Christmas television: the ones you know

Warning: in this particular holiday blog post, you won’t find much original or surprising. In fact, I almost decided not to write it, because when I thought about my favorite holiday television specials, the only ones that came to mind were the famous ones that have been written about before. Yet here is this post anyway, because the purpose of my blog isn’t to be original or surprising. It’s to pay tribute to the things I love, even when they’re the same things everyone else loves.

My favorite TV Christmas specials will always be the ones I grew up watching, the furniture of my childhood playroom. Since I spent my fourth through seventh grade years entranced by Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) will always have a special place in my heart. In fact, all I have to do is hear the first four chords of “Christmastime Is Here” from Vince Guairaldi’s piano to feel warm all over. The music may be the special’s foremost allure for me, but I’m drawn to Charlie Brown as I would be to any good-hearted underdog who chooses a scraggly green Christmas tree because “I think it needs me,” and Linus, my favorite of the gang, plays a central role in the story, stepping into the spotlight to explain what Christmas is all about. Other highlights for me include five-cent psychiatrist Lucy quizzing Charlie Brown about his fears, finally reaching pantophobia, “the fear of everything” (“That’s it!”), and Schroeder plunking out a toy-piano appropriate rendition of “Jingle Bells” for Lucy — on what looks like his middle finger! How’d they get away with that?

1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the work of Chuck Jones, one of my heroes, also responsible for a string of the best seven-minute animated theatrical shorts ever made (One Froggy Evening, Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, What’s Opera, Doc?, and the “hunter trilogy,” three shorts which feature Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck each trying to convince hapless Elmer Fudd to shoot the other). It features narration by Boris Karloff, another of my heroes, whose deep, soft, slightly sinister British baritone voice could make the Tax Code sound interesting. So there’s little chance of my not loving this classic with my whole heart. Thurl Ravenscroft’s delightful singing of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is the gravy on the roast beast. People keep telling me this already-perfect special was remade as a live-action feature film a few years back, but you know what? I refuse to believe them.

Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass are, as we all know, the kings of the holiday TV special, and indeed I could devote an entire blog post just to their work. (Something to keep in mind for next December.) I’m quite fond of their flagship special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but my softest spot is for 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, for a number of reasons. First, in a number of the Rankin-Bass specials, Santa is more than a bit of a jerk (as in Rudolph, when he adds his voice to poor Rudolph’s mockers, and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, when he decides to bypass an entire town because one kid published a letter calling him a “fraudulent myth”). But here he’s closest to the Edmund Gwenn Santa, even going by Kris Kringle for most of the show. I also like the portrayal of Jessica, the future Mrs. Santa Claus, as an active heroine. Plus, here we get fine voice-work from Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and especially Keenan Wynn as the Winter Warlock (apologies, just “Winter”), whose “melting” when Kris gives him a toy choo-choo is my favorite scene, and the splendid Paul Frees, who gives voice to the hilariously over-the-top villain Burgermeister Meisterburger (“I hate toys, and toys hate me! Either they are going or I am going, and I am definitely not going!”).

These are my top three, but I have a few “second-tier favorites.” John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together wins my love thanks to the rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in which Fozzie Bear keeps forgetting his part and Miss Piggy hams up hers, as if she could do otherwise (“ba-dum-bum-bum”), and the Piggy-led round of the English madrigal “Christmas Is Coming.” Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is a sweet “Gift of the Magi”-type tale of a poor otter mother and son, and a die-hard Muppet fan like myself can spot the core performers in the cast; veteran Jerry Nelson, who also voiced Robin the Frog and Gobo Fraggle, is very likable as Emmet (though I’m a bit less thrilled with Marilyn Sokol as his mother), and the Paul Williams songs are catchy. The Little Drummer Boy, another Rankin-Bass special, has a couple of good songs and strong voice-work from Jose Ferrer, proving again that villains have more fun, but it stands out for having one of the most strikingly flawed youthful protagonists I’ve seen in any holiday special.

Christmas-themed episodes of TV series aren’t in quite the same category as holiday specials, but I can’t talk about my Christmas TV experience without mentioning “The Night of the Meek,” an episode of the classic series The Twilight Zone, in which Art Carney plays a destitute drunk who loses his job as a department-store Santa Claus when he says the wrong thing to a bratty child, and then is given a magical opportunity to become Santa Claus. In less than thirty minutes, the episode hits all the notes of a great Christmas tale. It’s a redemption story, not just of one man but of everyone around him. Like Miracle on 34th Street, it stresses the importance of faith, as the magic bag with which Carney becomes Santa can only work if people believe in it and in him. And of course we get the joy of giving, in spades. Carney is excellent as he transforms from languid, despairing lost soul into energetic Kris Kringle, and John Fiedler, best known as the voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons (and “that guy” in a lot of things), is effectively villainous as Carney’s heartless department-store boss.

[Hi, this is Matt, Nan’s husband.  One more Christmas-themed episode that we enjoy every year is “Comfort and Joy” from Justice League.  Granted, in the scheme of the DCAU, it doesn’t advance any plots.  But it does have Hawkgirl and Green Lantern (John Stewart) having a snowball fight, Flash trying to find the hottest Christmas toy for a group of underprivileged children, and J’onn J’onzz (a.k.a. The Martian Manhunter) learning about the meaning of Christmas… and discovering his addiction to Oreos!  Every year, it melts our hearts…]

For those in search of some less orthodox holiday entertainment, check out this post from Tor.com’s blog site.

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One thought on “Christmas television: the ones you know

  1. There are other DCAU Christmas episodes, such as “Christmas with the Joker” and “Holiday Knights” from Batman: The Animated Series. But my wife doesn’t enjoy them as much as I do. The former does have Mark Hamill’s joker sining “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” so that has to count for something…

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