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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
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Since the days of Bing Crosby, the televised Christmas special has been a seasonal signifier on par with candy canes, mistletoe and gift-wrapped socks. Every year, you can count on sitcoms to deviate from whatever the season’s arc happens to be and warm the cockles with a holiday-themed episode. (See the most recent season of Ted Lasso… or rather, don’t.) 

Shoot, even the dark-hued likes of Black Mirror and Tales From the Crypt have gotten in on the tradition. Over the last few years, streamers have even thrown back to the good, old-fashioned, garland-laden variety show, usually featuring a big-name movie or popstar singing, joking and sipping eggnog with a cadre of special guests.

Most of them come and go, melting from memory like old Frosty when the sun comes out. Some, however, are so good they become holiday perennials. Here are 16 Christmas specials we make a point of watching every single year.

Recommended:

🎅 The 50 best Christmas movies of all-time
🎄 The best kids Christmas movies to watch this year
💬 What your favourite Christmas movie says about you

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. 

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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.

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

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

Like a lot of classic TV comedies, it took The Simpsons a few seasons to truly lock into its groove, but its very first episode establishes much of what we’d come to love about America’s favourite family – which is somewhat surprising, since Christmas specials typically feel like one-off outliers. Bart’s the defiant bad boy, singing a naughty version of ‘Jingle Bells’ at a school pageant and getting a tattoo, forcing beleaguered mother Marge to spend all the family’s present budget on having it removed. Meanwhile, Homer, after being denied a holiday bonus at work, takes the first of what would be many, many side gigs as a department store Santa. Then, in typical, well-meaning but dim-witted fashion, he blows his earnings at the dog track. Longtime fans know what happens next. Nearly four decades later, the show is still running, albeit on fumes, but this introductory episode served as a prologue to what is, almost inarguably, the best series of the 1990s. What a gift.

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

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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.

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

8. 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. 

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

9. 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. 

Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House (1989)
Photograph: HBO

10. Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House (1989)

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake… and he definitely knows if you’re an aggrieved wife who just put a fire poker through your husband’s forehead on Christmas Eve while your child slumbers upstairs. In this yuletide episode of the macabre horror anthology, legendary character actor Larry Drake (Dr Giggles himself!) dons the Santa suit as an escaped mental patient who happens on a back-yard murder coverup and goes all Silent Night, Deadly Night on a family, axe murder and all. It’s a gloriously cartoonish and highly deranged Christmas treat best served for when the boils and ghouls (sorry) are tucked away.

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Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)

11. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)

This cartoon features Fred Astaire as the narrator S.D. Kluger, a mail deliveryman with a stuck truck who tells the story of how Santa Claus and a number of Santa-connected Christmas traditions came to be. The story goes way back to the beginning, when abandoned baby Claus gets taken in by the Kringles, an Elfish family, and renamed Kris. The adult Kris wants to help restore his family’s toy making legacy but starts a faceoff against the mean old Burgermeister, who bans toys in his town. Eventually Kris Kringle triumphs and his Santa legacy is established forever.

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974)

12. ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974)

Set during the turn-of the-century in the fictional Junctionville, NY, this animated special involves Santa Claus getting pretty upset by an anonymous letter printed in the town newspaper saying he doesn’t exist. So St. Nick decides to do a ‘return to sender’ on unopened letters from the town. Yet the hero of the hour is not a man but a mouse – Father Mouse, who works as an assistant to a clockmaker and finds out his son Albert was behind all of it. He makes Albert own up to it by working on a singing clock tower with a special recording asking Santa not to bypass Junctionville on Christmas Eve. Sadly, Albert creeps inside the tower and accidentally damages the clock, making the whole town afraid that it won’t work. Will it? 

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The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

13. The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

It’s the tale of a young orphan boy named Aaron who only finds happiness from playing his drum for his four-legged friends, Samson the donkey, Joshua the camel and Baba the lamb. Aaron’s backstory is a sad one about why he prefers animals to people. Yet when he causes his pals to dance around, Aaron is made to join a caravan with some mediocre talent and perform in Jerusalem. Later on, Aaron and his friends escape and re-cross paths with the Magi following a bright star to Bethlehem. Baba gets badly hit by a Roman chariot, and one of the Magi insists that the baby they’re seeing could help. As a ‘gift’ to this baby, Aaron plays his drum for him and his parents – and in return Baba is healed.

Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special (2020)
Image: © Gilbert Carrasquillo

14. Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special (2020)

It took 25 years to make it official, but Mariah Carey is now the unquestioned Queen of Christmas. A year after her eternal ‘90s holiday bop, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, finally hit No 1, Apple TV+ blessed the world with a dizzily charming Xmas special starring the Divine Miss M. Based around a lovably goofy premise – in the most depressing of years, Santa needs help spreading Christmas cheer, so his elf secretary, who looks suspiciously like Billy Eichner, calls up pop’s cheeriest mega-star – Carey busts out a setlist of traditional classics, with cameos from the likes of Ariana Grande and Snoop Dogg. But she saves the best for last, and we shouldn’t have to tell you what it is.

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Black Mirror: White Christmas (2014)
Image: Channel 4

15. Black Mirror: White Christmas (2014)

In a departure from Charlie Brooker’s technophobic, dystopian ways, this Black Mirror Christmas special spends time with Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall as they chat it up in an isolated cabin, regaling one another with their most joyous holiday memories. Okay, no. This is Black Mirror. So while it’s true that the stars spend their cabin time talking about Christmas past in this standout instalment of the world’s bleakest anthology series, said pasts involve online spying, manufactured realities, sentient digital clones, technologically enhanced crime and punishment and, of course, a few gruesome murders. But one of them involves a snow globe because, hey, it’s Christmas. 

The Snowy Day (2016)
Image: Amazon

16. The Snowy Day (2016)

It took five decades for somebody to seize upon Ezra Jack Keats’ slice-of-life children’s classic about a snow day in inner city New York and make an animated short. And while Amazon’s adaptation takes a few liberties with the simple tale – first and foremost by making it a Christmas story and not just a regular snow day – we can always get behind adding members of Boyz II Men to a classic kids’ story. The animation is reverent to Keats’ timeless story, and while the message of inclusivity is hammered home pretty heavily – this is for kids, after all – the dulcet tones of Boyz II Men soften even the most ham-handed storytelling. 

Need a Christmas morning playlist?

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