At the risk of sounding a tad grinch-like, I’ll just come right out with it: Holiday specials on TV aren’t what they used to be. And that’s a shame, because during my childhood, they were a staple of the season—a tradition I looked forward to almost as much as finding out what Santa had left under the tree.
I can still vividly remember watching actress Nanette Fabray frantically sing and leap her way through a 1967 rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Or what it felt like to witness Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s duet of “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1977—an event made all the more surreal and beautiful by the fact that the 74-year-old Crosby had passed away shortly after filming.
It’s been years—maybe decades—since we’ve gotten a great new holiday offering. Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas (2015) probably comes the closest, with Bill Murray striking a balance between satirizing and saluting the festive variety shows of yesteryear. Those song-rich extravaganzas are becoming harder to find in reruns, due in part to the prohibitively high cost of securing the music rights.
But lest you think that I come bearing only lumps of coal, here’s the good news: Some of the all-time best Yuletide treats are still available on DVD and via streaming services. Everyone has personal favorites, and here are mine—listed in the order of their original premieres.
Summer is barely over but that's not stopping big plans for ABC and Disney's annual celebration of all things Christmas.
Amahl and the Night Visitors (NBC, 1951) NBC ambitiously commissioned this one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, which was broadcast live from a studio in New York City’s Rockefeller Center on December 24. The production—about a young boy who accompanies the Three Wise Men on their journey to Bethlehem—was so popular that the network restaged and
repackaged it for years to come. (Available on DVD)
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (NBC, 1962) This reimagination of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was the first animated made-for-TV holiday special, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl). The songs are delightful, and Jim Backus as the voice of the nearsighted Mr. Magoo/Scrooge made for a final ghostly apparition that was truly scary…especially when I encountered it at age 9. (Amazon Prime, Vudu, Xfinity)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS, 1965) For my money, the best Christmas special ever made, period. Charles Schulz’s central protagonist despairing over the holiday’s crass commercialism is every bit as poignant and relevant in 2017—if not more so—as it was a half-century ago. (Xfinity; Nov. 30, 8/7c, ABC)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (CBS, 1966) Rudolph’s and Frosty’s vintage flicks missed my short list, but the Grinch made it, thanks to animator Chuck Jones’s unstoppable irreverence and the sheer audacity of adapting Dr. Seuss’s warped, beloved story for the viewing masses with all of its anti-Christmas sentiment intact. (Vudu; Dec. 9, 7/6c, TBS; Dec. 22, 7/6c and 9:45/8:45c, TNT)
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (CBS, 1971) Earl Hamner Jr. penned this evocative period movie, set during the Depression as Christmas 1933 approaches. Despite hardships, a rural family is striving to keep the holiday spirit alive—and succeeds so mightily that this movie led to the long-running CBS series The Waltons. Richard Thomas played John-Boy in both. (Available on DVD)
A Christmas Carol (CBS, 1984) There have been countless live-action versions of this holiday classic, but when it comes to small-screen adaptations, this one is tops. The period London locations read as authentic, the supporting characters are appropriately endearing, and George C. Scott’s Scrooge is as humbuggy as they come. (Amazon Prime, Vudu, Xfinity)
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (BBC1, 1988) In this hilarious U.K. import, Rowan Atkinson steps back into the role of generation-jumping antihero Blackadder, with his alter ego taking the form of Ebenezer Blackadder. Unlike that other, ultra-familiar Ebenezer, he starts out as kind and generous but ultimately emerges from his eye-opening journey as a bitter, penny-pinching, sour old man. Bloody brilliant! (Vudu)
So go on, revisit these old ghosts of Christmas past…yule thank me later.
David Bianculli is a TV and film professor at Rowan University, New Jersey, and appears as a critic and guest host on NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross.