Inevitably, as the Top 25 Greatest Christmas Movie list rolls on, some start to wonder when specials like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will get their due. Well, they won’t on a list exclusive to feature films, but they will here.
You know, I never thought I’d be old enough to use the phrase “kids today,” but here goes… With DVD and DVR and all this other digital snap-your-fingers instant gratification, kids today might think they have it better than those of us of a certain age – and okay, maybe they do – but back in the days before America figured out disco and Jimmy Carter sucked, there was something to be said for the pure pleasure of anticipation I had as a child with the Sunday morning arrival of the Milwaukee Journal.
Screw the comics, I’d grab the TV section, squirrel away somewhere with a red pen, pour through it as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, and circle everything that needed to be watched that week.
Yes, kids, this is the way it once was. Believe it or not, there was an era before Internet, DVD, VHS, HBO or DVR when there was only UHF and VHF – 4 networks and one independent station that required a rabbit ear antennae with enough aluminum foil wrapped around it to work as a heat shield for the space shuttle.
It was crazy, especially on Sunday nights when Dad would run the rabbit ears out the window and my sister and I would take turns shivering on the front lawn pointing them south so he could watch “The Honeymooners” on Chicago’s channel 9.
But there was also a shared experience that came pre-digital, especially with an anticipation that didn’t last the length of a download, but for days and sometimes a full week as you waited for those circled gems to finally air. So exciting was the prospect of finally getting to see something you loved once again, that you would talk about it at school with your friends:
“Yeah, man, Friday night’s The Time Machine, Saturday’s Shock Theatre double feature is Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Attack of the Mushroom People, and Sunday’s all about Goldfinger, where there’s a nipple in the credit sequence — I saw it last year – for real.”
Because of home video that’s all gone now. Sure, I enjoy being able to pop in a DVD as much as the next person but there was something about those days when you–God I’m old.
No time of year, however, brought with it more anticipation than the holiday season. As soon as there was even a whiff of Thanksgiving it was time to dig into that TV section and hunt down those Christmas specials. Not missing a single one was very important because they were only on once a year and, as Dad would always remind us: “Enjoy it while you can — that asshole in the White House will have us all speaking Russian by noon.”
And how well they hold up! 35 years later … still enchanting. The songs remain catchy, the stories engrossing, the characters memorable, and the jokes funny. Who knows, maybe the only thing holding them up is nostalgia. But who cares, right? All that matters is that we still love them and love seeing them passed on to children not yet assaulted and made cynical and ironic by MTV and Jon Stewart.
So here they are, my top ten favorite Christmas specials that survive the test of time:
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): Not only is this a subdued little timeless charmer, but also a marker of just how far our culture has collapsed. With every viewing I’m startled to hear the words “Jesus” and “Christ” used in a way that isn’t a curse word. Of all the specials Obama would pre-empt for his announcement to the Taliban that they need only hold out for 18 more months, it makes sense it would be this one. I’m sure President Bows-A-Lot is uncomfortable whenever anyone, including cartoon characters, mention that “other” Jesus.
2. How Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966): Not to take anything away from Dr. Seuss or anyone else involved in this unforgettable heart-warmer, but a special Emmy should go to whoever came up with the inspired idea of having Boris Karloff narrate.
3. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962): Clever and briskly paced , this 53 minute ‘toon doesn’t miss a story beat or a heartbeat. Now if I could only find some razzleberry dressing….
4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974): The magic of Rankin/Bass at the height of their stop-motion glory. And the star power, wow!: Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, and of course the marvelous Dick Shawn as Snow Miser. Everybody now: I’m Mr. White Christmas, I’m Mr. Snow – ba-da-ba-da-bum – I’m Mr. Icicle, I’m Mr. 10 below… P.S. Bastards.
5. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970): A trio of brilliance: Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn do an unforgettable job telling the origin story of Santa Claus. And who could ever forget Paul Frees as Burgermeister Meisterburger? Side Note: Is it just me, or is young Mrs. Claus kinda hot in that red-headed Ann-Margrock kinda way?
6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): Burl Ives’ warm songs and narration are just the icing on the cake of an incredibly imaginative story packed with unforgettable characters. It can only be a matter of time before Hollywood dumps all over this with a big screen version. Join with me as we curse them in advance…
7. The Little Drummer Boy (1968): Narrated by the legendary Greer Garson:
Aaron’s heart was filled with joy and love. And he knew at last that the hate he had carried there was wrong. As ALL hatred will ever be wrong. For more powerful, more beautiful by far than all the eons of sadness and cruelty and desolation which had come before, was that one tiny, crystalline second of laughter. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
How many meetings has the ACLU had to try and figure out a way to pull this off the air?
8. Frosty the Snowman (1969): Jimmy Durante. Nothing more need be said.
9. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974): Remember this one? George Gobel plays father mouse? Santa gets irked by an insulting letter? The town has to build a clock…? The mice help? Oh, well, Netflix it.
10. It’s a Bundyful Life (1989): A bit of a cheat I know, but what do you get when The Mighty Bundy Family meets The Mighty Sam Kinison? Everything that made “Married With Children” the greatest sitcom ever: great characters, sharper than sharp writing and no sacred cows. I used to have a VHS with every Bundy Christmas episode on it and it didn’t have to be the holidays to pop that one in.
Okay, your turn… What’s missing?