Some TV Holiday Specials That Aren't Terrible

December 20, 2016

Gather around the telly, folks. It’s high time for holiday specials. Before you say it—Aw, dad? Do we have to?—I know, son. Holiday specials can feel like a real snooze, and the same names tend to circulate best-of lists: How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Yawn. A Charlie Brown Christmas? Please get me an Ambien, and stat!

The adrenaline of the holidays has forced me to consult my memory bank to figure out what holiday specials, Christmakkuh-themed or otherwise, I’d remembered from my childhood. My memory's extremely bad, fraying at the edges, so I then posed the question to my colleagues: What holiday specials do you have fond memories attached to? Oh boy. Got a lot of answers, and I've winnowed accordingly. Pop these into your tube if you don’t have 300 hours to spare to wade through Fanny and Alexander.

Arthur’s Perfect Christmas (2000)

Well before the Arthur special with the Backstreet Boys (who's responsible for that?) came this genuinely perfect hour of television. It's a special that, astonishingly, manages to communicate a message of inclusivity without devolving into smarm, showing characters who celebrate a motley of December holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, St. Lucia, and, uh, Baxter Day, celebrated by two agnostic bunnies. I monitor PBS every December to make sure I don’t miss this one. Because nothing can ever be easy, 2011 saw the release of a completely unrelated movie, Arthur Christmas. Now, it's time to reclaim the phrase "Arthur Christmas."

A Rugrats Chanukah

Here's a real kiddo classic. A fond memory for us all. 90s babies only. The Rugrats cast themselves in the roles of this Chanukah origin story. It's beautifully-mounted, deeply-felt, all that good stuff—and it plays out against the backdrop of Grandpa Boris and his rival Shlomo duking it out over who will play the lead role of Judah in a local synagogue's production of the Chanukah play!

The Adventures of Pete and Pete: O' Christmas (1995)

Who's looking "happily deranged," you ask? Why, it's our Partnerships Editor Samantha Weiss-Hills as she watches this episode of a Nickelodeon show; she just loves the Pete and Pete Christmas special. Pete and Pete remains one of those shows I'd watched quasi-religiously yet I can't seem to remember a specific episode from it, so I'll take Sam's word for it.

Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

I’ve never seen this 1974 Rankin/Bass television special, but Jessica Wolf, a member of Food52’s Customer Care team, has. “My dad made us a VHS tape in the mid-80s of every Christmas special that was on our rabbit-ear television channels one year, and this is easily the weirdest one. It's not quality but it has a certain... charm?” Well, dear readers—is Jessica right? How “certain” is this charm, anyway? Find out for yourself.

Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997)

I had a VHS tape of this direct-to-video movie that decayed in the shelves of our old house. Sadly, I don’t remember much about the actual movie, which, according to the official website... I don't even know. I mean, get a load of this description: "With a little bit of Christmas magic, Belle and her loyal friends—your favorite characters from the original movie—deck the halls of the castle, melt the Beast’s heart with love and wonder, and give this enchanted tale a holly-jolly ending." Ah, yes, wonder how I could've possibly forgotten about this distinctive plot. What could this movie possibly be about? Perhaps I'll watch it again!

To Grandmother's House We Go (1992):

Well this is quite a romp. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were on a real tear in their Full House years, and this ABC TV movie saw them escape the clutches of their harried single mother just trying her best to raise two twins on her own, and venture to grandma Mimi's house many miles away. But what's a journey without some road bumps? This one's got quite a few—according to the IMDb page for the special, there's a lot of crime.

Frosty Returns (1992)

Never seen this one, either, but here’s Advertising Coordinator Connor Bower’s testimonial: “A little girl (voiced by a young Elisabeth Moss) meets Frosty, but oh no the evil millionaire is peddling his anti-snow spray. Hope Frosty can teach everyone the true meaning of winter!” Oh, Connor! This is a ringing endorsement. I must watch this special, readily available on YouTube.

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979)

Was John Denver a perfect man? I think so! Notice how seamlessly he ingratiates himself into Jim Henson's universe over the course of this hour-long special, which, upsettingly, hasn't been released on home video throughout its near four decades of existence. Absurd. The soundtrack, like much of Denver's oeuvre, had quite a few choice bangers. Listen.

A Snow White Christmas (1980)

Pillage that bargain bin for this gem, originally aired on CBS! It involves a resurrected wicked queen who, in her second life, decides to freeze the land where Snow White lives. And so it's up to Snow White—and what is she without her dwarves?—to make right by this. But will she end up an icicle "like her parents," the film's IMDb summary asks me? Watch to find out.

A Walt Disney Christmas (1982)

"And this is the classic from my childhood," Hannah Wilken, our Merchandising Manager, told me yesterday. Hannah, that's just what I'm looking for. Though she hasn't been able to find her family's VHS copy of this compilation of old Disney shorts from the 1930s onward, her memory lives on.

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…Well, “this is it,” as they sing in the theme song for One Day at a Time, which has a holiday special of its own. We’ve reached the end of the list.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas and Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas were a fav when our son was little. I'm surprised this list doesn't include "Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph, Baby New Year, and "The Little Drummer Boy!" Those are so special!!”
— Mary W.

But it doesn’t have to end here. Have any television specials—awful or otherwise—you like to dust off and revisit? Ones that are out of print? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Mary W. December 23, 2016
Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas and Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas were a fav when our son was little. I'm surprised this list doesn't include "Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph, Baby New Year, and "The Little Drummer Boy!" Those are so special!!
Sarah December 21, 2016
...forgot to add that even though my family isn't Jewish, "A Rugrats Chanukah" will be a forever classic in my eyes. Also, we have the CD for the "John Denver and the Muppets" special and it really is great.
Sarah December 21, 2016
My family watches Jim Henson's "The Christmas Toy" every year. Definitely worth checking out. Be prepared to have the Meteora song stuck in your head for all eternity. Oh, and you'll probably start announcing "Ewww, it's Mew!" whenever your little sister comes into the room. ;)
Hannah W. December 20, 2016
My brother and I are determined to find the VHS this holiday! Thank you Mayukh!!
E December 20, 2016
Forgot about so many of these! Gonna watch some Arthur's Perfect Christmas, this Christmas! Show of my '90s childhood!
Sara December 20, 2016
Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas is missing from your list. Good music, muppet style puppets and a great message about what really matters. A family favorite in my house!