — or helped you make some new ones. At the least, they might keep your kids briefly pacified. Happy holidays!


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