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Best holiday TV specials to ring in the season

If all the neighborliness and good cheer being spread around this time of year is starting to nauseate your inner Scrooge, perhaps it’s time to retreat back into the great indoors and snuggle up in front of your faithful old friend Mr. LED Screen for some nice Christmas TV specials.

If you’re looking for a half-hour nostalgia fest to help ease your over-jollied head, here’s a list of the tube’s most memorable holiday specials.


“A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is perhaps the only holiday TV special that can stand its ground as a bona fide work of art. This is because it doesn’t insert itself as just another holly jolly addition to the popular Christmas culture the way our yearly line of factory-produced pop singles and Hallmark movies do.

Instead, it uses that culture as an artistic metaphor for a much deeper, more human issue: the question of where love itself fits into the traditions we’ve established for the sake of preserving their value and importance.

This movie is one of the first Christmas specials to call out the maddening effects the consumerist reinvention of the holiday had on the populace. It highlights how our desperate attempts to keep Christmastime culturally relevant have only led us to double down on the shallow, sugar-coated glitz and glamour of the holiday.

The aggressive commerciality of it all has ultimately led people to become disillusioned by the season and, beyond that, is what the people trying to keep the holiday culturally relevant are so disdainful of.

Between Charles Schulz’s sparse and beautiful artwork and Vince Guaraldi’s somber, jazzy underscoring, every element of this film is a near-perfect subversion of the increasingly aggressive displays of holiday cheer that saturate our culture and our popular conception of Christmas as the years go on. It is the clearest, most confrontational, most sobering reminder of what we are truly celebrating this time of year.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966)

I’m a sucker for paradox, and there is perhaps no paradox in this world greater than the wedding of Boris Karloff and the most wonderful time of the year in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

Like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” this television adaptation of the classic Dr. Seuss tale is brilliant because of its subversive themes — its fearless defiance of the kitschy holiday tradition of which it takes part in.

While it may not be quite as pitch-perfect in its melancholy tone and aesthetic as Schulz and Guaraldi’s masterpiece, its message nonetheless continues to ring clear in the modern age. Plus, it’s a truly beautiful piece of animation: a match made in cartoon heaven between Dr. Seuss and famed “Looney Tunes” director Chuck Jones (creator of Wile E. Coyote and one of the 20th century’s finest animating geniuses, second only to Walt Disney).

The blend between Seuss’ whimsical cityscapes and Jones’ wacky, surreal composition imbue the film with a wonderfully weird, dark tone that, like the short itself, stands in stark contrast to the otherwise feel-good fluff contaminating television airwaves during the holiday season.


I can’t tell you how many years of therapy it has taken me to get over the terror of that slow sinister grin that creeps across the Grinch’s face when he first gets the perfectly awful idea to steal Christmas from the Whos. Plus, one can’t ignore the brilliance of Karloff’s haunting baritone or Thurl Ravenscroft’s silky and slimy recital of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

While Ron Howard and Jim Carrey may have supplanted their animated predecessor’s place as the go-to Grinch movie, this holiday classic nevertheless continues to stand its ground in our cultural psyche, enchanting us all over again each time it comes on the air.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)

Okay, so “Rudolph” is a shameless, mindless, happy-go-lucky member of the consumerist Christmas movie canon that I just showered the last two entries on this list with so much praise for defying. Yes, it’s true. From an artistic standpoint, the film is about as profound as Jaden Smith’s pubic hair, but it’s enjoyable. It’s a classic, and you can’t go wrong with Burl Ives playing a talking snowman.

It’s hard to deny the impact that “Rudolph” had in shaping our conception of what holiday TV specials are, what they look like and what we expect from them. Made in 1964, “Rudolph” helped launch the holiday TV special trend, which, for better or worse, has since become a cultural tradition. So, while it may not be the most artistic or profound entry on this list, it at least deserves credit for its sheer iconography.

“Frosty the Snowman” (1969)

“Frosty” is worth watching if only for Jimmy Durante, for whom the film marked his last ever televised performance, narrating the story of a group of children’s futile attempts to lead a melting snowman back to his natural habitat in the North Pole. OK, so maybe that makes it sound darker than it is, but then again, that’s what “Frosty” is.

Although it isn’t as overt of a subversion of the holiday TV special formula, it still manages to capture the same basic principle that the fun and jolliness of the holiday season is not something permanent. Instead, it embodies the spirit of an idea that is much deeper and more powerful than its glittery sheen.

The movie is a simple Christmastime fable, but it is content with being a simple Christmas fable and doesn’t lose itself in the synthetic airiness of the holiday season the way that other holiday specials do, which has allowed it to hold up over time.

Scott Powell can be reached at or on Twitter @scottysseus.

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