The Top Ten Christmas Television Specials

The winter holidays mean joy, friendship, and family for many around the world. For those who celebrate Christmas, there are a ton of cheerful TV specials to help celebrate the festive season, playing a role in bringing families together for some lighthearted fun. Whether it’s poor ol’ Charlie Brown just trying to find the perfect Christmas tree for his friends, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer trying to fit in with the herd, heartwarming tales of holiday cheer fill the living rooms of people everywhere.

From age seven to 70 and beyond, kids and adults of all ages have loved holiday movies that either played in their childhood, or began playing when they were adults. Some programs have remained so popular that they’ve played since the early 1960’s, while others do not have the same tradition, but are starting to create their own strong following. Back in the day, most Christmas or holiday specials were made to promote some sponsor. Take the Charlie Brown Christmas Special for instance. Coca- Cola was a primary sponsor, and the special originally had numerous mentions of the sugary soda.

Commercial structure has changed since the 1960’s, but obviously the main point of any television special is to make money. To be considered a commercial success, these specials must have high enough ratings and make enough money from sponsorships and commercials that play during the program. Some of the most popular specials today may never have been so without high enough ratings. In fact, many of the specials from the 20th century were only meant to run one time. The ratings were so good on these specials that the networks had no choice but to air them again the following year. Back then, people didn’t have VHS tapes or DVDs or DVR to record their favorite specials, so they just had to wait for the next year to see their favorite specials again. We have no dollar amount to put to their name, but here are the top- ten highest rated TV Holiday specials of all time.

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10 The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Rankin/ Bass, a production company you’ll find many times over on this list and others, created this stop motion classic. Their highly recognizable puppets are found in this and many other Christmas classics, and the stop motion technique they used, while dated, is charming with its older feel.

One year, the almighty Santa Claus gets a cold and doesn’t feel like the children of the world appreciate him enough, so he decides to take a year off. Unfortunately for St. Nick, his reindeer Vixen is impounded in a city and the mayor demands proof of Santa to have Christmas at all.

Luckily for the children of the world, Mrs. Claus recruits two Christmas creatures, the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, to help save the day.

9 Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

The second special on the list is again a Rankin/Bass Christmas program. A musical adventure, this story is about a scrooge who declares Christmas cancelled and that Santa doesn’t exist, so his town is taken off of Santa’s Christmas route. However, a clockmaker comes up with a scheme to lure Santa back into town. When his magical clock strikes midnight, Santa will be lured back into town. A clever mouse finds a way to mess up his plans. It’s based on the famous poem of the same name. Created in 1974, this traditionally animated special was narrated by Joel Grey and was quite popular when first introduced.

8 Yes, Virginia (2009)

Contemporary actor and all around awesome dude Neil Patrick Harris stars in the newfound classic, Yes Virginia. The question posed by the young girl Virgina, “Is there a Santa Claus?” sets the tone for the charming CGI special. Based on a true story, the special is based on an 1877 letter to the editor of the New York Sun, which prompted a heartfelt reply in the affirmative.  

Virginia is faced with the age old question, and ventures into New York City to find some answers. Though she faces some serious obstacles along the way, she ultimately finds hope in the New York Sun Newspaper, which publishes one of the most famous editorials of all time, thanks to her curiosity.

7 The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Back to the Rankin- Bass production company, we again find the stop- motion animated classic, The Little Drummer Boy. This 1968 classic, based on the famous Christmas Carol, tells the story of a young shepherd whose life is changed when he learns to play the drum and plays it for the baby Jesus.

The LIttle Drummer Boy travels across the land of Bethlehem with his animal companions to play for the newborn baby Jesus, because he has no other present he could give to the baby. A cute classic that tells the story of Christmas from a more traditional perspective, The Little Drummer Boy still plays on network television around Christmas time.

6 Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

Everyone knows the Charles Dickens classic, a Christmas Tale. Mr Magoo takes over the role, playing a bumbling old interpretation of Scrooge. The Mr. Magoo version is framed like a Broadway Musical where Mr Magoo, as Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, just as in the holiday classic.

Many kids loved the 1962 version of this holiday classic due to the charming nature of the bumbling animated old man Mr Magoo. Kids may find this version a little less scary than the traditional version, since the older one may scare them with the ghosts of Christmas.

5 Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Again, Rankin- Bass finds itself on our list. In fact, it may be more surprising when a show isn’t produced by the eclectic animation company. Frosty the snowman is a creation of imaginative kids who use a magical hat to bring their snowman to life. As the hat’s magic takes hold, Frost exclaims to the bewildered kids, “Happy Birthday!”He may just not understand where or who he is, but that’s neither here nor there.

1969 was a popular year for Christmas Classics, and Frosty the Snowman was no exception. Generations of kids continue to watch Frosty around the holidays, and try to bring their own snowmen to life using a little Christmas magic.

4 How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

In 1966, Dr. Seuss brought joy and thoughtfulness to people of all ages, and his words of wisdom still guide people to this day. The voice of Boris Karloff narrated this holiday classic, and Chuck Jones, of Looney Tunes fame, animated Dr. Seuss’ work, bringing it to life on the small screen.

The Grinch is an evil creature that lives on the outskirts of Whoville, a town populated by humanoid creatures that value Christmas and cheer more than anything else in their lives. He despises joy and goodness, so he decides to dress up as St. Nick and steal all of the Whos’ presents. However, the Christmas spirit stops even the Grinch from completing his evil task, and eventually he is singing Christmas Carols with the Whos as well.

3 A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Originally aired in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was supposed to be a one-time special, cobbled together at the last minute by Charles Schultz and scored by Vince Guaraldi. Little did Schultz know that his Christmas episode would still be playing long after his death.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is an interesting holiday special because it not only decries the commercialism of Christmas, but it also skirts the notion that the true meaning of Christmas is the inoffensive idea of “togetherness” or “family”, instead taking a hard detour into a faith-based and controversial idea of the day being a celebration of Jesus. More than just a Christmas show, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is set to a beautiful, timeless jazz album.

2 Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town (1970)

We couldn’t take too much time away from Rankin- Bass, could we? Santa Claus is Coming to Town is yet another 40+ year old classic created that still runs to this day. This special answers nearly every question a kid could have about Santa Claus, including where he came from, or why he brings presents to good little boys and girls. The main plot of the show follows a young Santa who delivering toys to a town that has outlawed playthings.

1 Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Perhaps the most popular Christmas TV special ever, this 1964 classic contains catchy tunes, strong morals, and a central conflict that nearly everyone can enjoy. The recognizable puppets tell the tale of outcasts and misfits finding togetherness and unity.

Nearly 50 years later, this Christmas classic still runs on network TV every year. Kids and adults of all ages remember the songs, fun, and lessons of this Christmas Classic, and will likely continue to do so for generations.

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