The Christmas specials started airing earlier than ever this year, it seemed. Rudolph and his team of reindeer were so fast, they arrived before Thanksgiving. Not that anyone seemed to mind; TV’s yuletide classics never seem to wear out their welcome. The most durable specials continue to find new audiences among the children and grandchildren of those of us who watched them when they were new, and every year since.
For Gen X-ers especially, those stop-motion animated specials made by the Rankin/Bass studios in the 1960s and ’70s are like the Saturday-morning Schoolhouse Rock shorts: lessons taught early and often, and set to memorable songs that can’t play more than a few bars without opening floodgates of nostalgia. They’re thoroughly dated and yet not dated at all, quaint yet influential (it’s impossible to imagine, for instance, the movie Elf without the visual and narrative blueprints created by Rankin/Bass).
Of course, there were other specials, too, and you can catch them all at some point between now and Christmas, either on network TV or basic cable. Watch the selection below (presented in chronological order) and learn again the lesson that there’s enough holiday spirit to warm every heart at this season, even if (like so many of the heroes and heroines of these specials) you’re an oddball or a misfit.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The granddaddy of ‘em all builds an elaborate narrative out of Johnny Marks’ venerable carol about the lonely but heroic nonconformist reindeer. This Rankin/Bass special has it all, from Burl Ives as the snowman narrator , to the Island of Misfit Toys, to Hermey, the elf who longs to be a dentist — and who saves the day by performing a dental extraction on the Abominable Snow Monster.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The first-ever Peanuts special was this surprisingly muted tale of Charles Schulz’s neurotic kid hero and his pathetic little tree. It introduced the immortal Vince Guaraldi lounge-jazz score that came to be associated with the Peanuts gang forever after. Also, it’s one of the few Christmas specials that actually makes a point of remembering that the holiday is all about the birth of Jesus, not just the secular and commercial avatars that have come to dominate the season.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
In 2000, Ron Howard spent $123 million on a lavish, overstuffed, noisy, live-action, big-screen version of Dr. Seuss’s fable about how Christmas isn’t about greed and materialism. Sorta missed the point, didn’t it? Better to catch this modest hand-drawn version, animated by the great Chuck Jones (the Warner Bros. animator behind some of the most celebrated Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck shorts) and narrated by Boris Karloff (who also does the creepy honors as the title character). Includes the priceless ditty “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft (a.k.a. the voice of Tony the Tiger).
The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Greer Garson narrates this Rankin/Bass production, based on the carol, about a poor boy who joins the three wise men in journeying to Jesus’ birthplace, only he has nothing to offer the newborn savior except his skilled beats. Jose Ferrer shows up to voice a circus ringmaster, while the Vienna Boys’ Choir performs the title tune.
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
This Rankin/Bass special involves hand-drawn animation instead of the more elaborate 3D puppetry of the studio’s other specials, but it’s no less beloved. This was the career highlight for nightclub comic Jackie Vernon, who is best remembered today for voicing the charismatic snowman who comes to life when a magician’s top hat lands on his head. Jimmy Durante (drawn complete with schnozz) narrates and sings the title song.
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970)
Mickey Rooney plays Kris Kringle in this Rankin/Bass origin story that purports to explain the origins of all of the traditions surrounding Santa Claus. Fred Astaire (as a dancing mailman) narrates. Featuring one of the most memorable Rankin/Bass villains, the toy-hating Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees).
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
Another hand-drawn Rankin/Bass special, this one brings to vivid life all the events of the beloved Clement Clark Moore poem about a typical visit from Santa.
The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
When Santa (Mickey Rooney again) gets sick, Mrs. Claus (Shirley Booth) tries to take center stage, but she’s upstaged by two of the most unforgettable Rankin/Bass supporting characters, feuding brothers Snow Miser and Heat Miser, each with his own vaudevillian anthem and lair full of Mini-Mes.
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (1977)
Jim Henson and his Muppeteers adapted Russell Hoban’s children’s book twist on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” into this all-critter singalong, with tunes by Paul Williams. With its use of full sets and tracking cameras, it was the most elaborate Muppet production to date, one that anticipated the filmed-puppetry innovations of the Muppets’ feature films.
Jack Frost (1979)
Perhaps the last of the most vivid Rankin/Bass specials, this one features Robert Morse as the title wintertime sprite, who yearns to become mortal after he falls in love with a human girl. Featuring Rankin/Bass mainstay Paul Frees as another colorful villain, Kubla Kraus (a Cossack monarch with a mechanical horse and a robot army), and Buddy Hackett as the narrator, a chubby-cheeked groundhog who looks like a rodent version of the comic.