There was a time when a holiday television special would play once a year, and once only. Now, of course, the classics run nearly ‘round the clock come December, but for millions of children “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” were events they anticipated for weeks. The end result? Millions of adults who now have a special connection to the seasonal small-screen fare that was so rare and hard-to-catch a couple of decades back. Here are five mistletoe-bedecked favorites.
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”: One might call this the furry green king of the classic holiday television special, and one would be right (though there are contenders; see below). So beloved is this 1966 confection that it is hard to sit through a viewing without speaking the words along with narrator Boris Karloff or singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (performed by Tony the Tiger himself, Thurl Ravenscroft). An antler-sporting dog named Max and a bevy of warbling Whos round out this snow-covered tale of an epic change of heart.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas”: If one isn’t in the Grinch camp on the best-of-the-Christmas-shows debate, one is likely backing the Peanuts gang and their quest to put on a school pageant. Our common memories of this 1965 treat include the heads-up “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” chorus, the groovy on-stage dance, Snoopy winning first prize in the neighborhood decorating contest, and the tree. So iconic has that particular twig become that “a Charlie Brown tree” is pretty much part of the larger lexicon now (it means a spruce that’s a bit sad but needing of TLC).
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: When people talk about the golden age of stop-motion children’s television, they’re talking about this 1964 CBS special. Rankin/Bass was the company behind the shot-a-frame-at-a-time critters (you probably remember its swanky ‘60s logo on the end). The story follows the Gene Autry song, mostly; a young reindeer has a bright proboscis, faces ridicule, has an adventure with an aspiring dentist elf, saves the day as well as the Misfit Toys. You have your favorite M.T., right? We like the Charlie in the Box.
“Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas”: Puppets and the yuletide go way back, back to a day long before the invention of television. But it took Jim Henson and his Creature Shop to create a merry Muppet Christmas that pulled at the heartstrings and asked some grown-up questions. One? What would you do to help out a family member? The 1977 special was meaningful, and sweetly deep, but kids remember the baddie weasels, the hummable, folksy songs, and that rather amazing ice-skating scene.
The Variety Special: There was a day, from about the early 1960s through the early 1980s, when the Christmas variety special ruled the airwaves. Think “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” a still-treasured exercise in cameos and kitsch, or any of the Judy Garland or Bob Hope or The Carpenters outings. If you could have a few singers, an acrobat or two, a sparkly tree downstage and a host in a tuxedo or an evening gown, you were set. Any network exec game to bring those back? “Star Wars” will soon return, and with it, we hope, more Wookiee-happy holiday cheer.