It’s time now for the second most wonderful time of the year, A Sacred Wall Christmas (The Greatest Gift Of All)! I’ve got all sorts of goodies planned for you this week, in terms of Oscars and reviews, but before that, let’s take the time to do the first Christmas Listicle of the season, the Top Ten Christmas Special Characters! In case you don’t know what this is referring to, I will be ranking the ten best characters to appear in a televised Christmas special, animated or otherwise. I limited myself to two characters per special (with one cheat), and with no Honorable Mentions to bog us down, let’s get right down to it and start naming those ten characters!
10. Elvis Costello – A Colbert Christmas
One of the funniest things about Stephen Colbert’s 2008 Christmas special was the fact that, like Bing Crosby and Andy Williams before him, he had on a revolving door of wacky, nonsensical cameos to sing and celebrate with him. And while Colbert himself was entertaining, and the list of cameos is absolutely amazing, it is singer/songwriter Elvis Costello who ends up stealing the show. Described as an “older, male Avril Lavigne, except instead of singing about skater bois, he sings about people dying in shipyards,” Costello willingly submitted himself to every dumb joke the writers threw at him, from the fact that he can’t tell the difference between reindeer/mice and goats in extremely cheap costumes (“Well you can’t tell!”) to the fact he has a petty relationship with David Bowie, insulting him at every turn when he realizes the special is live and everything he says will make it in. Hell, he even allows himself to be “eaten” by a bear, and performs a portion of the show in a bear costume. However, what really makes Costello stand out is his two duets with Colbert. The first, as a bear (Stephen’s mortal enemy), is a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” and it may surpass the original in its warm, wide-spreading implications as a call for peace in the holiday season. The second, meanwhile, is an original song, written by Colbert himself, and expresses a surprisingly warm, humorous take on the holiday season. It’s a surprising call to faith, any faith, during a highly spiritual time, and features lines stressing the importance of focusing on the more positive aspects of faith, instead of fighting each other over the worst aspects of each group. It allows Costello to show off his voice on top of his comedic sensibilities. I don’t know, maybe there are better characters in holiday specials that you can think of. But for my money, I just want British musicians to make silly jokes about goats and bears for my benefit. And I think he stands out as one of the best characters in a holiday special.
9. Professor Hinkle – Frosty the Snowman
Pretty much from this point onward, these nominees will be characters from Rankin Bass cartoons. Furthermore, it is entirely likely that many of these characters will be villains, as Rankin Bass, more than anyone (except maybe Disney), knew how to make an entertaining, funny villain for our Christmas heroes to oppose. To prove this point, I’d like to start with Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman. There’s something inherently gleeful in watching an entirely terrible magician who has become bitter about the world around him and refuses to admit that snowmen can come to life even in the middle of a conversation with said snowman. Hinkle is ridiculously over-the-top and flamboyant, mainly due to his portrayal by Billy De Wolfe, who was known for his fussy portrayals (“Bus-y bus-y bus-y”) and notoriety for chewing scenes, all of which are on display here. His animation design is absolutely hilarious, giving him the world’s worst bushy mustache and exaggerating his legs so that his attempts to run after Frosty and Karen become humorous and ridiculous. And don’t get me started on the fact that each movement is accompanied by an over-the-top sound effect, designed to elicit a chuckle from each and every child watching. Frosty is oft-forgotten in the world of Rankin Bass cartoons, overshadowed by Rudolph and Santa. However, I’d argue that it is just as entertaining as its contemporaries, and in no small part thanks to Professor Hinkle.
8. Yukon Cornelius – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Let’s be honest – most of the names on this list will be coming from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, mainly because the short is filled to the brim with memorable characters making up a near-perfect ensemble. However, I want to start by picking the special’s personal Han Solo, Yukon Cornelius. The self-proclaimed “greatest prospector in the North,” Yukon is the perfect blustering blowhard the special needs – a complete buffoon who is still capable of accepting the differences in our beloved protagonists. Yukon is a presence from his first moment onscreen, getting swindled by his dogs into pulling the sled. And it’s all uphill from there. Yukon is the perfect embodiment of the lovable buffoon – unsure of what he’s prospecting for (he switches between gold and silver on a whim), convinced he’s the only one who can battle the Abominable Snow Monster, and so cocky in his knowledge, it almost results in his death (luckily he was right about “Bumbles bouncing”). He’s basically the luckiest man in the world, considering the only times he’s right about things, it keeps him from dying. Still, he’s one of the most lovable characters in any Christmas special. He’s warmhearted and accepting of Rudolph and Hermie, he’s willing to risk his life to protect and save his friends, and he is willing to sacrifice himself to save the group. He wholeheartedly earns that Peppermint Mine at the end of the show, and he earns his place as one of the greatest Christmas Special characters of all time.
7. Winter Warlock – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
The only thing that defines Christmas specials more than funny villains are the lovable former-villains who are converted through the power of love and Christmas Spirit. One of the best examples of this is the Winter Warlock from Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. When we first meet Winter, he is a demonic force of wintery nature, covered head to toe in ice and demonstrating a fearsome expression that haunts the audience to their core. However, like so many great characters before him, the Warlock has a heart beneath his icy exterior, and Kris Kringle knows exactly how to find it. There might not be as joyful a moment in these specials than when Kris gives Winter the toy train he’d always wanted and we watch his icy exterior melt away. It’s a metaphor that almost everyone can understand – the melting away of an icy heart to reveal the warmth and love underneath. And after that, he gets the powerful, fun song “Put One Foot In Front Of The Other,” representing the effort it takes to change yourself from bad to good. It’s well animated, funny, and uplifting all at the same time. However, it’s what comes next that’s truly heartbreaking. You see, his magic powers were activated through his anger and his evil. In choosing to be good, he gives up his power to be extraordinary. And yet he still remains good. He just passes on what little magic he has to help Kris deal with obstacles in his life – like a magic snowball to see everything, or magic seed corn to make the reindeer fly. In the end, his powers all but dried up, and his body withered with age, he uses the last of his magic to light up the Christmas tree for Santa and Jessica’s wedding. He’s one of the best examples of the reformed villain archetype that we all know and love.
6. Burgermeister Meisterburger (And Grimsley) – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
On the other end of the spectrum, the villains! As mentioned earlier with Professor Hinkle, the villains of films like Santa Claus Is Coming To Town are arguably the best part, thanks to a blend of menace and humor. I’m speaking, of course, about the wonderfully named Burgermeister Meisterburger and his assistant Grimsley. However, these characters are greater than just a chance at funny names – they are funny in design and execution as well. Take a look at the Burgermeister – morbidly obese, a jutting lower jaw, and gorilla-esque in nature, the Burgermeister is an oafish being capable of great acts of selfishness. He leaves a baby to freeze to death because it cries, he bans toys because he trips on a wooden duck, and he arrests Santa (who does that?) And yet, we can never be too scared of him, because he’s just so funny. When he falls down the stairs, the imagery is hysterical. The musical list of punishments for playing with toys features more brilliant wordplay than we’d ever expect from a doofus villain. And in perhaps his shining moment, we watch the innocent joy in his voice as he plays with the yo-yo bribe provided by Kris, cackling with glee until he is reminded by his right hand man that he is “breaking his own law.” And speaking of his right hand man, let’s talk about Grimsley. There’s something humorous in Grimsley’s fey line delivery, praising the Burgermeister even as his praise points out the ridiculous stupidity of the character. He’s the Kronk to his Yzma, the the Smee to his Hook They’re repartee is humorous, childish, and entertaining, and it makes this duo two of the best villains in a holiday special.
5. The Miser Brothers – The Year Without A Santa Claus
Sing it with me now…I’M MISTER [BLANK] CHRISTMAS, I’M MISTER [BLANK!] I don’t know if you can make it through childhood without knowing every word to the songs of Heat Miser and Snow Miser, the two mortal enemy brothers that have a battle over the weather each year to decide what kind of winter it will be. When we first meet the tall, lanky fast-talker Snow Miser (perfectly voiced by Dick Shawn) and the short, portly hothead Heat Miser (George S. Irving), they are exchanging cannon shots in the clouds, trying to decide the weather. This is a fun, humorous image, and perfectly explains why sometimes we have a green Christmas and sometimes we have a White Christmas. However, that’s not what we remember most about these two. What we do remember is their fun, exciting songs. That’s right, these two leaders wrote the exact same song, changed the words to fit their personalities, and then forced their assistants to learn a choreographed routine in case someone came to visit them. That’s right, on the off-chance that someone came to visit their castles, they forced their minions to practice day-in, day-out on a routine that explains their entire personalities. That is a fascinating detail, almost as fascinating as the fact that the routine is brilliant – fun, moving, and well-choreographed. Personally, I prefer Snow Miser, because his song is faster, better performed, and representative of Shawn’s kinetic energy, but both are highly entertaining. In the end, they are defeated the only way two brothers possibly could be – through a dressing down by their mother, Mother Nature. Watching the follies of weather get boiled down to the squabbling of two petty brothers is a brilliant metaphor, and they are two of the most entertaining characters in a Christmas special.
4. Lucy Van Pelt – A Charlie Brown Christmas
As much as Snoopy may be the star of the Peanuts cartoons, he really doesn’t get much of a chance to shine in A Charlie Brown Christmas. He appears once or twice to get a small laugh, but he mostly appears at a distance. In his absence, it falls to Lucy Van Pelt to become the star of the beloved Christmas special. Almost from the get-go, Lucy dominates this special, representing everything that is wrong with both the holiday and society in one convenient, ironically sweet package. Her first major scene (after figuring skating) involves her sitting down Charlie Brown to shake him down for some hokey psychiatric advice, intentionally stoking his fears in order to gain 5¢. She then delivers the immortal line that all she wants for Christmas, even at a young age, is “Real estate.” After that, Lucy is nothing but the epitome of ego. She takes control of the Christmas play, threatening her brother Linus with “five good reasons” to listen to her demands. She gets in a fight with Snoopy, only to freak out when he gives her a kiss and calling for “hot water and iodine!” She asks Charlie Brown if she’s pretty enough to play the Christmas Queen, only to throw a fit when he hesitates. And she tortures her crush, Schroeder, by making him play multiple versions of “Jingle Bells” until he gets it right. She shoots down each classical and orchestral rendition he performs, and only becomes excited when he passive-aggressively plinks away. It’s high comedy coming out of the mouths of babes, and it wins our hearts with each ridiculous moment, thanks in no small part to the remarkable vocal work by Tracy Stratford. However, no matter how irritating or ridiculous Lucy can get, let it not be forgotten she leads the group of children to Snoopy’s doghouse to fix up Charlie Brown’s tree and sing a rousing rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” She’s one of the most memorable parts of the season, and that’s why I consider her one of the greatest characters in any special, ever.
3. Hermie the Elf – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Honestly, if I had to pick my favorite Christmas special character, as opposed to the greatest, I would have to pick Hermie the Elf. Honestly, how can you not like Hermie? He’s got all of the same traits we love about Rudolph – he’s a misfit, he’s adorable, and he just wants someone who will understand him – but he’s got one trait that Rudolph lasts: biting, passive-aggressive sarcasm. That’s right, Hermie is over everyone’s sh*t. From his first scene, he’s not just reluctantly making toys, he’s flat out refusing. Unwilling to deal with the aggression coming out of his boss and coworkers, he actively starts sabotaging them for their behavior, refusing to go to Choir Practice so he can fulfill his dentistry. When he meets Rudolph, he doesn’t ask questions about his nose, or apologize for strangely jumping out of the snow, he just passive-aggressively replies “Oh, is this your snow bank?” And when Rudolph and Hermie set off into the night together, he’s the one that actively sings about getting revenge on his boss and murders a snowman shaped like him. Damn, Hermie is savage. And if that wasn’t great enough, he’s smart. He’s the only one that sees through Yukon’s BS, questioning his nonsense throughout, and being the first one to realize he has no idea what he’s doing as a prospector. In the end, he fulfills the dream of every passive-aggressive outcast: being accepted by society and inflicting torture upon those that wronged us (do you actually think that boss had anything wrong with his teeth? Hermie knew what he was doing). Hermie is why we watch Rudolph every year. He is even better than the title character. Hermie is love, Hermie is life.
2. Santa Claus (all of them)
I mean, come on. How could Santa not make this list? Not only is he a central character of almost every Christmas special, he’s also one of the best characters in the special, whether he’s the star or not. Take Rudolph, for example. Here we see a Santa that we wouldn’t expect – skinny (he needs Mrs. Claus to fatten him up), perpetually annoyed, and even kind of bigoted. And yet, in the end, he realizes the folly of his ways and manages to not only become his fat, jolly self, but to accept Rudolph and Hermie for their differences (and is rewarded with a new member of his sleigh team). In a way, this Santa is representative of what we all hope society will someday be – people able to overcome their previous flaws and preconceptions to accept and love all people, the way only Santa knows how. Or you can look at Frosty the Snowmn, where he only appears at the very end, as a form of Santa ex Machina, and yet rewards us with the sense of whimsy and stern parenting we expect from the magical elf of the North. When he brings Frosty back to life, we cheer almost as much as we laugh when he scolds Professor Hinkle. Each person who plays Santa brings his own sense of magic to the show, and perhaps no one does this quite as well as the late, great Mickey Rooney, arguably the greatest Santa not played by Edmund Gwenn. Rooney brought the sense of magic, wonder, and wisdom necessary to bring Kris Kringle to life, first in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and later in The Year Without a Santa Claus. In the former, Rooney makes Kris the optimistic, goodhearted hero we all want to root for, full of hope and laughter and love. We cheer as he gives the children hope, turns the heart of the Winter Warlock, thwarts the Burgermeister, and wins the heart of Jessica. However, it is The Year Without where he comes into his own, voicing a much older Santa who has become cynical to a world that’s forgetting him, and falling ill with his first cold in years. However, it is a kindly family in Southtown, USA and the touching letter of a little girl who grew up watching Elvis that fills him with the sense of joy he once felt, and restoring the more jovial version Rooney had played before. There’s a reason Santa and Christmas are synonymous, and it is because these specials help keep his spirit alive, and remind us why Rooney was such a great vocal actor.
1. The Grinch and Max – How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Honestly, how could the Grinch not be number one? Everything about him is truly remarkable. He’s what happens when we combine the talents of Boris Karloff, Chuck Jones, and Dr. Seuss. And what’s more, he’s what Christmas is all about! When we first meet the Grinch, he is doing what voice actor Karloff does best – mugging for the camera. Perfectly animated and horrifyingly sinister, he’s a deformed creature munching on a toothpick while sulking from the fact his heart is two sizes too small (not to mention his deformed head and tight shoes). Upon hearing the Whos’ incredibly annoying song, he realizes he has no choice but to steal Christmas, dressing as Santa and robbing each and every house of their prized Christmas possessions. This allows us to watch this demented creature sewing. That’s right – evil incarnate knows how to crochet. This film is a masterpiece. And if that wasn’t enough, he shanghaies his good-natured dog/punching bag Max (an equally wonderful character) into being his reindeer. Watching the two of them hurdling down the mountainside is a visual wonder of animation and joy, as is the sequence of the two of them robbing the houses and lying to little girls. Hell, we even get to hear about how bad the Grinch is through his theme song, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft. And if you haven’t listened to this song recently, go back and give it a shot – those lyrics are deliciously brutal. The narrator literally says he’d rather take arsenic than hang out with the Grinch – he would quite literally rather die than be in his company. And still, no matter how villainous the Grinch is, no matter how sinister his motives, no matter how much Boris Karloff amps up the campiness the way only he knew how, the Grinch still realizes the joys of Christmas and watches his heart grow three sizes (presumably killing him the day after the special ends). He grows super strength, saves the toys (and Max) from going over the cliff, and ends up sharing a Christmas meal with the strangely nonchalant townsfolk. His animation is iconic thanks to the work of legendary animator Chuck Jones, is dialogue pitch-perfect thanks to the brilliant Dr. Seuss, and his voice sinfully sinister thanks to Boris Karloff, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Grinch and his sidekick Max are the perfect duo to share the #1 spot for the Greatest Christmas Special Characters of All Time.
What about you? Are there any characters you especially love and remember? Any you think I missed (I wish I had room for a couple of Jack Frost characters). Let me know in the comments, and be ready for another Christmas Listicle later this week! And in turn, I leave you with this: