Like every other child of the late 70s and early 80s, I was raised in front of the TV. Saturday morning cartoons were a staple in my house, as were after-school specials and countless sitcoms. Some of my favorite memories from my childhood come from the Holiday Season, when I’d sit in front of the tube and watch whatever classic specials the networks decided to put on that year. As luck would have it, they put on the same specials pretty much every year, so I always got to catch my favorites every Christmas. Below are five I remember well.
5. Rich Little’s Christmas Carol. This special wasn’t just highly entertaining, it was also very impressive. Impressionist Rich Little played almost every single role, which leads me to believe that it must’ve taken forever to film the thing. There was W.C. Fields as Scrooge, Truman Capote (!) as Tiny Tim, and Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchit. Originally aired on HBO in 1978, the special looks quite dated now (most of the people Little impersonated are dead), which is probably why it doesn’t seem to be broadcast anymore. In the early 80s, however, I must’ve watched this thing three times a day, which is about how many times HBO showed it during the month of December.
4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. This is one of those stop-motion animation specials that seemed all over the place in the 60s and 70s. With Mickey Rooney as Santa and Fred Astaire as the narrator, this special is a huge holiday classic, and is repeated on TV every single year. It has also been released numerous times on DVD, so it’s easy to find it. Truly a timeless special, kids will love it as much today as I did all those years ago. Honestly, though, I soured of this special for a while. One Holiday Season, I worked at a Macy’s that showed this on a constant loop on their TVs. After hearing it play 12 times in a row in one day, I needed about ten years off from it before it was cute again.
3. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was hard to give the number 3 spot to this one, simply because it tied with Frosty the Snowman, really. Jimmy Durante narrating Frosty will always be classic. But this animated version of ‘Twas has always been a personal favorite, even though the main characters are adorable mice. Featuring the voice of Broadway legend Joel Grey, this special boasts the catchy song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand”, which I think deserves more Holiday airplay than it has ever received. It’s on DVD, usually packaged with Frosty or some other lesser-known specials of the day.
2. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The longest-running holiday special in history, and only one of four specials from the 60s which is still being broadcast annually, Rudolph is still a wonderful show to watch. This debuted in 1964, and I really wonder what it must’ve been like to tune in and catch it back then. It still stands up incredibly well (was digitally remastered in 2005), even if today’s kids have no idea who Burl Ives is, other than being some talking snowman. Nowadays, it runs on TV several times every December. Back when I was a kid, however, you could only catch it once a year, and I always went out of my way to do so. This is the special that let us know that no one wants a thin Santa and that Bumbles bounce. (Runner up: How The Grinch Stole Christmas)
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Although it is perhaps now the most beloved Christmas special ever made, this Peanuts cartoon almost never happened. Officials at CBS thought Charlie Brown was a “loser” and that no one would care about him. On top of that, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz insisted on keeping in a key scene involving Linus quoting directly from the Bible, which network people were afraid would turn audiences away. Almost fifty years later, the special is now a bonafide classic and loved all over the world…even by agnostics like myself. It was filmed on a tiny budget, with poor animation and voice-over work by untrained children, yet it is still a great viewing experience during The Holidays. Originally sponsored by Coke, with tons of product placement (Snoopy tosses Linus through a Coke billboard in the original broadcast), we’ll never see this again the way it was originally shown. Regardless, hearing Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmastime is Here” will make kids and adults everywhere smile each and every year.
With every single TV show in history now finding its way to DVD, we’re lucky to be able to own our favorite holiday classics and to watch them whenever we want. Still, the excited feeling I got as a kid that one time a year when my favorite specials would air on broadcast TV just can’t be beat.
These were five of my favorites. Tell me about yours.