We’ve said it before: the holiday TV special holds a special place in the hearts of kids of all ages. Everyone loves watching the Grinch’s evil plotting and Charlie Brown’s sad, sweet tree, but here are a few overlooked Christmas specials. You’ll find that several feature some of the most popular fictional characters in the world.
1. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
Emmet and friends perform “Barbecue.”
Originally produced for CBC Television in Canada, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is an O. Henry-inspired Muppet special created by The Jim Henson Company. Henson directed the show himself, which debuted in 1977 and made its inaugural American appearance on HBO the following year. In the decades that followed, it’s appeared sporadically on ABC, Nickelodeon, and other outlets. It maintains a cult-classic following, particularly among Muppet devotees; in the original version, Kermit the Frog even makes an appearance at the beginning, though network rights concerns have sometimes forced the showing of a Kermitless cut. The plot centers on Emmet Otter and his mother each entering a talent show to try to win a prize to enable them to each get a present for the other; their main obstacle is the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a rough gang of heavier-sounding musicians. The original music features lyrics by award-winning composer and frequent Henson collaborator Paul Williams. Today, a DVD release is in circulation. It will also play in a limited theatrical release alongside The Bells of Fraggle Rock. In a bit of internet curiosity, an outtake reel of a scene going repeatedly wrong during filming has become a bit of a viral hit in the past few years.
2. The Star Wars Holiday Special
Beware. The Dark Side is strong in this special.
So legendarily awful that Star Wars creator George Lucas disavows its existence and has actively prevented it from receiving any kind of official home video release, The Star Wars Holiday Special plays like a collection of every terrible 1970s variety show cliché combined with everyone’s worst idea of what a galaxy far, far away would be like. Amazingly, this 1978 production actually starred most of the original cast, was the first Star Wars spin-off of any kind, and introduced fan-favorite Boba Fett during the first-ever Star Wars animated sequence. The plot (and using that word is a bit of a stretch) involves Chewbacca and Han Solo attempting to get back to Chewie’s family on the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk for Life Day. Interspersed around that are comedy segments involving the likes of Harvey Korman and Art Carney, musical segments featuring Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship, and an incredibly bizarre VR sequence with Diahann Carroll. Carrie Fisher sings a song about Life Day over the Star Wars theme near the end. It is, charitably, insane. The only complete versions available today are bootlegs and YouTube uploads, though the Fett cartoon is a hidden Easter Egg on the Star Wars Blu-ray from 2011.
3 & 4. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
Warner Brothers offers an official clip of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
From bad-crazy to good-crazy, we move on to a 1985 special from those classic masters of the form, Rankin-Bass. Their particular brand of stop-motion animation has endured over the years through a number of beloved shows, notably Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This special was based on the book of the same name by Oz creator L. Frank Baum, and it dives deeply into myths and folklore to present a new origin of Santa Claus. The plot turns on a council of immortals debating whether or not to grant Santa immortality as they recount his life. And what a life! Santa is raised by a lioness, befriends magical creatures, and staves off what are essentially goblins and demons responsible for making good children do bad things. Despite the great animation and interesting ideas, the show never caught on in the same way that other Rankin-Bass productions did. It’s available on DVD, paired with another Rankin-Bass overlooked gem.
That would be 1977’s Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. A heart-tugging story about bullying with a theme song by Roger Miller, Nestor relates the tale of the titular donkey as he endures abuse on his long ears. Through a series of heart-breaking circumstances, Nestor is left alone in the desert until a little angel finds him and tells him that his long ears will actually be instrumental in saving a life. Nestor soon finds himself transporting a very special pregnant lady to a town called Bethlehem. Keep the tissues handy.
5. Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper
Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper.
Written and directed by animation master Chuck Jones, this special brings a unique spin to Christmas with its satirizing of collector culture. The Raggedy siblings were created by writer and artist Johnny Gruelle, who both patented the original Ann doll design in 1915 and published a series of stories about the characters. Ann, Andy, and other characters from the books made their way into this 1978 special that featured nefarious Alexander Graham Wolf attempting to take over the North Pole and encase all toys in a hard plastic called gloopstik. While Wolf says that he’s just trying to make toys safe forever, it can be read as a gentle jab at collectors that horde unopened toys that never get used for their original purpose of play. It’s also notoriously hard to find, although versions exist on YouTube.
6-8. The OTHER Charlie Brown Christmas Specials
A clip from It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown!
Everyone knows the big one. Did you know there are three more? A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965 was the first animated special to showcase the creations of Charles M. Schulz. Thirty-five specials later, in 1992, It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown! aired on CBS. Schulz wrote the series of vignettes that make up the episode. Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales arrived in 2002; it was also a compilation of stories, most of which were taken from actual Peanuts comic strips. This was followed a year later by I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown. The plot of dog revolves around Rerun, the little brother of Linus and Lucy, and his desire to have a dog of his own. All four specials are widely available on DVD and iTunes, with Again serving as a bonus episode on the A Charlie Brown Christmas Blu-ray.
9. Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas
The trailer for Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas.
A direct-to-DVD sequel to 1999’s direct-to-video Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas, this charming 2004 anthology includes a couple of important milestones for Mickey Mouse and friends. It was the first video to depict the classic Mickey gang in 3D computer animation. It also offers an ending of sorts to the Goofy continuity established in the television series Goof Troop, the Goofy Movie series, and the continuing stories of Goofy and his son Max from the Disney’s House of Mouse series. In the “Christmas Maximus” segment, a now-grown Max brings his friend Mona home from college; Max is clearly trying to impress her, but keeps getting embarrassed by his dad being, well, Goofy. It’s a sweet story that demonstrates that Goofy has actually been a great dad, despite being Goofy, and it closes those stories on a rather lovely note. The other segments are strong, particularly “Christmas: Impossible,” which features Huey, Dewey, and Louie trying to sneak into Santa’s workshop to get their names off the naughty list.
10. BONUS: Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
A 1982 promo for a rebroadcast of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.
The list of New Year’s animated specials is admittedly small, but we couldn’t let this Rankin-Bass oddity pass. 1976 was the Bicentennial, and a perfect time to add a New Year’s-centric installment to the R-B holiday canon. The special has Rudolph undertaking a mission for Father Time. The New Year’s Baby, Happy, mocked for his big ears, has run away, and the calendar can’t turn without him. Even worse: the baby is being pursued by a giant bird named Eon that wants to prevent the New Year so that it can live forever. Along the way, Rudolph teams with characters that are emblematic of past years, including Benjamin Franklin, a knight, and a caveman. While’s it good weird fun, it’s probably most fondly remembered for the scene in which Rudolph tries to comfort Happy by telling the baby about his own history with bullying, including a new hand-drawn animated origin sequence set to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
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