The winter holidays are a perfect time for movies. Frigid temperatures and snow flurries make a bowl of popcorn and the warm glow of a television screen all the more enticing. Generations of filmgoers annually return to the pictures that they treasured as children, from the life-affirming uplift of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life to the endearingly relatable satire of A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Yet some of the finest cinematic gems of the season were never intended for the big screen. My most deeply cherished holiday movies are all contained on archaic VHS tapes that were once used to capture must-see TV long before the era of DVRs and instant streaming. Direct from my video library, here are the top ten Christmas specials of all time:
10. A Garfield Christmas (1987)
From the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, cartoonist Jim Davis’s lasagna loving feline was the host of his own underrated animated series, “Garfield and Friends.” His sardonic quips and deadpan detachment painted the perfect cat’s eye view of the world, populated by a dopey owner, Jon Arbuckle, and an even dopier dog, Odie. Yet in Phil Roman and George Singer’s terrific Christmas special, Garfield (voiced by Lorenzo Music) meets his match in the elderly yet burly form of Jon’s gravy makin’, head-slappin’, ever-cackling Grandma. She’s voiced by Pat Carroll, the veteran character actress best known as Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and her performance is as riotously funny as it is disarmingly touching. She’s the main reason why this special has continued to resonate in the hearts of those lucky enough to have caught it.
9. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)
Back when Pee-Wee Herman reigned as the “Spongebob Squarepants” of the ’80s, he was justifiably celebrated as a pop culture icon. Thus, when it came time for Pee-Wee to plan his epic Christmas episode, he invited as many fellow icons as he could possibly fit into a single special (as witnessed in the knockout opening number). The end result must be seen to believe. In the span of 49 minutes, the wiry, rubber-faced man-child manages to ice skate with Little Richard, outrun a polar bear with Magic Johnson and hit on everyone from Cher to Zsa Zsa Gabor, while heartlessly enslaving the maddeningly chipper Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The multitudinous guest stars are a hoot, but directors Wayne Orr and Paul Reubens never allow the spectacle to upstage the delightfully quirky humor that made the show a hit in the first place.
8. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
As a heartrending ode to the misfit residing in us all, this Rankin/Bass perennial deserves its status as one of America’s most beloved and oft-televised specials. What many viewers tend to overlook is just how dark the classic tale truly is. Rudolph’s twinkling red nose causes him to be mocked by his peers, shunned by his parents and reviled by Santa Claus, who finally has a change of heart once he realizes how he can personally benefit from the reindeer’s deformity. Rudolph’s only allies are an effeminate elf who dreams of becoming a dentist, a delusional prospector and an infamous assortment of misfit toys (which were paid loving homage by this year’s Pixar cartoon preceding The Muppets). Yet snowman Burl Ives’s cozy narration indicates that everything will eventually turn out all right for our adorable protagonist.
7. A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
Here’s a far lesser-known stop-motion animated special that deserves to be unearthed. Director Will Vinton assembled a collection of festive vignettes scored to toe-tapping music and hosted by a comic great Rex (Johnny Counterfit) and Herb (Tim Connor), whose appearances are subtly modeled after Siskel and Ebert. Highlights include a dream-like fantasia inspired by “O Christmas Tree,” a hilarious rendition of “Carol of the Bells” performed by actual bells, a hauntingly spiritual riff on “Joy to the World,” and a rousing Motown version of “Rudolph” performed by the California Raisins. The first-rate soundtrack alone is worth hunting down, but it’s Vinton’s endlessly inventive visuals and infectiously playful spirit that make this special such an ageless crowd-pleaser.
6. “The Night of the Meek” (1960)
There was always a great deal of substance and depth beneath each of Rod Serling’s mind-bending yarns on “The Twilight Zone,” which remains one of the greatest programs ever to grace the small screen. This magnificent holiday-themed episode is evocative of the Playhouse 90 productions that aired A-grade acting live for viewers across the country. As an alcoholic shopping mall Santa who finds himself sacked on Christmas Eve, “Honeymooners” star Art Carney gives the performance of his career. The despair he feels for the poverty-stricken souls huddled throughout his neighborhood causes him to deliver a heart-wrenching monologue as potent and eloquent as anything ever written by Dickens. Yet once he stumbles upon a sack full of toys, it appears that supernatural forces may be smiling down upon him.
5. Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
Christmas specials have always been synonymous with the Muppet brand, yet few were as heartwarming or tuneful as this bountiful family gathering. Just as Fozzie Bear’s mom is ready to leave on a sun-drenched vacation, the entire Muppet gang invades her house to celebrate the holidays. It’s great to see Kermit and Gonzo rub elbows with “Sesame Street” favorites like Cookie Monster and Big Bird. When Ernie and Bert are asked why they enjoy naming letters of the alphabet, Bert quips, “Where we come from, this is small talk.” There’s also some enjoyable musical interludes with the Fraggles and a climactic sing-a-long where bovine diva Miss Piggy receives her most ideal gift: a mink ... named Maureen (who confesses that she’s the pig’s biggest fan). Make sure to stick around for a rare appearance from the grand Muppet master himself, Jim Henson.
4. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Charles Schulz’s neurotic and hopelessly unpopular hero would seem to be the least appropriate vessel for holiday cheer, yet Bill Melendez’s masterful special managed to defy all expectations. Once Charlie is recruited to direct the local Christmas pageant, his depressed psyche receives a boost of adrenaline, though the job proves to be trickier than he expected. Every time he yells ‘action,’ his actors merely start dancing in place, and how could they resist with such a phenomenal score? Composed by Vince Guaraldi, the music has become more legendary than the show itself. “Christmas Time is Here” has become every bit as much of an iconic standard as “White Christmas” and “Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire.” The melancholic whimsy of his immortal melodies prove to be a perfect fit for the world of Schulz.
3. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
Who could’ve guessed that a straightforward retelling of Dickens’s classic starring Jim Backus’s nearsighted cartoon hero would emerge as one of the best holiday specials ever aired? Director Abe Levitow achieves startling emotional depth within the limitations of his quaint yet expressive animation, while screenwriter Barbara Chain remains faithful to the spirit of her source material. The special is bookended by slapstick sequences where Magoo is seen donning the costume and makeup in order to portray the cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet aside from a few nearsighted winks to the audience, Magoo plays the role surprisingly well. In fact, the entire theatrical production was worthy of a Broadway adaptation. The songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill are vastly superior to Leslie Bricusse’s stage musical of “Scrooge.”
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
How’s this for an inspired hodgepodge of talent? Dr. Seuss’s timeless book and wickedly funny illustrations were exuberantly brought to life by “Looney Tunes” creator Chuck Jones, Frankenstein star Boris Karloff and singer Thurl Ravenscroft (who later achieved fame as Tony the Tiger). The result is a holiday special for the ages. It’s impossible to think of another animator who could’ve captured the essence of Seuss’s distinctive wit. There’s an uproariously funny sequence that takes place after the dastardly Grinch has decided to steal all the Christmas presents from the town of Whoville. He recruits his puny dog Max to be his lone reindeer, but as the Grinch’s sleigh skids down the steep slope of Mount Crumpit, it threatens to outrace the panting canine. It’s the sort of looney set-piece only Jones could’ve dreamed up.
1. The Snowman (1987)
Sorry Frosty, but my heart belongs to another. Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami’s Oscar-nominated short is quite simply one of the very best films I’ve ever seen. It unfolds like a silent film, telling its dream-like tale simply through music and gorgeous hand-drawn animation. Based on the book by Raymond Briggs, the film centers on a young boy whose imagination is ignited by the first snowfall that engulfs his secluded country home. With no siblings to play with, the boy builds a snowman and later awakens to discover that it has magically come to life. Just as this season’s wordless Oscar front-runner, The Artist, has revived the craft of pure cinema, “The Snowman” unforgettably illustrates how a wealth of emotional nuances can be conveyed without a single line of dialogue. The film is poetic, playful, and quite profound, grappling with the power of childhood imagination and the heartbreak of growing up. And the sole song, Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air,” is guaranteed to haunt you for many Christmases to come.