Christmas is a time that means many things to many people; buying presents, decorating a tree, drinking eggnog, singing carols – oh and of course peace on Earth and good will to all men – but for me it isn’t truly Christmas unless I’ve made it through my checklist of must-watch Christmas shows.
When I was growing up much of the Holidays were centered around when these Christmas specials aired. Now with DVD, Blu-ray and the internet any and all of these specials are at our fingertips whenever we want them, so here is my list of programs that bring out the season in me.
Based on the popular song – by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson – about a magical top hat bringing a snowman to life, has delighted children of all ages for generations and the 1969 Rankin-Bass animated television special is easily one of their best. Done with traditional cel animation this Christmas special has everything; a great narrator in the form of Jimmy Durante, a lovable title character voiced by Jackie Vernon, an adorable little girl who risks her life to help Frosty, a cute rabbit sidekick and of course a nasty villain in the form of Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe), who really, really wants his hat back. When I was a kid, watching Frosty melt in the greenhouse, I bawled by eyes out for what seemed like years.
This is one of those Christmas Classics that has very little actually to do with Christmas, the story of a good man named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who believes that the world would be better off without him, yet his film has only one key Christmas scene in it – though that finale scene is a doozy – but this Frank Capra masterpiece will always hold a spot on any Christmas list. Funny enough it really only became a seasonal classic when the copyrights to it slipped into public domain and any network could show it for free. Thus it became a Christmas gift to everybody.
“Santa on trial!” That is certainly a catchy premise and this Fox classic contains one of my favorite courtroom scenes, and it also contains my favorite portrayal of Santa Claus in the form of Edmund Gwenn as a warm and kindly Kris Kringle, who may or may not be the real deal, and his attempts at winning over a young Natalie Wood are sweet and charming. What is strange is that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted in releasing the film in May, because the summer is when people mostly go to the movies, and lucky for him people did go and see it, so many in fact that most theatres were still showing it when Christmas finally did roll around.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has probably been adapted and updated more than any other single story in the history of media, and though the 1951 version isn’t the first it is my personal favorite, Alastair Sim is to me the quintessential Ebenezer Scrooge. The four ghosts that come to haunt the King of Humbugs are all brilliantly portrayed and the scene when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge two sickly, scrawny children “Ignorance and Want” it is truly chilling. My other favorite versions of this Dickens classic are Scrooged with Bill Murray and The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine, both great holiday treats.
This Chevy Chase vehicle perfectly captures the chaos that can consume some of us during the holidays, but as this is a Griswold Christmas things are going to go to extremes, from lighting disasters to Christmas tree calamities to the ever annoying relatives that are destined to plague a holiday home, and without a doubt there is a little of Clark Griswold in all of us.
This was the first of Rankin-Bass’s specials, and my favorite from their holiday catalogue, as the story of misfits banding together against insurmountable odds – in this case an abominable snowman – makes for great drama and great television. An elf dentist, a mutant reindeer, and a gold fixated geologist were a wonderful team and I visit them each and every year as they face off against discrimination and Bumbles.
Side Note: The skinny Santa forced by his wife to eat and get fat I always found to be kind of creepy.
Based on the short stories by Jean Shepherd, from his book In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash, this movie easily wins the “Most Aired Award” as some networks run 24 hour marathons of it. The story of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his quest for a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle is completely relatable, because who hasn’t wished and wished for a certain special present that would make ones life complete? Add to all this with bullies, soap poisoning and a leg lamp obsessed father and you have all the ingredients for a perfect comedy and an excellent Christmas movie.
“You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch.” With the dulcet singing voice of Tony the Tiger (Thurl Ravenscroft) and frightening narration by horror icon Boris Karloff this entry has to be the best adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book to date. (The less said about that Jim Carrey abomination the better.) Directed by animation legend Chuck Jones How the Grinch Stole Christmas not only has some of the catchiest songs ever performed, and one of literature’s greatest literary villains ever depicted, but it also has Max who, as sidekicks go, is pure comedy gold – him waving from the back of the sled kills me every single time I see it.
Many of the Christmas specials and movies speak out against the commercialism of Christmas, often making that theme their major plot element, but it is A Charlie Brown Christmas that really goes the distance. The special begins with Charlie Brown railing against the season as it just seems to highlight the fact that nobody likes him, “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” What is surprising is that his nemesis Lucy Van Pelt is the one that tries to help him – without even charging him five cents – and getting him involved with the Christmas play, which for me really speaks to the heart of the season.
When Charlie Brown selects a pathetically sad Christmas tree over all the aluminum colored trees that everyone else favors he is first derided for his choice, but when Linus takes center stages and starts quoting scripture the gang eventually come around to his side of things. Now I’m not remotely a religious person but it’s nice to see a Christmas special that actually acknowledges Christ, it is his birthday after all. The Grinch may discover that Christmas doesn’t come from a store but it was Charles M. Schulz and company who go to the actual spirit of Christmas, which is kind of nice.
Then there is the 1988 action masterpiece Die Hard, and though some don’t consider this film a perennial Christmas classic – and those people are wrong – but to me it perfectly embodies the spirit of Christmas as well as depicting just how bad an office Christmas party can get. Clear evidence that this is a Christmas movie, setting aside that it takes place at Christmas time which by default makes it a Christmas movie, we have at the center of the film a love story about an estranged couple reconnecting over the holidays, it just so happens that this reconnect is caused by a band of ruthless criminals and not a Christmas Miracle.
Dishonorable mention goes to Santa Claus: The Movie It’s Ho-Ho-Horrible, but I end up watching it every year.