Looking back on some of the holiday’s more bizarre Christmas specials.
The Christmas Special is a time-honored Western television tradition — particularly in America, where they form the backbone of the Holiday’s new secular mythology. The big guns are likely familiar even if you’ve never seen them yourself: Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, The Grinch. Pop-culture icons who transcend decades and generations. But there’s a lot of money to be made in “evergreen” annual Holiday programming, so there’s also a lot of specials that have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Here’s a sampling I’ve excavated, just for you:
THE TOWN SANTA FORGOT
Hanna-Barbera produced this adaptation of a poem by Charmaine Severson, and it’s been a mainstay on Cartoon Network for years though it was largely overlooked on its original airing. Too bad, because it’s just odd enough to be interesting amid all the other familiar tropes it’s grounded in.
The premise concerns a bratty kid named Jeremy Creek who’s managed to browbeat his bedraggled parents into giving in to his every material desire. When they finally have enough of him and cut off the constant supply of new toys, Jeremy vents in the form of the longest list ever sent to Santa Claus. The twist? Santa concludes that no human child could actually be so greedy, and that the list must actually be on behalf of an entire population… and as it turns out, “Jeremy Creek” is also the name of an impoverished rural town that The North Pole actually has been overlooking the decades due to a clerical error.
Eventually, seeing the difference his bloated would-be haul makes to the lives of the poor citizens triggers a change of conscience in Jeremy, earning him a coveted position as personal helper to Santa himself.
THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS (1985)
This Rankin/Bass stop-motion special isn’t as well-remembered as many of their others, mostly because it’s not part of the “universe” of their better known specials (see below). That’s too bad, because it’s pretty interesting in its own right.
An adaptation of Wizard of Oz creator Frank L. Baum’s bizarre 1902 Santa origin story, framed around a meeting of a council of immortal fantasy creatures meeting to decide whether the human but magical-adjacent Claus should receive the gift of immortality as he approaches the end of his natural lifespan. It’s a strange hybrid — think R/B’s Tolkien animations crossed with their 60s/70s Christmas classics — but it’s got a unique flavor. Relegated to obscurity for years, it recently re-emerged via the Warner Archive line.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1971)
Do you really need to watch another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic? If it’s this unusually-somber animated version from Richard Williams Studios, maybe. Drawn to resemble 19th century etching art, it’s a mostly straightforward telling of the tale, noteworthy mainly for Alastair Sim’s voice casting as Ebenezer Scrooge — a role he previously gained fame for (in live-action) in a 1951 feature film version often considered the best version of the story ever filmed.
HE-MAN & SHE-RA: A CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
Despite the mega-popularity of the Masters of The Universe cartoons, this series-unifying special only ran once on TV before slipping into relative VHS-only obscurity right around the time that MOTU itself began making way for the Ninja Turtles. But the sheer absurdity of the thing — even in contrast to the reliably goofy mid-80s Filmmation canon — made it a cult item among Gen-X fans that eventually rated a DVD release of its own.
The absurdity: The plot concerns Eternia celebrating Prince Adam and Princess Adora’s (aka He-Man and She-Ra’s) birthdays, which happen to fall on the “Earth Holiday” of Christmas (subtle!). An accident caused (in part) by Orko strands a pair of Earth children on the planet, unable to return until after the holiday, so the heroes elect to stage Christmas for them (He-Man’s mother is technically a displaced Earth astronaut, so she fills them in on the details).
Unfortunately for the kids, Horde Prime (the unseen supervillain who bosses around both Skeletor and Hordak) wants them rubbed-out in order to prevent The Christmas Spirit from rising on Eternia and checking his power. Fortunately for them, the villain who gets to them first is the eternally inept Skeletor, who catches enough of said Spirit while hanging out with the brats that he makes a brief face-turn and fights (sort of) with the good guys.
JIM HENSON’S THE CHRISTMAS TOY
This is a just slightly darker version of Toy Story from the creators of the Muppets that technically pre-dates the Pixar classic by at least a decade, but for some reason has languished in obscurity despite being briefly revived into a TV series (“The Secret Life of Toys”) following Henson’s death.
Like Toy Story, the premise revolves around the toys residing in a child’s bedroom (a young girl in this incarnation) who come to life when no humans are present. Unlike Pixar’s film, life for these playthings comes front-loaded with a particularly grim “pick up after yourself” message for the young’ins: In the mythos of this universe, a toy that is caught “out of place” (read: not put away properly) by any adult, well… dies. They lose their sentience and become regular, lifeless objects. Yikes!
This macabre twist is mainly onhand to add tension to the main narrative. It’s Christmas Eve, and a stuffed tiger who was the toys’ owner’s most-beloved gift from the previous year mistakenly believes he’s meant to get under the tree and repeat the ritual — leading the other toys to undertake a dangerous nighttime journey to the living room to retrieve him before he’s caught out of place. The Toy Story similarities get even more eyebrow-raising in Act 3, which features a female space-adventurer doll who refuses to believe she’s not the genuine article.