It’s the final week of A Sacred Wall Christmas (The Greatest Gift of All), and the feeling of cheer is in the air! The egg nog is flowing freely (with enough rum to blind a pirate), the trees are illuminated brightly, and most importantly, the television specials have started. Christmas, by far, has the best television specials and episodes surrounding it, even more so than my beloved Halloween season. And so, to properly honor the Christmas Season, I’m announcing my next Sacred Wall Top Ten list: The Top Ten Greatest Christmas Specials of All Time.
You all know the type: the (mostly) animated specials where characters discover the reason for the season, usually created stop-motion style by Rankin-Bass (seriously-five out of the ten finalists are made by the Disney of Christmas), and based around a beloved Christmas song. Now, to make this list, I used one of my Top Ten lists dedicated to Holiday specials in general. This required removing It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (#4) and Treehouse of Horror (#8), but you can see their placement over at the Official List by clicking here.
Before we start the list, let’s start with the honorable mentions. First off, I’m not doing any “series” of Christmas specials-so The Partridge Family and Bing Crosby are out, even if Crosby singing with David Bowie may be the memory of the season. I’m also not including any Christmas episodes, so Community’s spoof of Rankin-Bass is out as well. Then we have the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol, which features a fantastic performance by George C. Scott, but is more of a “movie” than a “special.” Then we have the Rankin-Bass specials that are memorable, but too odd to be great, like Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. And then there are two that should Christmas specials I want to give a shout out to. Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is one of the oddest Christmas specials I’ve ever seen-a Rudolph-knockoff that revolves around Jesus, it should be a feel-good religious romp, but instead features abusive owners, a mother dying on top of her son, the creepiest angel I’ve ever seen, and Mary being protected from a sandstorm by Nestor’s Dumbo-esque ears. It’s so odd, I almost had to include it, but decided against it at the last minute. And then I there’s one of my all-time favorite specials: The Little Drummer Boy. The Little Drummer Boy features one of the best uses of Christmas songs I’ve ever seen, thanks to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. However, it also features a young boy’s parents getting murdered and some of the creepiest animation in the Rankin-Bass repertoire. So for this reason, I had to leave it off. And now that this is settled, let’s look at the Top Ten Christmas Specials Of All Time!
10. The Snowman
Truth be told, I haven’t seen The Snowman in its entirety. I know what you’re thinking: “How can we trust your judgment if you haven’t watched it in its entirety?” Well, here’s my reasoning. I didn’t know that this film existed until about a week and a half ago. And yet, from the fifteen minutes I’ve seen, I realized that I did know about this movie. Everyone does. This is one of the most influential Christmas specials of all time, from the specific animation style to its sense of child-like wonder to its use of “Walking In The Air” (which I had heard without actually hearing it, it’s that popular), the story of a young boy taken on a tour of the British countryside by his magical flying snowman friend is to the British what Rudolph is to Americans. You can rest assured that I will be finishing this short very, very soon.
9. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Stephen Colbert, both the comedian and the character. So the idea of a Christmas special in the vein of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope days was highly enticing to me. However, between brilliant writing involving the Jonas Brothers falling through the ice and goats being dressed as both reindeer and mice, fantastic guests including Toby Keith, Elvis Costello, and John Legend, and a fantastically energetic performance by Stephen Colbert, who finds himself trapped in a winter lodge by a bear (his archenemy-they’re Godless Killing Machines, you know). However, what makes this special soar are the musical performances. Colbert electrifies the show with solos on songs both traditional (“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”) and original (”Another Christmas Song,” which parodies the opening number of most Christmas specials, filled with fake dancing, CGI sets, and poor, freezing waifs), but things really kick off with his guests. Feist plays an Angel Call-Waiting Specialist, Jon Stewart drops by to sing about the joys of Hannukah, and John Legend steals the show with a gorgeous, double-entendre ridden song about why “Nutmeg” is the only spice for egg nog. However, if you ask me, the best song is, by far, “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In,” a song by Colbert and Costello about how, in a world filled with such death and despair, it just makes more sense to believe in the hope of a Savior. It’s a touching sentiment in an otherwise comedic outing, and it’s enough to earn A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All a spot on this list.
8. Prep and Landing
Strangely enough, despite their kid-friendly nature and their love for the season, Disney hadn’t really made a proper Christmas special until December of 2009, when they brought us Prep and Landing. A quirky little short about the elves who prepare the house for Santa’s arrival, it plays as part spy film, part childhood “war” film, and part joyful Christmas special about teaching an old pro the true meaning of the season. The voice cast features the talents of Dave Foley, Derek Richardson, and Sarah Chalke, and thanks to a sharp script, excellent animation, and a truly thrilling execution, Disney not only joined the Christmas special fray, they charged in head first and firmly placed their flag in the middle of a field of classics.
7. Frosty the Snowman
Who doesn’t remember the joy of Frosty the Snowman? The only Rankin-Bass Christmas special not done in stop-motion, there’s good reason for it. Instead of creating the usual puppet-based set, the company created a Christmas Card-looking Wonderland, filled with gorgeous whites and Mad-like absurdity. However, what really sells this special is the perfect mixture of funny humor and fantastic voices. Jackie Vernon’s Frosty is the perfect balance of naïve and philosophical, something no Frosty voice actor has since captured. He has a sense of wonder that excites you every time he shouts out “Happy birthday!” June Foray voices every child in this special, meaning she gets to play the sweet voice of reason in Karen as well as the wonderful stupidity on display in the kid who suggest “Oatmeal!” as Frosty’s name (I still laugh out loud every single time this suggestion is uttered). Professor Hinkle is the first of many great comedic Christmas villains, on a one-note track to get his hat back. However, this special belongs to Paul Frees, who pulls double duty as the Traffic Cop who constantly swallows his whistle and as Santa at a pivotal point in the special, and Jimmy Durante, whose scratchy voice perfectly lends itself to the role of the Narrator and to the performance of the title song. In the end, Frosty sacrifices himself to save a girl from freezing to death, which is a bold dramatic choice, but really drives to the heart of the Christmas season. And for that, I reward it.
6. Jack Frost
If I had to pick an all-time favorite Christmas special, it would probably be this one. I love this one. I’m 80% sure I’m only friends with my best friend because she also loves this one. This is, by far, the most underrated Rankin-Bass Christmas Special, and it’s time it gets the credit it deserves. Jack Frost is a truly magical Christmas special, even if it is technically a Groundhog Day special. Narrated by talented comedian Buddy Hackett, it tells the story of Jack Frost, a woodland sprite willing to give up his carefree life as the bringer of cold in order to woo the woman he loves. In the end, he proves his worth by defeating Kubla Kraus (a wonderful Paul Frees) and tricking the groundhog into allowing for more winter, but he loses the girl and his dream. But it’s such a funny, action-packed special, you’re willing to overlook the inherent sadness. “Jack Frost’s Theme” may be one of my favorite songs from these specials (I remember it more than the words to some of the songs higher on this list), and Robert Morse (Mad Men, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) brings such a joy to Frost, you can’t help but fall in love with it. It may not be the best, but it will forever be one of my favorites.
5. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
This might be the most overall “Christmas-y” film on this list. It’s the only one actually wholeheartedly about Santa, for Pete’s sake! I think what makes this special such a classic, beyond its fantastic music, are its memorable characters. I can’t really tell you the names of the characters in Jack Frost or Frosty the Snomwan, but I can tell you Kris, Winter Warlock, Jessica, Tanta Kringle, Jingle, Dingle, etc., and of course the Burgermeister Meisterburger. Burgermeister may be Frees’ greatest comedic performance, playing the “scary” villain with the comedic pratfalls, not unlike Peter Pan’s Captain Hook. Every moment he is onscreen, the film is an absolute joy. And let’s not forget an “explanation” of all of Santa’s strangest traits, a tour-de-force vocal performance by Mickey Rooney, a fantastically animated sequence in “Put One Foot In Front Of The Other,” and narration by Fred Astaire, the King of Dance himself, who also sings the title song. Sure, their attempts to animate Astaire’s Postman dancing fall kind of flat, but the film still has a ton of energy and a feel-good atmosphere, making it one of the most beloved Christmas specials of all time. However, I will be controversially placing it below its sequel. But I don’t think you can blame me when you realize the sequel is…
4. The Year Without a Santa Claus
The Year Without a Santa Claus is the Empire Strikes Back of Christmas specials. Following the idea of what life would be like if Santa got sick around Christmas time, and if the meaning of Christmas even still exists in the world, the special has everything: adventure, journeys into the south, Rooney reprising his beloved Santa role, Shirley Booth serving as the narrator, Mrs. Claus, and especially fantastic songs. There’s an incredibly sad version of “Blue Christmas” performed, there’s a number dedicated to the idea of snowing in the south, and there’s a beautiful tribute to believing in Santa, no matter how old you get. However, let’s be honest, these aren’t the reasons we love The Year Without a Santa Claus. That credit solely belongs to Dick Shawn and George S. Irving as the Snow Miser and Heat Miser, respectively. Heat Miser and Snow Miser are two characters constantly battling it out for control over the weather (specifically in the United States). And they represent their views in two show-stopping musical numbers, essentially the same song, but slowed down and easygoing for the sunny Heat Miser and cool, smooth, and electric for Snow Miser, to speak to Irving and Shawn’s abilities. They are classic numbers, and instantly made Christmas Icons of the two figures. They alone make a case for the Top Five, but combined with arguably the best portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Claus on film helps to elevate it to its status as the best Santa-based special of all time
3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
At this point, we are dealing with three specials that could be #1. Honestly, any of these three could be considered The Greatest Christmas Special Ever. However, I don’t believe in ties, so I’m going to have to make some tough decisions. And that means that I’m going to have to put the Chuck Jones special at #3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is everything you want in a Christmas special. It combines the intelligence of Dr. Seuss with the animation of the Looney Tunes. It gives us two fantastic songs in “The Whoville Anthem” (“Da Who Dores…”) and the instant Christmas Classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (sung with such a vile resentment by Thurl Ravenscroft (one of the lyrics literally says that poisoning yourself is more ideal than being around the Grinch). And it gives us narration and voiceover by Boris Karloff, the King of Horror who absolutely relishes the chance to do a kids’ film. However, it’s the imagery that wins over here. From the humor in poor Max’s endeavors to the horrified glee you get from watching the Grinch destroy Christmas, Jones really outdoes himself with the animation, making for an absolutely perfect Christmas special. The message at the end leaves no other option than complete heartwarming glee as the lesson is learned, and it helps to make sure that nothing, not even a creepy film with Jim Carrey in heavy makeup, can ever live up to it.
2. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Another instant classic, this is the one I’m sure you expected to be #1. It’s Rankin-Bass’ crown jewel. Indeed, I did pull back from giving it the top spot, but that’s not to undersell the absolute joy in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. This special really is a spectacle for each and every minute. It’s impossible to ever forget a single moment from this special, from Sam the Snowman (voiced with love by Burl Ives) to the Abominable Snow Monster (remember, Bumbles Bounce), to the creepy Toy Fever Dream Island run by Not-Aslan, to the way every reindeer except for Clarice is a complete dick to poor Rudolph, and more. Personally, my favorite characters are Rudolph’s two friends: Yukon Cornelius, the world’s worst prospector who spends his time hunting for “Silver and Gold” (and, as deleted scenes show, peppermint) and fighting snow monsters one-on-one at the edge of a cliff, and Hermey the Elf, the sassiest Christmas character of all time. I love Hermey and his acts of passion-aggression, never stopping on his quest to become the first Elf Dentist. It’s such an adorable Christmas special, filled with a heartwarming message of acceptance and self-worth that is as important today as it was in 1964. Fill this in with songs as wonderful as “Jingle Jingle Jingle,” “There’s Always Tomorrow,” “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” the eponymous “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the show-stopping “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Rudolph is perhaps the most beloved Christmas special of all time. But I would argue it’s not the best. And that’s because this title belongs to…
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you read the Sacred Walloween articles, I’m sure you’re not surprised to know that my love of Peanuts won out here. However, can you blame me? How can you pick against the original Charlie Brown cartoon? This special gives us everything you remember about the season, from the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Linus and Lucy” and the chilling “Christmas Time Is Here” to the gorgeous animation as the children all skate together to the perfectly delivered lines (“I never get what I really want for Christmas.” “Oh, what’s that?” “Real estate.”), everything about this strikes the perfect balance of humorous cynicism and overwhelming optimism. It is a careful line to walk, but Schultz does it so flawlessly that the entire special shines because of it. When Charlie Brown picks out his tree, it is both inspiring and laugh-out-loud funny. We are invited to join in the triumphant chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” but we also are able to notice Pig-Pen releasing a dust cloud every time he breathes. And when Linus does his reading from the Gospel of Luke, even secularists get chills. The special perfectly explores the cynical state of Christmas while optimistically looking at change, but, quite frankly, this special would have been #1 just for the joy that comes with trying to decipher the plot of that Christmas pageant. Try it; I dare you. Long story short, I will always pick Charlie Brown as #1 for as long as I live, and no magic reindeer, mean-hearted Whos, or men in red coats can stop me.
And thus ends the definitive list of the Ten Greatest Christmas Specials. Did I leave your favorite off the list? Do you have a bizarre one you feel is worth mentioning? Do you want me to further explain some of these options? Let me know in the comments, I leave you all with one last Christmas song, and in case I don’t get a chance to see it before the big day, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night.