A Word on Christmas Specials

Unlike my I-can’t-believe-I-still-call-him-a friend, John S, I love Christmas. It is, without doubt, the most wonderful time of the year.

The week before Christmas, I indulge in one of my favorite traditions: sitting down in front of the television and watching about 12 hours’ worth of Christmas specials. Now, not everyone has the time to consume all that holiday goodness (which admittedly gets a little repetitive at times), so here’s the official guide to what’s worth your time.

Must-See Specials

A Charlie Brown Christmas

The standard to which all half-hour holiday specials should be held, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) highlights Charlie’s all-too realistic desires to understand Christmas amid the haze of Christmas cards and commercialism—here represented by things such as aluminum Christmas trees, Snoopy’s Christmas decorations, and Sally’s Christmas list (about which she explains, “I only want what’s coming to me. I only want my fair share”). Charlie’s depression around the holiday is legitimate, and its ultimate solution—provided of course by his best bud, Linus—is one of my favorite scenes ever from television, with a little help from Luke.

A Garfield Christmas Special

When I was a kid, Garfield was by far my favorite comic strip. That opinion has changed drastically as I’ve matured, but there’s still a soft spot for this special, which confronts both the pros and cons of time with the family, the significance of Christmas traditions, and the wistfulness that accompanies the family and traditions no longer present (4:10 mark). Garfield’s relationships with Odie and Jon’s grandmother capture the heart of the season, summed up so well by the cat: “Christmas: It’s not about the giving; it’s not about the getting. It’s about the loving.”

The Muppet Christmas Carol

This stretches the idea of “special,” since it is a 90-minute movie and has not, to my knowledge, appeared on television. But I’ve watched this every year since my parents mistakenly gave it to my brother instead of me in about 1994. It was my introduction into Dickens’ story and the best version of it with the possible exception of the theatrical one at Madison Square Garden (which I’ve seen roughly a half-dozen times). Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge was his long-awaited breakthrough (or so I think), and the use of Gonzo and Rizzo as storytellers inside the action adds a lot of humor. However you feel about Christmas, it’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of A Christmas Carol; this well-done adaptation puts me in the Christmas spirit every year.

If You’ve Got the Time…

Claymation Christmas Celebration

Not well-known by any standard, Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration (originally airing in 1987) is one of my personal favorites. It combines insight into the origin of many popular Christmas carols (from two dinosaurs), cool claymation presentations of those carols, and the immortal line “I have a hunch they’ll give us a wonderful performance under the baton of maestro, Quasimodo.” (Man, eight-year-old Tim couldn’t stop laughing at that. He was culturally literate for his age.) Furthermore, the California Raisins’ Motown rendering of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” remains, in my estimation, the only version of the song worth listening to.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Totally worth it for the closing song and lines.

Kinda Overrated, But Still Tenable

Frosty the Snowman

Definitely better than that other Christmas special expounding a popular song (we’ll get there later) and its unnecessary sequel (starring John Goodman and Elisabeth Moss!), Frosty gives us the greatest villain in all Christmas specials (yes, Professor Hinkle is even worse than Ebenezer Scrooge) and a fair amount of entertainment; it does not, however, reveal anything especially meaningful about Christmas, except that snow is awesome, which we already know.

Depressing, Terrible, and Not Worth Watching Ever Again

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually realized how much I disliked this special. Once I did, I could never watch it again. It portrays the North Pole as this type of evil commercial syndicate (without offering any kind of smart commentary on it), with long-established Christmas heroes such as the reindeer, elves, and yes, even Santa Claus (and a decidedly German Mrs. Claus)  coming off as condescending, totalitarian, and ignorant. The “good” characters—Rudolph, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, the Misfit Toys, and in the end, the Abominable Snowman—are all outcasts that work their hardest to fit into a society they’re better than anyway. If this is the gritty background of Christmas, who wants to be a part of it?

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