Raising a Cinephile: Christmas Specials for the Whole Family

Raising a Cinephile: Christmas Specials for the Whole Family

Dec 23, 2011

Scott Neumyer is the author of Jimmy Stone's Ghost Town. He's a publicist for Click Communications as well as a writer and photographer. You can reach him on Twitter and at www.scottwrites.com. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter. You can read his Raising a Cinephile column every other Thursday.


We love Christmas in this house. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter what holiday you celebrate here in December, it’s always a very special time of the year. My wife and I are both obsessed with Christmas specials and it’s pretty easy to see the influence rubbing off on The Wiggle Bear. This past year, she turned Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman into year-round viewing. It didn’t matter that it was a beautiful, ninety-degree July day. If she wanted to watch Rudolph… she wanted to watch Rudolph... Some of our favorite memories were watching these Christmas specials with our parents, so it’s only fitting that we’d try to create similar memories with our little one.

Now, everyone knows about the perennial classics (and I’m only talking about specials… if we included actual Christmas movies, we’d be here all year). They’re amazing and it’s obvious that they’re classics for a reason. Things like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, and A Charlie Brown Christmas play multiple times on television every December, and for good reason. They’re just as fun now as they were when you were a kid. But this column isn’t about telling you what you already know. I don’t need to sing the praises of every Rankin/Bass production because everyone already loves them. I, on the other hand, prefer to open your mind to some of the lesser-known Christmas specials that we dig. So, let’s examine some of the more unsung (and, some, barely remembered) Christmas specials that you can pass on to your kiddos.

If you thought Christmas specials began and ended with A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you’re sadly mistaken. There are loads of other Christmas specials (check out this insanely extensive Wikipedia page on them) and, while Rudolph… is one several excellent specials that are still airing every year, it’s worth your while to track down some of the other lost gems of the Christmas season to enjoy with your family.

First up: What do you get when you mix a young Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, Pat Morita, and Richard Mulligan with a classic tale, but you plop them all in the middle of the 1980’s? You get one of the coolest television movies ever! Babes in Toyland premiered in 1986 on NBC and has since been sadly forgotten. You can’t even get this flick on DVD (good news is, though, you can currently see it on Netflix Watch Instantly!). I’m hoping with the proliferation of Manufacturing-on-Demand DVD programs, we’ll see an official release of Babes in Toyland soon because this is one of the wackiest Christmas specials ever. Reeves, Barrymore, and Jill Schoelen are all adorable, but Richard Mulligan and Eileen Brennan are absolutely creeptastic. And then there’s Troller. I won’t even spoiler Troller for you because I still have nightmares about him to this day. So if you have Netflix, head over and check out Babes in Toyland for one of the creepiest (and coolest) Christmas specials you’ll ever see.

Ah… what’s better than a fat, lazy cat eating up all your Christmas lasagne and then singing “A Good Old-Fashioned Christmas” while learning the true meaning of the holiday? Not much! A Garfield Christmas premiered on CBS in 1987 and has run on and off since then (the last time it ran, I believe, was in 2008 on ABC Family). In this house, however, it ranks right up there with the classics! Garfield and Odie going at it. Jon driving them both crazy. And the entire Garfield family coming together for a nice holiday celebration at the end. It’s so fun and so different than most of the Christmas specials you see every single year. This one’s on DVD and it’s paired with the excellent Garfield Halloween special so it’s easily worth buying.

Most people would insert Mickey’s Christmas Carol in this list, but we’re going outside the box and choosing Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas instead. While we adore Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the three stories told in …Once Upon a Christmas are just so much fun that it’s hard not to love the film. We get Donald and his nephews going through their own little Groundhog Day scenario, Goofy and a doubting Max, and Mickey and Minnie’s own take on “The Gift of the Magi.” After Rudolph, this DVD has probably gotten more rotation in our household than any other Christmas special. The Wiggle Bear absolutely loves it.

Which leads us to what is probably the most offbeat of all the animated Christmas specials: Ziggy’s Gift. Adapted from the popular Tom Wilson comic strip, Ziggy, this short (it’s twenty-four minutes long but it feels like it’s about ten minutes) is a quietly beautiful masterpiece. As you can probably tell from the image above, it’s not your usual Christmas special, but what it lacks in classic Christmas mythos, it makes up for in style. Ziggy himself never says a single word through the entire special and he’s constantly surrounded by a weirdo cop, thieves, and some crooked Santas. Yet, through it all, Ziggy remains the most kind and caring person you’ll ever meet. It’s a great little tale about the true meaning of the holiday season and it’s told with all the weight of a feature film (only in much less time). Don’t believe me? Ask the Emmy Award Ziggy’s Gift took home. Pick it up on DVD before it goes out of print. It’s a little pricey, but totally worth it.

There are so many great Christmas specials that have aired over the years. It would take a book, much less a column, to cover them all. That said, here are a few more favorites that my family likes to revisit every Christmas:

- The Rankin/Bass catalogue. From Rudolph… to The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (which is a personal favorite of my wife’s as I’ve heard her singing the “Big Surprise” song about the “wooden cat with yellow-green eyes” on many occasions) they’re all amazing. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is a personal favorite and just came out on Blu-ray.

- Mickey’s Christmas Carol

- Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (the follow up to the previously-mentioned Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas)

- Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (if you like your Christmas Jim Henson style, this one’s for you)

- The Christmas Toy (another Jim Henson production)

- A Charlie Brown Christmas (obviously)

- A Claymation Christmas Celebration (I was a sucker for those California Raisins when I was a kid. Not so much now…)

- How the Grinch Stole Christmas

- Smoky Mountain Christmas (we’re suckers for Dolly Parton)

- Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too

- Elmo’s Christmas Countdown

- Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (I’ve heard The Wiggle Bear sing the “Christmas Monkey” song more times than I can count)

- Little Einstein’s Christmas Wish

And that list is just the tip of the iceberg. As she grows older, I’ll be introducing The Wiggle Bear to the wonders of great unconventional Christmas movies like Gremlins, Die Hard, and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. They may be way out of her age range right now, but they won’t be forever.

I hope you now have your Christmas weekend TV watching mapped out with some great specials. Most of the previously mentioned specials can be found online either in Blu-ray, DVD, or VHS (you still have one of those lying around in case of emergency, right?), or in pieces on YouTube. A few (Babes in Toyland is one great example) are even on Netflix Watch Instantly. Some of them might be tough to find, but stretch your Google-Fu muscles and you can track them down. And be sure to let us know about your favorite Christmas special down there in the comments. Happy Holidays!

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