It’s Christmastime once again. The air is colder, the decorations are hung, the cookies are baking, the gifts are being wrapped, and some of your favorite Christmas specials are on TV. Yeah, one of the biggest things I anticipate from Christmas is seeing those great Christmas specials I love a lot. Each year new ones are being created, some of them live action, and some of them animated. I often prefer the animated ones. They have a distinct look to them that just can’t be duplicated with live action. Live action stuff is on this list too, but the overall goal is, the holiday of Christmas provides some of the most memorable moments, characters, and lessons that film ever gives us. This year, I’m going to take the numerous Christmas specials I have seen, and then narrow it down to which ones are the best, the top 10 Christmas specials. Put on your favorite Christmas sweater, grab your eggnog, pull up an ice block, and lend an ear, it’s Jordan White’s Top 10 Christmas Specials:
10. A Muppet Family Christmas
The reason why I put this here is because I believe this is the first and only time that all of Jim Henson’s major puppet creations crossed over in a big extravaganza with an actual plot. This excludes the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, but then again, I can’t imagine the late David Bowie popping up at a party like this. It’s a very simple plot, the Muppets are going to Fozzie Bear’s mother’s farm for Christmas Eve. They don’t have Miss Piggy, so they withhold the festivities until she gets there. Meanwhile, Doc and Sprocket from Fraggle Rock are renting the place for a nice quiet Christmas in the country, yet he didn’t expect all these fuzzy sock puppets to come along and intervene. The Sesame Street gang shows up, and there’s even a point where Kermit and his nephew Robin journey into Fraggle Rock where they discover what the Fraggles do for Christmas. It’s quite thrilling just to see all these characters in the same scene doing what they’re known for. My favorite part has to be where the wild and crazy Animal is fascinated by the wild and crazy Cookie Monster after he eats Janice’s cookies. Another highlight is the icy patch that everyone keeps slipping on. It’s also such a joy to look at as well. The studio setting only adds to the advantage of the nostalgic feel that someone has for Christmas like myself. You turn this show and you’re like, Man, look at all the great characters, this is so amazing, I want to hug them. Don’t hug Oscar, though, he’s a grouch that doesn’t like that kissy stuff. With all the great Muppet characters, and even Jim Henson himself making a cameo at the end, Muppet Family Christmas is a great celebration for all things puppetry and my number 10 entry in the Christmas specials list.
9. White Christmas
There is always something about this movie that strikes me as the kind of movie that transports you back to a simpler time after World War II ended. It’s the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, a musical technicolor spectacular. First off, I like this movie because almost every shot is done indoors on a sound stage. Remember, this is before greenscreen. Second, I like how simple the plot is. Two pals who were in the army named Bob Wallace and Phil Davis become singing sensations after the war ends. 10 years later, they discover that their old army general has fallen on hard times at his lodge in Vermont, so they hitch a plan to put on a show in order to help their friend in a special Christmas-y sort of way. Third, every musical number is written by the legendary Irving Berlin, who has written many great American songs, some of which were performed by artists back in the day like Fred Astaire. Fourth, I like the filmmaking technology involved. Primitive now, yes, but back then, cutting edge. The film proudly claims it’s the first movie shot in VistaVision. This was a film technology where the negative ran through the camera horizontally and not vertically, therefore yielding greater image detail. This also explains the first reason about why they shot this movie almost all indoors. The cameras were so heavy that they could not be used in a portable and ergonomic fashion like they can today. Paramount made several movies with VistaVision, but then phased out the technology. That is, until a filmmaker named George Lucas got his hands on it, using it to great depth in a movie trilogy with starfighters, lightsabers, Wookies, droids, strange creatures, planets, star destroyers, cutting edge special effects, and the clash between good and evil, which still continues to this very day.
So if you ever want to thank White Christmas for something, thank them for providing George Lucas the technology that made Star Wars one of the most popular movie franchises ever.
8. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
Out of all the Santa Claus origin stories, this has got to be my favorite. Fred Astaire is excellent as the mailman who takes time to tell the story of Santa Claus to a group of children whose voices we only hear. I like how Santa has to start out in a small place against a big regime who opposes whatever he does, then keeps on doing his thing and it spreads like wildfire till he becomes one of the most beloved figures in the world. Every toy that Santa gives, he gains an ally. He even ends up reforming an icy cold warlock, and gains a wife in Jessica, a school teacher from the town he starts off in. Mickey Rooney does a great job voicing the lead character, and Keenan Wynn also shows his diverse performance, playing both bad and good. Of course, the lead villain here is Burgermeister Meisterburger. His voice is so despicable and intimidating I think that all politicians sound like that. Even this guy:
The little speech at the end of this special is really something worth hearing. I suggest that everyone hear it because it’s like the best advice you’ll get all year round. Despite all the stop motion jerkiness, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has a great story, characters, and message that makes it my number 8 Christmas special.
Very few new movies can ever claim themselves to be a great Christmas classic that ever tickles my funnybone, but that’s what Jon Favreau did in 2003 with a little movie called Elf. Buddy, played by Will Ferrell, is a human that was raised by elves. After discovering his true heritage, he sets off to New York City to find his real dad and bond with him. His upbeat and positive personality along with his endless Christmas spirit help end up saving many of the people he meets and eventually, Christmas itself. This movie is extremely quotable, I find myself thinking about these quotes every year. Not only did this become such a big success, it actually kickstarted the careers of Zoey Deschannel, who would eventually get to Fox with New Girl, and Peter Dinklage, who would later hit it big with Game of Thrones, as Tyrion Lannister. Despite that accolade, his role as Miles Finch, the South Pole Elf, as Buddy calls him, is what I’ll always remember him for. I believe this is the first movie I saw where a little person did not sound like a Munchkin from Oz. But what really helps this movie become a classic is all of Will Ferrell’s antics. His character knows very little about how the real world works, and his positive atmosphere and childish nature brings both cheer and chaos to a city that may or may not have such cheer. Buddy’s Christmas spirit inspires me to have a lot of Christmas spirit, and his antics also make this the number 7 Christmas special on my personal list.
6. Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas
Honestly I did not see this Christmas special until this decade, and it was a visit to the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta that inspired me to check it out. They had some original props from the film on display, so that inspired me to watch this special. Turns out I loved it the first time I watched it and I love it every time I watch it again. The special has an all animal cast, and it’s all puppets, no humans in the whole chabang. The story focuses on two poor otters living on the river, Emmet and Ma. Emmet does odd jobs, and Ma does laundry. One day they hear about a talent contest where the grand prize is $50, he he, I know, laugh it up, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But it sure is an awful lot to Emmet and Ma, so they both take the advice of Emmett’s late father, and sacrifice what they use for a living just so they can win the talent competition and get the money to buy each other a Christmas present. It’s very much inspired by Gift of the Magi, and it is definitely one of Jim Henson’s finest works. The idea of a show where every character is a puppet and all the sets, props, and costumes are explicably sized to the puppets makes me wanna make my own show like this. Another reason why I like this show is how it takes a more down to earth approach towards Christmas. Not every Christmas special has to have so much Christmas imagery plastered all over it. This one is more humble. Of course, I do have to mention the River Bottom gang, they’re like totally rotten, arrogant, and feel out of place in a rather humble setting like this. At first I thought these guys had no point in the story, but they later surprise me with their appearance as the River Bottom Nightmare Band.
This has to be one of the best villain songs ever. Just the lyrics make it all so nasty and intimidating, like this would go well with the emo crowd. I would totally love to hear a death metal version of this. With excellent performances by the puppeteers, and a setting that I could totally be comfortable with, Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas is my number 6 Christmas special.
Before I get to the rest, I just want to say that some of these clips I’m getting happen to be the whole movie itself. What happened to copyright protection? Uploading the whole movie to YouTube eats into the profits of the people that own or have made that movie. Imagine if you uploaded Guardians of the Galaxy to YouTube. You would get your channel taken down. This is pretty much the main thing DMCA takedown notices are built for. Preventing piracy.
5. Home Alone
A great classic Christmas comedy. It’s also one of those few low budget films that made a huge boatload of money at the box office. Matter of fact, it’s also a coming of age tale that happens to be set at Christmas and also happens to be very funny. Kevin McCallister is an 8 year old troublemaker who wishes his family would disappear. The family happens to be going on a vacation to France, and the next morning, they think they’re gonna miss their flight, so they make a mad dash to the plane, and are on their way, only to discover that they forgot, guess who, Kevin? So they’re again in a mad dash to make sure Kevin is safe. Meanwhile, back at home, Kevin has to deal with a variety of things, including his dark basement, the superstitions that his next door neighbor is a serial killer, and most memorably, two cat burglars who want to rob his house. Over the course of the movie, Kevin not only starts to become sorry about what he did with his family, but also he becomes more braver, ready to protect what his family holds dear at all costs, even if that means cartoonish slapstick with booby traps that could potentially injure, scar you, or even kill you.
Man, Kevin is a master of violent security. Guess this is one of the reasons why the film was so successful, as well as why a lot of parents got worried that their child could be as smart and sophisticated as Kevin. This and Elf are two Christmas movies Dad and I hold very dear. The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, is a repeat of the first, but does have two traps that should have killed these two cat burglars.
The electrocution trap. Dead. The explosion in the bathroom. Dead. And it breaks my heart to see the country and the world divided over this one man.
Bottom line, Home Alone is a fantastically funny movie with an excellently funny cast that is sure to put you in the Christmas spirit, even if it means a few broken bones.
4. A Charlie Brown Christmas
The most famous of all the Peanuts specials, and the one that helped the Peanuts become so super famous in American pop culture. Sure they were in the comic strips 15 years before, but once this special became so successful, so much of America now knew who Charlie Brown was. That’s what we’re here to talk about. Charlie Brown, the bald kid with a yellow zig zag shirt that is everyone’s favorite punching bag, is feeling depressed about Christmas, much to the surprise of his fellow Peanuts gang members. Lucy suggests that he get involved in the direction of their Christmas play, yet he still is ticked off about the commercialism of the holiday. After an attempt to get a Christmas tree for their play, Linus finally sets things straight with a passage from Luke chapter 2. It’s hard to believe that this program has the guts to do something faith based on national TV. Whereas some people complain that today’s movies don’t have the guts to creep us out with disgusting imagery, I think the true courage and bravery of filmmakers come to those who speak out for what is right, even Christianity. While the special is animated on a limited budget, the solid and simple story help make it the classic it is today. Oh, and I gotta love the dance moves.
Try this at the night club. Oh yeah, number 4 Christmas special.
3. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
I have practically memorized every word of this special, so much so that I can act it out while it is playing, similar to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is the longest running Christmas TV special in the history of the medium, and I’m going to tell you why. Rudolph is a little reindeer with a red nose that lights up like a Christmas tree and glows in the dark. He is unlike the other reindeer, who all have black noses. Donner, his father, attempts to hide Rudolph’s red nose with a fake brown one, but it backfires when it falls off during the reindeer games, and because of this so called disability, he isn’t allowed to be with the other reindeer during those games. He runs away and is joined by other misfits, Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist instead of making toys, and Yukon Cornelius, who thinks he’s the greatest prospector, but doesn’t have the best brains or equipment for the job. Of course, things change when Rudolph comes back, has to save his family, and eventually, light the way during a dark storm thus saving Christmas. The production design of this special is so appealing. Every time I look at the interiors of Santa’s castle, and the wonders of the Christmas tree forest and those spiky mountains in the Arctic, I feel like I am watching a very epic adventure. It’s simplistic design, but it’s got all the trappings of a much more elaborate production. It’s like one of those moments where a great cast and crew combined to make something that would outlast even them, and they succeeded. I believe the reason why I have practically memorized this special is how much I relate to Rudolph. Being a person with high functioning autism, I know what it’s like to have a disability and to have people not understand you or think you’re incapable because of your disability. Almost 20 years of my life was devoted to exceeding every one of these people’s expectations and showing everyone that disability does not mean inability.
In a way, I’m like Rudolph. I first am mocked, and then I show what I’m capable of and then they all start to see me for what I am. This relation with the title character as well as an amazing nostalgic feel to the special makes this my number 3 Christmas special.
2. The Little Drummer Boy
While my favorite work from Rankin Bass is Rudolph, perhaps the best Christmas special they have ever made is The Little Drummer Boy. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. A Biblical tale outfoxes the tale that a person with autism can relate to. It takes place during the events of Luke chapter 2, when all the people of Rome are going to be taxed. Within the midst of this chaos, a boy named Aaron who hates all people roams the desert playing a drum which three animals dance to. He hates people because one night, bandits killed his family and burned his farm. Of course, the fact that he hates all people doesn’t stop a scheming con-artist showman named Ben Haramed to put him in his show. However, when they come across the caravan of the three wise men, life starts to change for Aaron. Much like Santa Claus and Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy is made in the same style, stop motion on a budget of a ham sandwich, and the same studio, Rankin Bass. I believe it is the Christian worldview and message that sells this special for me. TV networks don’t realize that this carries an anti-hate message of love and tolerance. We certainly could use that in a nation where everyone is hating each other and their own views. Watch the last few minutes of this special, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The reason why the footage doesn’t look so clear is that the only surviving copy of this special is from a 16mm print. Now that Universal owns this special, a proper restoration for Blu-ray release is in order. Everyone needs to realize that more important than the hatred and desolation that comes before is love, joy, and laughter.
Before I get to my number 1 special, here are some honorable mentions. I’ll probably cover these next year in the Top 10 Christmas Specials Part II.
- Honorable Mentions:
- Frosty the Snowman
- Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
- A Christmas Story
- Christmas Vacation
- The Year Without a Santa Claus
- Die Hard
- Miracle on 34th Street
- The Polar Express
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas
- Many Versions of A Christmas Carol
1. Like I even have to say it’s name. It’s a Wonderful Life
There is no doubt about it, I believe this has to be the single best Christmas special ever made. It’s also certainly one of the greatest films ever made as well. It’s a masterpiece, a highly influential film that brings out both sad and joyful emotions in many people. Why am I putting a bunch of praise on It’s a Wonderful Life? Sit back and listen. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in one of his best roles, has lived in a small New England town called Bedford Falls his entire life, serving the community, helping them get out of pickles and stuff like that, often created by the corporate overlord of the town Mr. Henry F. Potter, no doubt one of first popular film characters named Potter, and most definitely not the last.
One Christmas Eve, George Bailey stumbles into a pickle of his own, and is driven to the edge, to the point where he wants to commit suicide. But heaven has better things in mind for George. His guardian angel saves him, and in a chilling climax, shows him what life would be like for the little community if he wasn’t there. Once he realizes his mistake and comes back, the entire town repays him for all the good things he has done for them. The funny part about this Christmas classic is that it doesn’t become Christmas until the very end. Much of the film is spent in the spring and summer months showing us all the things George has done for the community, and all the opportunities he missed just to do so. Throughout the film, he wanted to go exploring to faraway places, and build big construction projects across the country, but his commitment to the Bailey Building and Loans prevents him from doing so. It really strikes home something that me and a lot of other viewers have. We all have things that we want to do that we end up having to put aside because it may not be part of a bigger plan God has for us. We may not have a liking for it first, but the people that will come to help us out in the end give us the best satisfaction we can ever have for what we do in our lives. George Bailey is a respected citizen among Bedford Falls, often friends with the many townspeople, all of whom are great characters. You spend so much time in this community during this movie, you’ll feel like you’re part of it. There’s Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower the drug store owner, Bert the Cop, Ernie the tax cab driver, where did you think the names for Ernie and Bert on Sesame Street came from?
You’ve got Martini the Jewish cafe owner, Harry Bailey, George’s brother, Violet, a girl that really likes George, Mary, whom George ends up marrying, Sam Wainright, the Hee-Hawing plastics tycoon, an actor who was in a Three Stooges short call Hoi Polloi, a raven, a squirrel, and… Holy Mackerel, that’s Alfalfa from the Little Rascals in the clip below:
Lionel Barrymore is fantastically despicable as Mr. Potter. Every scene he’s in, you just wanna boo and hiss at him. He’s one of the best film villains ever. He may not have his legs, but his commanding presence reeks all over Bedford Falls. In the alternate timeline, the town is called Pottersville, and it’s basically the East Coast Las Vegas. Not the kind of town I want to be in.
Not only did they come up with a new fake snow solution to film the Christmas winter scenes for this movie, but they also shot said scenes during a record breaking heatwave in Los Angeles in 1946. Try to fathom that, mister:
This movie is so great, and it’s message is so fulfilling and wonderful, I make it a tradition to watch it every Christmas Eve. Let me set the mood for you… You start the movie, the Christmas tree is glowing, on the screen the snow starts to fall as people pray for this one man. It goes through his life and how he committed himself to helping the people of this small town in New England. The night starts to come, the blizzard in the film starts, and the man sees what life would be like if he were not there. Some shocking moments ensue, but once he finally comes back, you’re filled with happiness, and the tree is still glowing behind you. As the townspeople gather around to help out this one man in return for all the years of serving others, and as they all sing and the man realizes what he was looking for what at home all along, you can’t help but be filled with the spirit of Christmas, and as the movie ends, you are filled with joy, ready to celebrate the next day for what it is really about. If we can all learn George Bailey’s beautiful lesson, that no one is a failure if there’s faith, family, and friends, and understand what it meant all along to serve others, then there truly may be peace on earth and good will to all mankind. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!!