Television Christmas specials had an amazing run in the 1960s, with legendary shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! all coming out within a few years of each other. And the small screen has been chasing the dragon ever since, with repeated attempts to strike that holiday gold by creating a beloved property that will air year after year after year.
Some of the specials listed here were valiant efforts, while others are noble failures, and except for some hardcore fans in various corners of the internet, they’ve been mostly left behind in the snows of TV history. Let’s give a little love to these misfit toys:
The Lutheran Church’s ventures into TV animation went beyond their legendary Davey & Goliath series – this special follows the adventures of young Benji and his sheepdog Waldo. Benji gets annoyed about being cast as one of the shepherds in the annual Nativity play, but he has an attitude adjustment after finding himself transported back to Bethlehem and watching the story play out before his eyes. (The follow-up special Easter Is scared the bejesus our of some kids who happened to see it, because of the scary sequence in which Waldo gets lost.)
This vintage special hasn’t aired on network television in decades, although it did spark some reminiscences in 2017, when the theatrical animated feature The Star pursued a somewhat similar storyline. This half-hour cartoon portrays the legend that the animals in the stable – you know, the one where Mary and Joseph wound up — gained the ability to talk to each other on the night of Jesus’ birth. The voice cast includes legendary character actor Paul Dooley (Sixteen Candles), although if you squint at it just right, this show occasionally resembles Animal Farm more than it does the Gospels.
While many of the Harvey Comics characters made the leap to film and TV animation, they rarely crossed over outside of the fold. So, if only for the fact that this special features Casper learning about the holiday from the likes of Yogi Bear and Snagglepuss, it’s got historical significance. Still, the idea of it being Casper’s “first” Christmas calls to mind the eternal question about the character: Was he born a ghost? Or is he the spirit of a dead child?
A Charlie Brown Christmas became a holiday perennial because of its own greatness, yes, but it helped that it was based on a beloved comic strip that reigned supreme in American newspapers for 50 years. There isn’t quite the same level of affection for Bil Keane’s The Family Circus, which in recent years has become more popular as fodder for online memes than for its hilarious jokes about Billy’s dotted line or the mischievous imps Not Me and Ida Know. Anyway, if you’re a fan, here’s Dolly and Jeffy and all the rest learning the true meaning of Christmas or whatever.
What’s worse than a weekly cartoon that’s a shameless attempt to build characters out of two-dimensional video game figures? A holiday special where those two-dimensional figures help Santa Claus fix his sleigh so they can save Christmas. For all the clunky jokes and terrible animation, however, you have to commend this special for committing to the bit; we may not have ever needed a Pac-Man Christmas special, but this Pac-Man Christmas special always goes out of its way to be the most Pac-Man Christmas special it can be.
Yet another TV adaptation of a newspaper comics character, and even though one of Elliott Kalan’s running gags on the Flop House podcast is his series of pitches for a Ziggy movie, this TV special featuring the hairless, luckless Everyman actually has a devoted cult following. (It no doubt helps that it was directed by the great Richard Williams, the animator behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Thief and the Cobbler.) Ziggy gets a job as a street-corner Santa, and of course, his kindness makes holiday magic happen.
This 2002 special from the WB Network might well have remained completely forgotten by the public at large, had Rotten Tomatoes’ own Nathan Rabin not disinterred it for his Happy Place blog. Hideously animated, grossly padded to fill out an hour’s worth of TV time, and generally devoid of any holiday joy or magic, this is one Christmas special you have to see to believe. And even though it’s never been released on DVD (imagine that), the whole thing lives on YouTube. P.S. The voice cast includes Mark Hamill, who can now claim that he was in a holiday special even worse than the Star Wars one.