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A Very Murray Christmas
Photograph: Netflix

The best Christmas specials of all time

‘Tis the season for Christmas specials and holiday-themed TV shows that put their spin on Christmas cheer

Written by
Michele Herrmann
Written by
Andy Kryza

We all love a great Christmas movie, but the holidays are also the time for the old-school art of the Christmas special to shine. These one-off programs are the stuff of holiday-screening legend. They’ve brought us the stop-motion weirdness of Rankin & Bass, the timeless joys of Jimmy Durante singing ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and the unique magic of watching Santa chase a murderous housewife through the snow with an axe. Ho-ho-ho indeed. 

Yes, you know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But these classic holiday specials bring Murray and Homer and Crypt Keeper and Pee-wee to the party too. From Charlie Brown’s frail Christmas tree to Yukon Cornelius’s peppermint withdrawals and the technophobic tinsel of Black Mirror, these are the 15 greatest Christmas specials that run the gamut from Grinchy to family-friendly. No matter your mood, you’ll find something to stream during the most wonderful time of the year.

Best Christmas specials

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Way before Jim Carrey and Benedict Cumberbatch got grinched, this musical comedy gave us the first animated take of Dr. Seuss’ famous kids’ book. Boris Karloff, best known for playing Frankenstein, provides the voice of this surly green guy with a heart ‘two sizes two small.’ On Christmas Eve, the Grinch gets fed up with carolers and holiday lovers in Whoville and decides to take Christmas away from them. After almost getting busted by Cindy Lou Who, the Grinch steals everything Christmasy from Whoville. Yet the next morning, instead of hearing cries of sadness, he hears the Whos joyfully singing. Coming to his senses, he brings everything back to Whoville and even gets to participate in the holiday feast and gets the honor of carving the roast beast. 

Frosty the Snowman (1969)
  • Film

Another beloved Christmas cartoon, this tale about a snowman coming to life thanks to an old silk hat is as catchy as its earworm theme song. Featuring the narrating voice of Jimmy Durante, the story starts off with school children building a snowman named Frosty, and an inept magician’s hat gets brought to them by his rabbit, Hocus Pocus. Of course, the kids put this hat on Frosty’s head, and he suddenly comes to life. However, the magician Professor Hinkle wants his hat back. Realizing that Frosty needs to get someplace colder—as in the North Pole – to keep from melting, the kids take him through town, with Hinkle in hot pursuit. 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
  • Film

It’s perhaps the best-known Peanuts cartoon ever, with a poignant message. To get rid of his holiday depression, Charlie Brown tries to put on a school Christmas pageant, with his comic gang in the cast and crew. Yet when Charlie tries to direct the rehearsals, he keeps getting ignored or finds his friends being uncooperative. Even the tiny sapling he buys as a potential pageant tree is mocked. In exasperation, Charlie loudly asks if anyone knows what Christmas is really all about – and then Linus delivers the most memorable answer. (And the droopy little tree gets much TLC.) 

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
  • Film
  • Animation

This classic tale is still beloved today, as its feel-good story about the most famous reindeer of all wins every kid (and, fine, adult) over. It’s easy to feel bad for poor Rudolph when he’s told that he can’t play in any Reindeer Games. He meets fellow misfits Hermey, an elf wanting to be a dentist; peppermint-addicted prospector  Yukon Cornelius, who can’t find any silver or gold; and the gang on the Island of Misfit Toys. Yet Rudolph finds social acceptance when he saves his parents and love interest, Clarice, from Bumble, an abominable snowman, and when Santa Claus asks him to lead his sleigh on a bad-weathered Christmas Eve. Plus, Sam the Snowman (voiced by Burl Ives) guides the story along.

The Simpsons: ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (1989)

5. The Simpsons: ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (1989)

It’s the Simpsons episode that launched a 32-year television dynasty, catapulting Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie from Tracey Ullman into TV immortality. In the series debut – marketed as The Simpsons Christmas Special – Homer finds out that he won’t be getting a Christmas bonus, and what’s been saved went toward paying for Bart’s tattoo removal. Cue the first of many Homer Simpson side-hustles: He gets a job as a mall Santa, but naturally loses his earnings at the dog track. Fans of course know how this ends: The losing pup, Santa’s Little Helper, joins the family. The world, meanwhile, got the gift of one of the greatest shows of all time. 

The LEGO Star Wars Christmas Special (2020)
Photograph: Disney

6. The LEGO Star Wars Christmas Special (2020)

Lucasfilm continues to hide its disasterous 1978 Star Wars Holiday special from public viewing, selfishly denying fans the chance to celebrate Life Day with Bea Arthur. As a cheeky consolation prize, Disney+ dropped this LEGO-centric special that follows Rey across multiple timelines, yet still doesn’t answer the question: ‘What Can You Get A Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?).’ Still, it’s a better way to spend a holiday than watching The Rise of Skywalker

Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (1977)
Photograph: The Jim Henson Company

7. Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (1977)

Long shrouded in obscurity, this bizarrely sweet Jim Henson special should have made the Riverbottom Nightmare Band a household name. Alas, the world was not ready for the story about a family of bluegrass-loving otters whose Gift of the Magi scenario is challenged by a menagerie of proto heavy-metal types who trounce them in a battle of the bands. Naturally, things turn out well for the fuzzy friends, even if the fact remains that the Nightmare absolutely earned that win. Kermit the Frog bookends the special, which deserves a place along perennials Frosty and Rudolph.

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Photograph: Netflix

8. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

Why, of course Sofia Coppola directed a loungey Christmas special in which Bill Murray is snowed in at New York’s Carlyle Hotel with only his bartender to keep him company. Said bartender happens to be New York Dolls frontman and sometimes Buster Poindexter David Johansen, giving us the Scrooged reunion we never knew we needed. Were it just Murray and Johansen drinking and singing, this would be a banger. That a cavalcade of guests shows up to hang out and look dapper – George Clooney, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and the band Phoenix among them – makes this the holiday hangout special we never knew we needed. And that’s before Miley Cyrus shows up for a show-stopping ‘Sleigh Ride’ duet.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

9. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Santa Claus comes down with a cold after Thanksgiving and is told by his doctor to change up his routine. Thinking that nobody cares about Christmas anymore, Santa decides to take a holiday himself and leaves it to elves Jingle and Jangle to find proof that people still believe in St. Nick. The elves take along Santa’s youngest reindeer, Vixen, and end up in Southtown. After some mishaps, Vixen ends up in the dog pound and can only get bailed out if Jingle and Jangle can make it snow in Southtown on Christmas Day. Other key players in this Rankin/Bass stop-motion semi-classic include the Snow and Heat Miser and a little girl who writes a sad note to Santa about having a Blue Christmas. 

Christmas At Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1988)
Photograph: Shout! Factory

10. Christmas At Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1988)

Lovable man-child Pee-wee Herman’s house is always a party, so of course the perpetually giggling dweeb throws a hell of a Christmas bash. This special finds Paul Reubens in full-on variety-show mode, complete with great songs, talking furniture and a who’s who parade of exceedingly random special guests, among them Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Grace Jones, Joan Rivers, Cher, k.d. lang, Little Richard, Charo, Frankie Avalon and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Oh, and Santa. He’s always on the list. 

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