Can we agree these TV Christmas specials are in the Mount Rushmore of that category? Let’s rank them:
1. ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ (1964)
Source material: Rudolph was introduced in a 1939 Montgomery Ward booklet. Johnny Marks converted the story into a song. It became a No. 1 hit for Gene Autry in 1949.
Star power: Burl Ives voices the snowman narrator character and sings three songs.
Random things you can learn from watching: A character on the Island of Misfit Toys is a water gun that shoots jelly. (Want!)
Did you notice: Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, is the only male elf with a head of hair.
The story: Born with a red nose, Rudolph is unlike all other reindeer. His father urges him to hide the nose. Rudolph is “outed” in front of peers and, ridiculed by all but his sweetheart, Clarice, he runs away from home. Rudolph eventually discovers you can’t run away from your problems, and he returns home in time to help Santa make Christmas deliveries.
Why it’s great: This isn’t just a Christmas story. It’s an adventure with a legitimately scary boogie man (the toothy Abominable Snow Monster), and you can’t help but care about the characters. You feel for Rudolph when he is treated like a mutant. You feel for Rudolph’s parents (Mom sheds reindeer tears) when they go searching for him. You fear for Rudolph when it looks like he’s going to be a snack for the Abominable Snow Monster.
Wouldn’t happen now: The reindeer “coach” says this: “From now on, we won’t let Rudolph join in on any reindeer games.” Can you say “lawsuit”?
The takeaway: For Rudolph, Hermey, misfit toys and even the Abominable Snow Monster, the message is this: Misfits have a place, too.
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2. ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ (1966)
Source material: A tale by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, this was published in book form in 1957 and also appeared in Redbook magazine.
Star power: Boris Karloff voices the Grinch.
Random things you can learn from watching: The Grinch could secure gainful employment as a seamstress. He sewed a Santa Claus jacket and hat to disguise himself for chimney raids.
Did you notice: The Grinch, like Porky Pig, needs to invest in pants.
The story: Whether it’s because his shoes fit too tightly, his head isn’t screwed on right, he detests noisemakers like jingtinglers or his heart is two sizes too small, the Grinch dislikes Christmas. He wants to stop Christmas from coming, so he concocts a plan to steal every gift, tree and food item from the homes of Whoville. On Christmas morning, the Grinch turns an ear toward Whoville with an expectation of hearing boo-hoos. Instead, he hears caroling. It’s a light-bulb moment, and he sleds down to return everything and to take part in the Christmas celebration.
Why it’s great: It’s a Dr. Seuss story come to life, and it’s directed by animation legend Chuck Jones. For an example of no-words-necessary storytelling, check out facial expressions on the Grinch and his dog, Max, in a sequence where the dog thinks he will be riding a sled instead of pulling it.
Wouldn’t happen now: Everyone in Whoville would have home alarm systems. The Grinch would be busted immediately.
The takeaway: Here’s a line near the end: “Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.”
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3. ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965)
Source material: This is the first of many TV specials based on the classic Charles Schulz comic strip Peanuts.
Star power: Snoopy. He’s a scene-stealer whether he’s ice skating, decorating his doghouse for a contest, dancing on a piano, licking Lucy’s face or booing the longest when his owner is met with a chorus of boos.
Random things you can learn from watching: Pigpen may be the only character in pop culture who can make a snowman “dirty” just by being in the same proximity.
Did you notice: The characters are voiced by actual children instead of adults pretending to be children.
The story: Charlie Brown is feeling depressed and can’t get into the spirit of the season. Lucy suggests he serve as director of a Christmas play. He embarks on a mission to acquire a Christmas tree for the set. The tree he picks is a runt. Friends laugh at his selection. Said one of them: “You’ve been dumb before Charlie Brown, but this time you really did it.”
Why it’s great: The special is true to the source material. Bits of Peanuts mythology are everywhere: Linus’ blanket. The girl who is overly proud of her naturally curly hair. Exclamations like “good grief!” and “rats!” Put it all with a catchy Vince Guaraldi instrumental and a story with a feel-good ending, and you’ve got a classic.
Wouldn’t happen now: Charlie Brown paid Lucy a nickel for psychiatric help. Now, she would be an out-of-plan provider, and Charlie Brown would get a surprise bill for $900.
The takeaway: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” asks Charlie Brown. Linus responds with a mic-drop monologue. If you need your Christmas priorities realigned, this should do the job.
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4. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ (1969)
Source material: After the Rudolph song became a hit, Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson tapped into the holiday vein to write a “Frosty the Snowman” song recorded by Gene Autry. It became a top-10 single.
Star power: An animated version of Jimmy Durante served as narrator. Durante is among artists who have covered “Frosty the Snowman.”
Random things you can learn from watching: Rejected names prior to the snowman being named Frosty include Harold, Bruce, Christopher Columbus and Oatmeal.
Did you notice: Legendary voice actor June Foray can be heard as various characters, including a teacher in an early scene. Foray originally voiced the main child character, Karen, but a decision was made to replace the Karen lines with lines read by a child actor, Suzanne Davidson.
The story: A hat discarded by a bumbling magician proves to have some “real” magic to it. Frosty comes to life when the hat is placed upon his head. The kids who built Frosty decide to help him get to the North Pole, where he will never melt. Karen accompanies Frosty, and they are pursued by the magician, who wants the hat back. Santa Claus doesn’t appear in the Frosty song, but he’s the hero of the TV special.
Why it’s great: If you want the full lowdown on all the goodness, listen to Mark Evanier’s episode commentary on DVD/Blu-Ray extras. He praises Mad magazine artist Paul Coker Jr. for giving Frosty a “look” that was different from Disney animation of that period.
Wouldn’t happen now: Karen never consulted an adult before leaving town on a refrigerated train with Frosty. Different — more innocent — time?
The takeaway: The ending could have been tragic. Melted, Frosty is a puddle of water. Karen is weeping. But Santa Claus says Frosty is not gone for good. Frosty was made of Christmas snow, and Christmas snow can never go away completely. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.