The 50 Best Holiday Specials and Movies of All Time
Let’s face it. Some Christmas traditions are better than others. Christmas cookies? Yes! Egg nog? Yes! Cutting down your own tree? Nope. (See National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, below.) Hanging mistletoe? That can be awkward with a house full of relatives. Caroling out in the snow? Well, baby, it’s cold outside. Staying inside, warm and snug, with those cookies and egg nog, watching Christmas movies and specials? Yes, please.
We want to make sure your holidays are hollier and jollier than usual, so we’ve checked our list of favorites, (yes, we did it twice) and ranked the 50 Best Holiday Specials and Movies of All Time. And if you’re wondering why some movies are missing from this list, head over to our poll featuring some of those controversial “Christmas” flicks and answer, “Is It Really a Holiday Movie?“
Helpful hint: you don’t need to wait for the snow to come down to call dibs on your favorite TV-watching sofa. We’ll let you know which of these holiday best bets you can start streaming right now. Feliz Navidad!
The award-winning children’s book The Snowman was adapted as a TV-movie four years after being published. The wordless story, about a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life, made for a perfect visual adaption for the holidays. The award-winning book became a BAFTA TV winner, was an Academy Award-nominated short film, and consistently rates near the top of British polls of greatest Christmas TV moments. But be warned: the snowman is made of icy particles, and even winter days can get above freezing.
Yes, this is the same holiday special as #50. The difference? In the original British version, the author Raymond Briggs introduced the story with a 40-second voice over. As he walks across an empty country field, and away from the camera, Briggs recalls a heavy winter storm that set the scene for writing The Snowman. But US networks who were interested in broadcasting the special thought a bigger name was needed to attract attention. Glam rocker David Bowie, a fan of Briggs, shot a new sequence where he reminisces about a real snowman that gifted him a scarf that he pulls out of an attic trunk. This intro, where Bowie talks straight to the camera, is definitely warmer and more engaging! And, Bowie.
A Christmas Carol
Versions of the Charles Dickens classic abound, and nine of them made our list. Although this is the lowest ranked one, it’s hard to find one that captures the spirit of the original novel as meticulously and magnificently as director Clive Donner’s lavish made-for-TV movie starring George C. Scott. The Oscar winner’s craggy features and perpetual frown serve him well as Scrooge, but it’s his understated performance that gives this rendition its emotional vitality. No growling caricature, Scott’s Victorian miser nurtures a deep-seated pain that gradually melts as the ghosts take Scrooge on his Christmas Eve journey of discovery. A stellar supporting cast includes Roger Rees as nephew Fred, David Warner and Susannah York as the Cratchits, and original Equalizer Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Office Christmas Party
Real office Christmas parties are never this fun. Sure, in this one there’s some booze and homemade Christmas cookies, but also stacks of cash for bonuses, prostitutes, pimps, riots, a so-so orgy, and a snow machine that blows cocaine. If your company branch is about to be shut down, why not go all out? Jennifer Aniston plays Scrooge (metaphorically this time, not the actual character) in a fight with her brother (T.J. Miller) for control of their family-owned Chicago tech company. In addition to threatening layoffs, she wants to cancel the annual holiday bash. Miller’s corporate softie plots raucous revenge with an epic bash we office drones can only dream of.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
There’s no shortage of musical numbers in a lot of these holiday movies and specials, but it’s hard to beat the exuberance of the dancing, singing and downright positive messaging in this recent Netflix movie. (Jingle Jangle and the 2020 film Happiest Season, see below, are the most recent productions on our list.) Forest Whitaker (as Jangle) plays a toymaker who has one of his most magical inventions stolen by his apprentice (Keegan-Michael Key) who goes on to become a famous toymaker while Jangle’s business falters and he loses his passion for inventing. Years later, Jangle’s granddaughter helps him set the toy-making world right.
Albert Finney takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the first big-screen musical version of the oft-told story. The producers might have been anticipating some pushback for this approach when they used the tagline, ‘What the dickens have they done to Scrooge?’ on the movie posters. But the key to any Scrooge is who plays him, and Albert Finney came through with a unique interpretation and snagged a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at the 1971 awards show.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
Although aired 12 years later, this follow-up to the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer picks up just moments after the original concludes. When Father Time tells Santa Claus that it will be December 31st forever if Happy, the Baby New Year, is not found before midnight, Santa sends Rudolph on the rescue mission. In this beloved sequel, the audience is met with familiar favorites like Humpty Dumpty, Prince Charming and the Seven Dwarves, as well as newcomers such as General Ticker, Quart, and Big Ben, a whale with a clock fixed to his tail who saves Rudolph and leads him to the baby.
The Little Drummer Boy
If The Office’s Angela Martin declares the “The Little Drummer Boy” the best Christmas song ever, that’s a good enough reason for this holiday special based on the song to make our list. The short-and-sweet 1968 special follows Aaron, an orphan drummer boy, as he navigates life in the desert. With his few farm animals for companions, Aaron experiences a somewhat perilous series of events that eventually land him at the foot of a certain someone’s manger. Little Aaron wipes tears from his massive, glassy eyes before closing them and drumming his beloved anthem, and all feels right with the world.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol
The story we’re all familiar with, “A Christmas Carol,” is told by different characters whom we’ve come to love: Mickey Mouse and his friends. Mickey’s Christmas Carol stars Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse playing Bob Cratchit, Goofy as the ghost of Jacob Marley and Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Other Disney and fairy-tale characters pop up at some parties or to join caroling like Chip and Dale, more ducks Huey, Dewey and Louie and even the three little pigs.
Shrek the Halls
The not-so-jolly green ogre (Mike Myers) has a lot to learn about the holiday spirit in a hilarious special first shown in 2007. As Donkey (Eddie Murphy in great form) nags Shrek to get his hovel ready for his first Noel with Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their three rambunctious babes, a quiet night before Christmas becomes comic chaos when Donkey ambushes Shrek with the whole fractured tribe of fairy-tale characters. Sight gags abound as Puss in Boots, Pinocchio, the blind mice, the neurotic Gingerbread Man — barfing up a chocolate Kiss — and more send Shrek into a flaming Grinch-splosion of rage. But upon realizing that all the best Christmases are this busy and messy, he wishes “a smelly Christmas to all and to all a gross night.”
An American Christmas Carol
This is probably one of the loosest adaptions of the famous Dickens holiday novella. For one, the lead, Henry Winkler, isn’t even called Scrooge! But he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve who try to set him on a more righteous path. He was still working on Happy Days at the time as the Fonz, but he went out of his way here to be nothing like that cool cat. After Winkler’s Emmy-winning work on Barry showed him as much more than the Fonz, we’re happy to revisit any of his work.
A Christmas Carol
During his initial TV run as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart had a remarkable turn in London and on Broadway in his one-man reading of Charles Dickens’ classic tale. Afterwards, it almost seemed inevitable that he’d be tapped to translate it into a full television movie telling, which, stylistically, leaned closer to the definitive 1951 Alistair Sim film version. In this adaptation, Stewart is the miserly Scrooge, making life difficult for his employee Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant), until he’s visited on Christmas Eve by the ghosts who remind him of the true spirit of the holiday. His first laugh Christmas morning is a joyous moment! The movie also starred Dominic West as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
This ’90s children’s classic is the second Mickey Mouse-centric take on holiday stories that made our list. Split into three segments, the first part is a little adventure with Donald Duck and his family, the second is about Goofy and his son Max as they try to mail a letter to Santa, and finally, we have Mickey and Minnie’s quest to get the perfect present for each other. There is lots of fun, songs and laughter and you’ll find yourself being thawed out of any “humbug” state and embracing the Christmas spirit.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey’s Grinch is the kind of film that ages with you. It’s great for a laugh and a lesson whether you’re a kid or all grown up — and based on where you are in life, the lessons hit different each time (and who doesn’t love suddenly getting an adult joke?). Carrey’s Grinch is a mean one like his animated predecessor, but this Grinch represents the profound loneliness and traumatic memories the holidays can stir up for people who’ve been rejected by their families. Cindy Lou Who’s kindness is what helps the Grinch rediscover his true self in the end, showing that a child’s love is oftentimes more profound than most.
Irving Berlin long wanted to write a musical about a hotel specializing in holiday spectacles. The result: Holiday Inn, a light-hearted film centering on the romantic complications of entertainers Jim (Bing Crosby) and Ted (Fred Astaire) as the two twice fall for the same woman: first, their song-and-dance partner Lila (Virginia Dale) and then aspiring singer Linda (Marjorie Reynolds). The duo performs lavish holiday-themed numbers at Jim’s roadhouse over two years, while juggling love and heartbreak. It’s more than a Christmas movie, since eight national holidays are celebrated — a cringeworthy minstrel show marking Lincoln’s Birthday thankfully is often deleted from TV showings — but at one Yuletide, Crosby introduces Berlin’s beloved Oscar-winning standard “White Christmas,” and Santa brings true love when he returns the next holiday season.
Meet Me in St. Louis
As much as the wholesome musical Meet Me in St. Louis — a snapshot of the large, exuberant and loving Smith family at the turn of the century — is a seasonal tradition, Christmas isn’t even mentioned until more than an hour in! But as soon as snow falls in Missouri and young love between daughter Esther (a luminous Judy Garland) and “The Boy Next Door” (Tom Drake) is threatened, our hearts melt. Will she have to move away to New York and lose him forever? Will they get one last dance at the Christmas Eve ball? Later, Esther’s sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) also needs consolation, and Esther sings the bittersweet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Tootie cries, we cry. It’s one of Garland’s most unforgettable moments on film.
Christmas in Connecticut
Barbara Stanwyck is known for moody film noir and melodramatic films, but the actress goes for comedy in this holiday classic. She plays successful food writer Elizabeth Lane who, based on her writing, seems to have it all — she lives on a fabulous Connecticut farm, is happily married with a new baby and is the envy of housewives everywhere. One problem — it’s all a lie the single New Yorker has created! So when her unaware publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) wants her to host Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), a returning war hero and fan of her work, Elizabeth has to quickly find a husband, baby and borrow her friend’s Connecticut farm. Can she pull it off and maybe find true love at the same time?
Trading Places is one of the best unconventional holiday movies of all time. Not only do you get a double fish-out-of-water film with the comedic stylings of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, but you also get a derelict Santa portrayed by the latter that set the stage for future films like Bad Santa and Fatman. This is a Christmas flick for the adults after the Charlie Brown and The Grinch of it all is done, and the kids are in bed. You can even watch it on New Year’s Eve since the film spans both holidays. And if you’re a fan of Eddie Murphy, keep it in the back of your mind that this film and Coming to America take place in the same universe.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol
With deepest apologies to Alastair Sim, “Bah! Humbug!” never sounded as good as it does here. The famously nearsighted Magoo, voiced by Gilligan’s Island’s Jim Backus, takes on the classic Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in this umpteenth retelling. Surprisingly faithful to its source material — Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are all here, and the setup is that Magoo is starring as Ebenezer Scrooge on Broadway — this animated gem truly captures the heart and soul of the story. But it goes one better, adding light touches of comedy and some stellar musical numbers (“It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway,” “Alone in the World”) for a timeless, all-ages appeal. Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again!
Dashing through the snow takes on a whole new meaning in this horror comedy flick. The fearsome hoofed creature of European folklore, described as “Santa’s shadow,” unleashes pure terror on a highly dysfunctional family who finds themselves snowed in without power during the holidays. From a slithering jack-in-the-box monster that devours its victims to twisted, masked elves from Hell, there’s plenty to delight in for any fan of the macabre. Plus, the film features an all-star cast including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
Jim Henson’s HBO special is like that homemade ornament that’s given pride of place on the family Christmas tree every year. Inspired by an illustrated children’s book, the lovingly handcrafted movie became a cult favorite thanks to its furry Muppet creatures, melancholic folk-ballads and a story about family, forgiveness and community. In the river hamlet of Frogtown Hollow, widowed mother Alice Otter and son Emmet both secretly decide to enter the local talent contest, hoping to use the prize money to buy each other special Christmas gifts (a guitar for Emmet; a used piano for Ma). While the rebellious bad boys of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band steal the show, Emmet and his mother learn that they make the most memorable music when they play their songs together.
Prep & Landing
Ever wonder how Santa smoothly makes it around the world in a single night? This animated special introduces the elite Prep & Landing elves, who work on-site to ready each home Santa visits on Christmas Eve to make the night easier for the jolly gift giver. When longtime Prep & Landing elf Wayne gets passed up for a promotion, he’s assigned to train a new recruit, Lanny. Bitter Wayne lets idealistic Lanny do all the heavy lifting on their first assignment, which leads to a canceled landing when the house isn’t fully prepared. Seeing the odd couple work to save Christmas for a little boy showcases the real meaning of the season and is the perfect watch for the whole family.
A Muppet Family Christmas
Worlds collided and hearts exploded in the greatest crossover known to man… or Muppet! In this made-for-TV special, characters from all four corners of Jim Henson’s world — The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies — descended upon the cramped yet cozy farmhouse owned by Fozzie Bear’s mom for a holiday hangout. But as the weather outside turns frightful, it begins to look like Kermit’s true love, Miss Piggy, may be stranded and unable to make the festivities…unless the porcine diva discovers a way to one-up Mother Nature! There’s songs, there’s silliness, there’s a performance of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. There’s even a cameo by creator Henson himself. And there’s definitely nothing better than spending your Yule season with these warm and (literally) fuzzy friends.
A Very Murray Christmas
A massive snowstorm in New York City has halted everyone’s plans, including Bill Murray’s, who was going to host an extravagant star-studded Christmas special. As Murray begins to panic, his guests are finally able to arrive: it’s a Christmas miracle! Other than Murray himself, the special guests include Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolf, Miley Cyrus, and George Clooney among others. This Christmas special is lavish, fun, and celebrates the power of friendship that even Hollywood movie and TV stars need during the holidays.
John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
Muppet wit and holiday warmth come together in hilarious harmony for this ABC special that aired during the run of The Muppet Show. The popular singer-songwriter joins forces with Kermit and the gang to celebrate the spirit of the season, but Miss Piggy’s primary concern is whether she’ll get a big production number. Spoiler alert: She does, playing a doll opposite Denver’s wooden soldier. Comedic bits, including the snout-nosed diva’s shameless mugging during “12 Days of Christmas,” are interspersed with plenty of music including Denver and the Muppets performing classics like “Silent Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The Polar Express
A young boy’s faith in Santa starts to waver. But then he receives an invitation to join the Polar Express, a magical train led by Tom Hanks‘ conductor character, captured in digital form in this CGI animated film. The Express will transport the boy and other children to the north pole to meet Santa. And the boy, luckily, keeps a small bell that falls off the reindeer’s sleigh to remind him, even as he becomes an adult, that it was all real. And anyone can hear the bell ring “for all who truly believe.”
The spooftacular setup to this modern twist on A Christmas Carol was once prescient, now timeless: A heartless network president (Bill Murray) sees the holiday as nothing more than a ratings grab to be capped with a live Christmas Eve performance of Scrooge (staple antlers on mice to appeal to cat viewers?!). He’s visited by three ghosts (Carol Kane’s physically abusive Ghost of Christmas Present is our favorite) who scare him straight into wanting to be a decent human being again. His revelatory monologue about the annual miracle of kindness, love, and possibilities is rousing, but we’re all really just waiting for the credits when the cast sings “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and Murray directs segments of the audience to sing along.
Miracle on 34th Street
Sir Richard Attenborough sparkles as Kris Kringle, a New York City department store Santa Claus who might just be the real thing, in this remake of the 1947 classic (which ranked only a little higher on our Xmas list!). The film received a lukewarm reception from critics on its release but seems to have gotten better with age. In no small part that’s down to the heartwarmingly familiar cast, which includes Mara Wilson (between roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda), Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Jane Leeves, and Allison Janney. It’s also aided by a great soundtrack of seasonal songs from the likes of Elvis, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Does Santa really exist? Kris Kringle endeavors to prove his own authenticity in court. As Ted Lasso would say: “Believe.”
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Not again! Well… yes, again. What might have seemed impossible, for young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) to be lost from his family at the holidays a second time, became the plot for a 1992 fan-favorite sequel to the 1990 monster hit. This time, Kevin accidentally misses the family flight to Miami and ends up in the Big Apple…as do his two dim-witted tormentors, the Wet Bandits (played again by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who have escaped from prison in Chicago, and plan to rob Duncan’s Toy Chest, a popular store. It’s up to Kevin to stay safe in town (first at the Plaza Hotel, then at his uncle’s townhouse, which is being renovated) and foil the robbers with comically violent hijinks. Fans flocked to enjoy the fun, and still tune in when it’s on.
A Christmas Carol
The gold standard for adapting Charles Dickens’s ever-popular 1843 Christmas morality tale was set seven decades ago with Scottish actor Alastair Sim’s iconic portrayal of the miserly, Yule-hating Ebenezer Scrooge. The movie may have rudimentary special effects and some serious overacting, but the ominous score, shadow-drenched black-and-white cinematography and Sim’s passionate performance inexorably pulls us into Scrooge’s Dickensian world. Sticking to the traditional, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future show the miserable codger how his bad treatment of others, especially clerk Bob Cratchit, has him dying alone and un-mourned. Try not to be moved by Sims/Scrooge’s joyful reinvention as a good man.
A Christmas Story
If you grew up with cable in the ’90s, you’ve tuned into the TBS’ 24 Hours of A Christmas Story marathon at least once. The tale of a kid attempting to swindle his way to an “official Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle” has become a holiday classic thanks to the yearly airings. HBO Max’s debut of a direct sequel to the film nearly 30 years later serves as a testament to the pop culture importance of the original movie. The family dynamic and desperate attempts at getting what you want for Christmas are relatable in any era. Plus, the more we age, the more we transition to relating to the parents than the kids.
As this star-studded movie — Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, and many more — teaches us, “love actually is all around.” No matter what kind of love story you’re looking for (romantic or familial, new or old), this film has it all. These tales, all playing out over the weeks leading up to Christmas, will make you laugh, cry, and swoon (some all at once!). Who could forget Andrew Lincoln’s Mark with the cue cards for Kiera Knightley’s Juliet? Who doesn’t love Neeson’s Daniel helping his stepson (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) deal with the “total agony of being in love”? Or Firth’s Jamie and Lúcia Moniz’s Aurelia learning each other’s language for a big romantic moment in front of her town?
The Shop Around the Corner
If you’re a fan of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail, you have to watch this earlier adaptation of the same Hungarian play (Parfumerie). James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as two employees of a leather goods shop who start arguing but eventually fall in love — especially because of the letters they’re unknowingly exchanging. There are a few similarities between the films (most notably the meeting during which he, but not she, knows the truth), but in the case of Shop, it’s on Christmas Eve that the love story culminates, with Stewart’s Alfred revealing he’s the man with whom Sullivan’s Klara has been corresponding. It’s a story we’ve seen time and time again since, but there’s something extra special about the holiday setting.
Miracle on 34th Street
This 1947 comedy-drama is the antidote to what can be the dispiriting adventure of Christmas shopping. A department store Santa Claus who goes by, ahem, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, an Academy Award winner for the role), insists he is the real Santa. His boss, Macy’s event director/skeptical single mom Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) indulges his fantasy because he is a hit with customers, but she grows concerned when her young daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) becomes a believer. Unfortunately, Kris has cynical detractors who set him up to be institutionalized. He’s defended in court by Doris’ kindly lawyer neighbor/eligible bachelor Fred Gailey (John Payne) who proves Santa is real (and Kris is sane) by bringing in bags of letters to Santa from a “credible authority,” the United States Post Office. In the end, Susan gets what she asked Kris to deliver for Christmas (a house!), Doris and Fred seem on their way to wedded bliss, and for us the mall seems a little more magical.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
For the record, there are six Vacation movies centered on the Griswold clan (or their close relatives). Only two are really good. The original Vacation from 1983, when Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and their kids set off on a road trip for Wally World, and this one, when the Griswolds stay put and welcome aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents to their Chicago suburban home for a “fun old-fashioned family Christmas.” You know it’s a great comedy when every time you talk about it with friends, you are always ranking the funniest lines or funniest scenes. It is the squirrel attack in the house? Is it Chase falling off the roof? Is it the Christmas lights that refuse to light up? Is it the car under the truck scene? Is it cousin Eddie wondering if the radio report about Santa is for real? (“Are you serious Clark?”). We could go on. Mirth is an old-fashioned word, but Vacation delivers it for the holidays.
Clea Duvall’s second directorial feature split audiences with its ending, but the Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis flick finally added queer femme representation to the holiday rom-com genre. Stewart and Davis star as long-term couple Abby and Harper. Unbeknownst to Abby, Harper is not out to her family — they think they’re roommates (of course they do). Not ideal when you’re planning to propose in front of them before the “happiest season” is through. Dan Levy delights as Abby’s best friend, John, and Aubrey Plaza is the ever-appealing Riley who, if the internet had its way, would’ve been Abby’s endgame. Add hometown family drama and Happiest Season is an entertaining tale tracking the universal struggle to be yourself with your emotionally stunted family during the holidays. At the end, Harper learns being your true self is more important than protecting the feelings of those more concerned with keeping up heteronormative appearances. Luckily, her family learns that too.
British Columnist Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet) finds her ex-boyfriend engaged to another woman just before Christmas and in her depressive state, she agrees to swap homes for two weeks with someone else who has also been unlucky in love — a California movie trailer producer named Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz). With Amanda transported to a quaint English village and Iris transported to a Hollywood mansion, both women casually stumble into new lives, and new romances: Iris with Miles Dumont (Jack Black), a film composer, and Amanda with Graham Simpkins (Jude Law), a single father and Iris’ brother. But the sweet and charming film (directed by Nancy Meyers) isn’t just about finding love — it’s about staying true to yourself during a season that tends to put an emphasis on having a relationship. And that’s what makes this one a holiday classic for the ages.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Not even Ebenezer Scrooge would humbug this hilarious take on Dickens’ seasonal chestnut! (And this is our highest ranked version of the many versions of “A Christmas Carol”.) Michael Caine stars as literature’s most infamous miser, who is paid a Christmas Eve visit by a trio of ghosts hoping to teach him to be kinder to his fellow man…all played by the Muppets, obviously. Narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, the fast-paced gem — featuring original tunes from Paul Williams, who penned the ditties for The Muppet Movie in 1979 — also gives us Kermit and Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit, Statler and Waldorf as Scrooge’s late partners and Fozzie Bear as Mr. Fezziwig, along with a slew of their puppet pals in Victorian garb. By the big finale, you’re sure to be counting down the number of sleeps til Christmas.
“I made my family disappear!” exclaims a delighted Kevin McCallister in Home Alone after he’s left behind by his family when they make a mad dash to the airport without him. Indeed, the joy of the 1990 box office smash is watching the impish Kevin (Macaulay Culkin, in his star-making role) reveling in the childhood fantasy of a no-rules household (he makes a giant sundae for dinner!) and then ingeniously defending his family’s suburban Chicago home from two bumbling but determined burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). To deter the bandits, Kevin devises a series of Rube Goldberg-style booby traps — a floor full of broken ornaments, an iron crashing down a laundry chute, a blowtorch contraption—that were both wince-inducing and sidesplittingly hilarious. As Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) frantically tries to make it back to her stranded son, Kevin bonds with the gruff old man next door, and the movie’s beating heart is revealed to be those Christmastime staples of family and forgiveness.
The Santa Clause
Toy salesman Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) isn’t a big believer in Santa Claus but that changes when he accidentally scares the big guy to death (literally!) on his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott puts on the suit to finish Santa’s deliveries but is then told by Head Elf Bernard (David Krumholtz) that he’s inadvertently agreed to “The Santa Clause,” which binds him to continue on in the role. Scott then has 11 months to get his life in order before returning to the North Pole for good. The comedy was a monster smash when it was released and spawned two sequel films – 2002’s The Santa Clause 2 and 2006’s The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause — and now the Disney+ series, The Santa Clauses.
Not to be confused with the similarly themed Holiday Inn, the 1942 Bing Crosby–Fred Astaire movie that introduced Irving Berlin’s Oscar-winning title song, 1954’s Technicolor musical White Christmas was a box-office hit, becoming a family-favorite TV tradition with annual showings on NBC in the 1960s. Crosby again starred, and after Astaire bowed out of the nostalgic reboot, he was replaced by the more comical Danny Kaye. The new duo play WWII veterans who form a show-biz team. With sisters Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as their singing-dancing love interests, they head to Vermont to put on a Christmas show at the struggling inn owned by the buddies’ former general. The only problem: It’s too warm for snow. (Until the big finale, with a reprise of the indelible Berlin standard.)
Frosty the Snowman
Hat’s off to this Rankin/Bass production, which brings a beloved holiday song to animated life and features narration from the great Jimmy Durante. After a bumbling magician, Professor Hinkle, loses his hat, it blows over to a group of schoolkids who have just made a snowman they’ve named Frosty. Turns out this is a magic hat, and when it gets put on top of Frosty he springs to life and blurts out “Happy birthday!” But with the weather turning warmer, can the kids help Frosty get to the North Pole before he melts? No spoilers here, but we will say that the scene where Hinkle locks Frosty and Karen in a greenhouse gets us in our feelings every single year.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
It’s fun to see this Rankin/Bass fave tick off origin stories for all the Kris Kringle traditions: the toymaking, the gifts in stockings, the flying reindeer.… And the voice cast headed by Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Keenan Wynn is impressive. But Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town might just as well be called The One With Burgermeister Meisterburger for its delightfully outlandish villain. The toy-hating tartar who presides over Sombertown bans all playthings after he slips on a wooden duckie and breaks his funny bone. In a musical declaration of war, he sings: “Each bouncing ball, deflate it. No, I don’t want to debate it!” There’s also a reformed Winter Warlock, but Herr Burgermeister remains bad to the (broken) bone.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Wildly original and surprisingly emotional, this musical stop-motion tale from the mind of Tim Burton is a celebration of two holidays and a love story. Jack Skellington, aka the Pumpkin King (voiced by Chris Sarandon), becomes fascinated by Christmas and wants to handle the holiday himself with the help of Halloween Town. The disastrous results, however, end with him having to save a kidnapped “Sandy Claws” (Edward Ivory) and Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the fellow dreamer who’s secretly in love with Jack, from the terrifying bogeyman Oogie Boogie (Ken Page). The film, directed by Henry Selick, was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar — a first for an animated feature. Danny Elfman’s original songs, ranging from ominous to achingly beautiful, are just as catchy nearly 30 years later.
The Year Without a Santa Claus
Yes, it’s another Rankin and Bass classic. Yes, it’s another stop motion feat of animation. But really, this is all about the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, two of the goofiest bickering brothers to ever be molded into moveable doll parts. Heat Miser (“He’s Mr. 101!) is red, Snow Miser (“He’s Mr. Ten Below!”) is blue and they each control half of the world’s weather. Mrs. Claus needs their help with convincing Santa that people still believe in him so he doesn’t take his own holiday from delivering presents. But there are some kids in Southtown who would only believe if it snowed just this once in these warmer climes. Could the two brothers work together? Only when their mother intervenes! Who, of course, is the one and only Mother Nature who gets it all taken care of.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
No holiday special makes our heart grow three sizes quite like How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The half-hour musical animated special from expert animator Chuck Jones is based on the classic Dr. Seuss tale of the surly, anti-social Grinch (voiced by Boris Karloff) who tries to stop the villagers of Whoville from celebrating Christmas. His plan? Dress up as Santa Claus — with his dog Max playing his unhappy reindeer — and travel down from his cave on Mt. Crumpit to steal all the presents and decorations he can find from the holly jolly Whos. Although one particularly adorable button-nosed resident, Cindy Lou Who, catches the Grinch in his despicable act, it’s not until morning, when the Whos still sing and hold hands, that he learns that his work was all for naught. The green grump returns everything. “Maybe Christmas (he thought) doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more,” he concludes. In addition to voicing the Grinch, Karloff (also known for his portrayal of Frankenstein, another lonely green figure) served as narrator, delivering Seuss’ lines to perfection.
What’s Buddy — an oversized elf played by Will Ferrell — to do when he feels like he just doesn’t fit in with his fellow brothers and sisters? Ditch the toy making factory that is the North Pole and travel to New York City to find his real, non-Santa Clause father, who just happens to be cynical children’s book publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Between mistakenly insulting one of Walter’s authors and causing a brawl after telling a department store Santa he “sits on a throne of lies,” Buddy’s attempts to bond with his dad go about as well as you might imagine. But zany antics aside, Jon Favreau’s comedic film endears — and has endured — thanks to its warm heart, messages of acceptance, and reminders of the importance of family. Watching Buddy as he’s welcomed into his new family by Walter’s wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen) and cautious little brother Michael (Daniel Tay) never fails to make us believe in a little Christmas magic. And the sweet yet awkward love story between Buddy and disgruntled department store employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) is just the kind of comfort we crave during the holiday season.
It’s a Wonderful Life
This black-and-white classic directed by Frank Capra is the oldest film in our top five, which speaks to its timelessness. What human with a heart can’t empathize with the plight of hardworking, middle-class family man and selfless community pillar George Bailey (James Stewart)? On Christmas Eve, facing bankruptcy and criminal charges due to a family business catastrophe that was not his fault, George is considering suicide. He reasons that at least his beloved wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children can cash in on his life insurance policy. But George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) intervenes and stops him; he then grants George’s wish that he’d never been born and shows him what the world would have looked like without him. Spoiler alert: not good. George’s brother died; his hometown Bedford Falls became a slum; Mary never married; and more. Clarence, as he’d planned to all along, lets a stricken George takes back his wish. In a scene that brings tears of joy no matter how many times you’ve seen it, George rushes through the small-town streets, wishing everyone “Merry Christmas!” before hugging his family tight. And there’s a star on top of that happy ending: the business is saved due to the town’s generosity. The story reminds us that, as Clarence inscribes in a book he leaves with George, “No guy is a failure who has friends.” Oh, and did we mention Clarence gets promoted and finally gets his wings?
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Say this about that misfit reindeer Rudolph: He has staying power. This beloved stop-motion animated treat from Rankin/Bass Productions first aired in 1964 and hasn’t missed a year since, making it the longest continually running Christmas special in the USA. Why is Rudolph so dear to us? Could be that we all know what it feels like to be an outsider like Rudolph, mocked and shunned for his glowing nose, and his elf pal Hermie, whose desire to be a dentist makes him an outcast. (Fun trivia item: Much like Rudolph tried to hide his nose under dirt, his voice was credited to Billy Richards, not the actual Billie Mae, because the producers didn’t want it known that a woman performed the part.) Their misadventures include a stop on the disturbing Island of Misfit Toys and harrowing encounters with the Abominable Snow Monster, before Rudolph ultimately saves the day, his nose a beacon as he leads Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve through a blinding snowstorm. Burl Ives, delivering Johnny Marks’ 1949 title tune standard and the hummable “Holly Jolly Christmas,” brings an inviting warmth to his narrator’s role as Sam the Snowman. It’s impossible to imagine a holiday season without this feel-good fable.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
This first Charlie Brown special broke some TV rules. Charles Schulz, who had already created and run the Peanuts comic strip since 1950, ignored CBS executives’ request to include a laugh track, hired nonprofessional children to voice some of the characters, and, in what might have seemed the oddest choice of all at the time, commissioned original jazz compositions for the soundtrack. Grammy winner Vince Guaraldi was actually hired to score a documentary about Schulz in 1963. The doc was never produced, but two years later, one of Guaraldi’s pieces, “Linus and Lucy” was used in A Charlie Brown Christmas along with another now famous holiday song from Guaraldi, “Christmas Time is Here.” The soundtrack, which has sold millions of copies, set the bouncy and sweet tones for this simple story of a depressed young boy in search of a genuine Christmas tree to lift his spirits. Not the perfect tree, but a tree that needed love and attention to reach its full potential (not to mention some structural support from Linus’ blue blanket). Kind of like what Charlie Brown himself needed from his friends to prop him up, and the Peanuts gang came through. The true meaning of Christmas delivered joyfully.