In a day when parents and children rarely watch the same TV shows, Christmas TV specials and holiday movies still somehow manage to continue to bring families together.
These days it’s even easier than it used to be to share these traditions. ABC Family has made an art out of holiday programming with their “25 Days of Christmas” programming blocs that package specials throughout the month of December. Home video and streaming services also allow families to watch programs whenever they want.
In the spirit of Christmas, I’m offering to you this list of the ten most essential specials and movies of the season.
We’ll start with a pair of very different types of animation from a production company synonymous with Christmas specials…
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass are synonymous with their stop-motion Christmas specials of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Viewers not familiar with their names will recognize their unmistakable round-headed characters, candy-colored landscapes, and softly falling snow. A few of their specials are on this list, starting with The Year Without A Santa Claus.
In this 1974 special, Mrs. Claus (voiced by Shirley Booth) tells the story of the year Santa (voiced by Mickey Rooney) decides — on doctor’s orders — to take a vacation. Two of his elves and the young reindeer Vixen take a trip to find enough Christmas spirit to cheer Santa up. Along their way, the elves battle the Heat Miser and Snow Miser and visit Southtown, USA, where they get lost. Santa journeys south to find Vixen and discovers that the children of the world need him. He can’t skip Christmas.
The Year Without A Santa Claus is a clever story with some memorable scenes and catchy songs, including those involving the villains.
It’s not as ubiquitous as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, but The Year Without A Santa Claus is trippy holiday fun.
Another Christmas special that has stood the test of time is Frosty The Snowman. Originally aired in 1969, Frosty vaguely follows the story line of the popular Christmas song. The special tells how the kids who built Frosty help him escape to the North Pole while trying to elude the magician whose hat brought him to life.
The special is a Rankin/Bass production but it’s a traditional cartoon, not the company’s signature stop-motion. Rankin and Bass hired a Japanese company to animate the showand it has a decidedly different look from most animation of the period. Jimmy Duranteprovides the narration and performs the title song.
Looking back the animation in Frosty is poor and the special as a whole is a bit cheesy but it’s still nostalgic Christmas fun.
Next up is a movie about one boy’s quest for a special Christmas gift. Don’t poke your eye out!
Some of our Christmas television classics originated on the big screen. One started out as a sleeper in theaters and grew in popularity with repeated small screen airings. It became so popular that one family of cable networks has run 24-hour marathons of the film every Christmas Eve for the last 14 years. Of course I’m talking about 1983’s A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story is based on the semi-autobiographical works of humorist and storyteller Jean Shepherd. The film is a loving look at boyhood Christmas memories from the 1940s. All Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB Gun. Every adult to whom he mentions his Christmas wish — from his parents to his teacher to the department store Santa — gives him the same response: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” The movie continues with a series of episodes and subplots, ending on Christmas day when Ralphie receives his prized gift.
In its initial release, A Christmas Story earned mixed reviews and decent box office. It was after its first broadcast on HBO and subsequent basic cable airings that the film graduated from cult status to full fledged holiday tradition. In 1997, TNT aired its first 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon. The tradition moved to sister network TBS in 2004. The Turner networks have shown A Christmas Story over 250 times. Not bad for a little $2 million dollar movie.
Next: The “origin story” of one famous Christmas figure…
Here’s another Rankin/Bass special that has become a perennial favorite during the Christmas season. The 1970 show Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town tells how an orphan baby became Santa Claus. These days, we call it an “origin story,” and this charming special goes into detail to tell Santa’s beginnings.
Mail carrier S. D. “Special Delivery” Kluger (voiced by Fred Astaire) narrates the tale. The Kringle family of toymakers finds a baby on their doorstep. They adopt him and name him Kris. As Kris (voiced by Mickey Rooney) grows up, his ambition is to make the Kringles the premier toymakers in the land. He melts the heart of the Winter Warlock, falls in love with a teacher named Jessica, and delivers presents to the children of Sombertown, where toys are outlawed. He is arrested, but the Winter Warlock helps him and Jessica escape. An outlaw in Sombertown, he changes his name to Santa Claus and moves to the North Pole where his legend grows.