TV and Movies
The 5 Best Christmas Specials, Ever

“Fra-gi-le” Image: Nicole Wakelin

I love all the classic holiday stuff you see on television each December. Even though I have most of my favorites on DVD there’s something special about seeing them when they’re actually being aired. It doesn’t count if you record them or stream them later. I’m talking about the random channel surfing that suddenly turns up one of your favorites, as if the network aired it just for you. I tend to obsess over the things that make me happy and one of my biggest obsessions is Christmas specials.

Back when I was a kid, in the days before you could record stuff and watch it at your leisure, when a Christmas special aired the whole school would be talking about it for days. The news travelled like wildfire, so if you hadn’t managed to see it in the TV listings or catch a commercial, by the time snacktime rolled around at least a dozen of your friends had told you what was on that night.

Then there was the interminable wait. Seven o’clock seemed to be the time of choice and I swear the minutes were actually longer on those days. I’d get in my pajamas, grab a blanket and possibly a stuffed animal and curl up in front of the TV just waiting for the little pre-special montage that notified you there was, in fact, a special about to air. Some of these shows stuck with me so much so that to this day I can recite half the lines. So, in honor of all things Christmas, here’s a list of my favorite childhood specials that still hold a place in my heart today.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Image: Amazon

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

There isn’t a kid who celebrates Christmas who hasn’t looked out the window and imagined seeing a faint red dot in the sky on Christmas Eve. And if you saw that little red dot in the sky, the image that came to mind was likely of Rudolph as he was in the Rankin/Bass stop motion animation special that first aired way back in 1964. But more than the story of Rudolph and how the other reindeer were mean until he saved the day, this special introduced us to the Island of Misfit Toys. In fact, it’s all the other characters from this one that make me love it. An abominable snowman named Bumble, a prospector named Ukon Corneilus and little Hermey, the elf that just wants to be a dentist. The supporting cast nearly out shines the lead’s nose.

Frosty the Snowman, Image: Amazon

4. Frosty the Snowman

Every single year I built a snowman. Every. Single. Year. And that darn thing never came to life no matter how many different kinds of hats and scarves I gave him. But, it was okay, because I still had my Frosty movie to keep my hopes alive and show me what might happen if I persevered and kept building happy little snowmen across my lawn. Since 1969, the Rankin/Bass animated version of this classic has been keeping kids hopes alive and bringing them to tears. Come on, who didn’t cry when that stupid Profesor Hinkle trapped poor Frosty in that greenhouse? I hate that guy.

Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, Image:Amazon

3. Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town

Another stop-motion animation classic from Rankin/Bass that debuted in 1970, this one shows us how Santa got his start as a little orphan baby taken in my elves. I mean, how cool is that? Can you imagine growing up with elves? Meanwhile, Mayor Burgermeister Meisterburger is making the children in the town of Sombertown miserable by outlawing toys. Yeah, he’s one evil dude but he does have the best villain name in the history of forever. I always imagine the creators of this one were super hungry when they came up with that one. Despite the coolness of his name, the Mayor fails and eventually good ole Santa Claus delivers toys to the children of Sombertown and a legend is born.

The Year Without a Santa Claus, Image: Amazon

2. The Year Without a Santa Claus

This 1974 movie has my all-time favorite songs sung by my all-time favorite stop motion animation characters. Heat Miser and Snow Miser perform the best sing and dance-off in history to determine who’s the better brother. The rest of this movie centers around trying to save Christmas when Santa is a bit under the weather, but these guys steal the show. Their crazy hair, mini-me minions, and ragtime dance sequence make them the most memorable stop motion characters ever. Ever. I love those guys.

A Christmas Story, Image: Amazon

1. A Christmas Story

Although it didn’t make it’s debut until 1983, this has become the grandaddy of all Christmas movies. It doesn’t matter that it’s set way back in the late 30′s, this movie captures the essence of being a kid in any era. From the iconic leg lamp (the ornament is on my tree) to the bullies, the triple-dog dare to the ridiculous bunny outfit, every single one of us can relate to little Ralphie. You may never have longed for a Red Ryder BB Gun, but we all had an “it” toy that we were dying to see on Christmas morning. And really, how can you not like a movie where a kid gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole on a dare?

That’s my list. These are the movies that I watch every year and sing along with like I’m a seven-year-old up past her bedtime. There are so many good ones out there, though, that I’m sure there are a few that didn’t make my list that are tops on yours. Tell me, what did I miss?

Nicole has her own blog, Total Fan Girl and hosts a segment on The D6 Generation gaming podcast. She's a contributor to Nerd Approved, Fashionably Geek and That's Nerdalicious. She also geeks-out over cars as Director of Automotive Content at She Buys Cars and as a contributor at BoldRide . In her spare time, she's Mom to two geek girls and teaches them all the important things in life like Han shot first, vampires don't sparkle and always carry a towel.

37 Comments
Patricia Vollmer
Patricia Vollmer

December 13, 2011 9:24 am Reply

Read the book that the Christmas Story vignettes came from: “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd. The stories in the movie are an accumulation of several winters’ tales in central Indiana. And if you think about it hard enough, not all the stories are holiday-related, but they used the Christmas season to tie it together nicely.

(The tongue on the flagpole, “Oh Fudge”, the leg lamp, the furnace, etc.)

The book is VERY funny, and of course the author himself is the narrator.

My Dad had read the book years ago (it sat in my parents’ bookcase for my whole life) so when the film came out, Dad took us to see it opening night!

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:10 pm Reply

    I keep meaning to pick up the book and somehow never get around to it….should put it on my Christmas list this year :)

    Wendy Bosley

    December 16, 2011 1:19 pm Reply

    Great article – just missing It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 32rd Street! (Also- have to add A Nightmare Before Christmas – which can be watched anytime from Halloween to Christmas!

Bellingham Sneckenberger

December 13, 2011 9:25 am Reply

“There isn’t a kid who celebrates Christmas who hasn’t looked out the window and imagined seeing a faint red dot in the sky on Christmas Eve.”

I never did this, and my children won’t, either. My parents raised me to abhor the animal cruelty which is built into this holiday. Did you know that all the animals named in the 12 Days of Christmas were for eating? Between that and the reindeer, this holiday is a despicable bloodbath of slaughter for food and animal whippings. Let’s pledge now to keep the animal abuse out of Christmas.

    anonGM

    December 13, 2011 12:06 pm Reply

    “My parents raised me to abhor the animal cruelty which is built into this holiday.”

    You’ve got to be joking…

    ===

    “Did you know that all the animals named in the 12 Days of Christmas were for eating?”

    All the animals named in the song were NOT for eating.

    Greg Kerr

    December 26, 2011 4:10 am Reply

    Yawn

Mike in NJ

December 13, 2011 9:33 am Reply

Mmmkay… might not be the venue for that, “Bellingham”.

Regardless, one of my favorite “Christmas” specials is The Nightmare Before Christmas. Amazing animation, Sublime and beautiful music, and real, good pathos.

    Bellingham Sneckenberger

    December 13, 2011 9:41 am Reply

    I go by Bell. Honestly, I’m surprised that you point out my first name rather than my last, but I assure you — and a Google search will confirm — that Sneckenberger is a common Norwegian surname.

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:11 pm Reply

    I do love Nightmare, Jack Skellington is one of my favorite characters!

Svenski

December 13, 2011 9:41 am Reply

GRINCH!

Bill Cook

December 13, 2011 9:59 am Reply

I would take “A Christmas Story” off this particular list. Although it is obviously a top Holiday classic, it was a feature film, not a Christmas Special.

In it’s place at number one should be “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:13 pm Reply

    I love the little dog, but…I shouldn’t admit this for fear of ridicule, but I am not a fan of the Grinch. He scared me a little as a kid. Okay, he scares me a little now…

Anthony

December 13, 2011 11:09 am Reply

The Year Without A Santa Claus is a terrible movie. Have you watched the whole thing recently?

Sure it’s got the Miser Brothers but they’re only on screen for like 10 minutes. The movie is really about elves named Jingle and Jangle trying to find people who still believe in Santa Claus. My kids got up and left the room before it was over.

I agree with Mike in NJ that Nightmare Before Christmas should be on the list. And where’s Charlie Brown?

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:14 pm Reply

    Ah, we’ll have to disagree because my family loves the movie….mostly for those two guys whose screen time is short but I LOVE THEM!

Peter

December 13, 2011 11:47 am Reply

No love for A Charlie Brown Christmas?

Aside from the music, the story makes a good point: you don’t need a lot of “stuff” to celebrate Christmas.

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:15 pm Reply

    My favorite Charlie Brown has always been The Great Pumpkin, so in mine mind he owns Halloween instead. Although, the Christmas special is wonderful!

EricLr

December 13, 2011 12:06 pm Reply

“Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas” (directed by Jim Henson back in his heyday) was always one of my personal favorites. Sadly, it pretty much disappeared in the early-80′s and no one ever reruns it anymore. I think you can still buy it on DVD. It’s easily up there with the Rankin Bass stuff.

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:18 pm Reply

    You know, I think I remember seeing this somewhere along the way. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

    Amy Kraft
    Amy Kraft

    December 13, 2011 2:02 pm Reply

    Emmet Otter just started streaming on Netflix. Go watch it RIGHT NOW!

      Nicole Wakelin

      December 13, 2011 2:14 pm Reply

      No way?! I am so watching that with the girls tonight!

Lumpy da Moose

December 13, 2011 12:10 pm Reply

Here’s an obscure one– not necessarily for the main part of the show, but for some of the side stories and animation:

Christmas with the California Raisins

Haven’t seen it for many years and the VHS version I taped off the air (along with A Garfield Christmas) had gone missing years ago.

Great claymation, and the business with Wassailing is great fun. The claymation here predates Wallace and Gromit by maybe ten years and is excellent.

    Nicole Wakelin
    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 12:19 pm Reply

    I’ve never even heard of that one, but I loved those silly raisins so now I have to see if it’s still out there somewhere.

Kathy Ceceri
Kathy Ceceri

December 13, 2011 1:27 pm Reply

Beth

December 13, 2011 2:07 pm Reply

ok I’m gonna pull a new one out!
Prep & Landing!
Brilliant new holiday special series by Disney about HOW Santa gets to all those houses and all the work that goes into it to get him there.
if you haven’t seen it you must!

And The 12 days of Christmas is a TASTY song. But I don’t think I’d want to eat those lords of leaping ,or the ladies dancing they are prob very chewy , all that leaping and dancing .

    Nicole Wakelin

    December 13, 2011 2:16 pm Reply

    Prep and Landing is adorable! That debuted, what, last year I think? And isn’t there a new one this year?

      Beth

      December 13, 2011 2:21 pm Reply

      yes there is ! and it was just a good as the first one.
      Disney has said they are trying to bring back the Christmas specials. And I LOVE it , Now I am NOT showing “A christmas story” to my kids , not really ready to explain ” The glow of electric sex”

Shellie

December 13, 2011 2:28 pm Reply

Will Vinton’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration! As a child, that was the special that I looked forward to the most. Some of the songs had the most amazing artistic interpretations to them (ie “Joy to the World”). My favorite, though, had to be “Carol of the Bells” with the unfortunate bell who loses his hammer. Good times!!

(and, yes, one of the songs featured the California Raisins)

Jennifer

December 13, 2011 2:49 pm Reply

You hit all of ours: Rudolph, Frosty, Christmas Story (my hubby hadn’t seen this until we got married. That is a crime!)

These are movies not Christmas specials but still: Nightmare Before Christmas and Christmas Vacation (love the squirrel in the tree)

Tommy

December 13, 2011 2:55 pm Reply

Amy’s right, Emmet Otter is up there with these as the best. Also, ‘A Muppet Family Christmas’ is a more obscure holiday special that I end up watching every year.

Kelly Knox

December 13, 2011 3:13 pm Reply

Conpletely agree about Emmett Otter! It’s a little slow paced, but so sweet. Is Muppet Family Christmas available to watch somewhere? Their Christmas album has always been my favorite.

    Danny Bakker

    December 13, 2011 11:43 pm Reply

    You can find “A Muppet Family Christmas” here on YouTube

    It is definitely a must-see for Muppet lovers. This is also the full, unedited version. Because of licenses or things on certain Christmas songs the DVD version that is floating around out there has parts that are cut from it.

    I watched this every year growing up on VHS recorded from TV and now my wife and I watch it every year on the computer. It’s really great!

Melanie

December 13, 2011 3:38 pm Reply

Garfield!

I love the rankin/bass classics, can’t say I’ve ever seen the year with out santa…. and I actually really hate a christmas story…santa kicks the kid in the face… etc. but I am apparently the only one who doesn’t like it…lol

Ron

December 13, 2011 4:27 pm Reply

If you are adding feature films to the list, one of my favorites is “The Muppet Christmas Carol”.

A Christmas Carol has been done a bazillion times, but IMO, this is the very best version.

Kim Racila

December 13, 2011 8:58 pm Reply

There is one Christmas special I have been trying to find ever since my son was born 12 yrs. ago and that is the Bloom County Christmas special. I think it only aired once back in the early 90′s. It was so funny and sweet. I miss the genius of Berke Brethed’s lovable Opus the penguin.

Kathy Ceceri
Kathy Ceceri

December 14, 2011 11:33 pm Reply

Also: the BBC version of the musical “She Loves Me.” Besides the great songs and story (it’s the same story as the movie “You’ve Got Mail” — two anonymous penpals are bitter rivals in real life), it starred the lead in the show Poldark, who was probably the Nathan Filion of his day. Sadly, it can only be found in segments on YouTube. And, The Walton’s Christmas Special. If you’re too young to have seen these, you probably know the “Goodnight, John Boy” meme that came from the TV show. The Christmas special came before the show, I believe, and is incredibly schmaltzy, but in a good way!

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