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 goodwill 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 centred around when these Christmas specials aired, Heaven forfend any show scheduled against these classics, but now with DVD and Blu rays all of these specials are at our fingertips whenever we want them, so here is my list of programs that bring out the seasonal festive feelings 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 my 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 – and 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 the 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 favourite courtroom scenes, and it also contains my favourite 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 on 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 favourite, 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 favourite 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 favourite 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.
“You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch,” and 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.
Directed by animation legend Chuck Jones, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is not only an animated special with some of the catchiest songs ever performed it also has 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.
This 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-coloured trees that everyone else favours he is first derided for his choice, but when Linus takes centre stage and starts quoting scripture the gang eventually comes 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.
There have been many holiday-themed horror films released over the years, from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Michael Doughtery’s Krampus, but it is Bob Clark’s dark entry of Black Christmas that is not only one of the best examples of the genre but its collection of horror tropes formed the genetic make-up for the modern slasher films that were to follow. Black Christmas tells the chilling tale of a deranged killer stalking a group of college sorority girls, with some of the most horrifying kills put to screen, and this masterwork of horror not only doles out some of the most suspenseful moments in terror but it also subverts some of the very same tropes of the genre. I can’t think of a better film to watch on a dark Christmas eve than Bob Clark’s seminal classic, and it’s extra amazing when you consider the fact that he also gave us the comedy classic A Christmas Story.
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 one’s life complete? Add to all this, you have bullies, soap poisoning and a leg lamp-obsessed father and you have all the ingredients for a perfect comedy and an excellent Christmas movie.
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 centre 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.