Since NBC first broadcast the made-for-TV, Magi-inspired opera Amahl and the Night Visitors back in 1951, television has produced hundreds of holiday specials. But the list of specials that remain as crucial of a holiday tradition as eggnog and mistletoe is much shorter: A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and just a handful of others.
It’s downright Grinchlike that some other fun, or at least endearingly odd, specials have been overshadowed by this small canon of classics. Sometimes it’s a matter of copyright issues, sometimes they’re victims of changing tastes, and sometimes they’re simply not that great but a blast to enjoy as time capsules of bygone eras. So if you want to move beyond the obvious entertainment regiftings this year, we think you’ll enjoy the following alternate choices. (We’ve listed where they can be streamed; most have no official home but can be found by poking around YouTube.)
The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973)
Produced by Looney Tunes veterans David Hudson DePatie and Friz Freleng, this special became a staple of holiday season reruns in the ’70s and ’80s and it’s easy to see why. Agreeably paced and warm in spirit, it’s the animated equivalent of a comfortable nap by the fire. Tom Smothers provides the voice of Ted E. Bear, a cub determined to fight off hibernation in order to experience Christmas (even though he doesn’t have any idea what Christmas is). It’s filled with early-‘70s satirical touches, like a fellow bear who uses astrology to explain everything, but it’s ultimately more honey-sweet than sharp. (Available on Tubi and Freevee.)
Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story (1978)
Benji, the little shaggy dog who became an unexpected movie star in the 1970s, was at the height of his fame when he starred in this ABC special directed by the character’s creator, Joe Camp. (Benji is played here by “Benjean,” daughter of the original Benji, but let’s keep it simple.) While on a promotional tour with two co-stars, he’s asked to be the grand marshal of a Swiss Christmas parade only to find himself whisked to a winter wonderland by the real Santa Claus (Oliver! star Ron Moody). And that’s pretty much all that happens apart from a quick tour of international Christmas traditions and a visit to Santa’s state-of-the-art operations center CEPAC (short for “Christmas Eve Planning and Communications”). It’s a sweet relic of the moment, and probably the easiest job any Benji ever booked: Benjean doesn’t really do anything except get passed from one character’s arms to the next’s.
The Cabbage Patch Kids First Christmas (1984)
Benji’s popularity is easy to explain: Cute dogs are timeless. The Cabbage Patch Kids craze that gripped America in the early ’80s is a little tougher to appreciate today, but stores could not keep these soft, marshmallow-faced monsters on the racks for a few years. Released at the height of their popularity , this special introduces a mythology of Tolkien-like complexity involving: a boy named after Cabbage Patch mastermind Xavier Roberts; a cabbage patch visited by a stork; a Christmastime visit to a snow-covered Atlanta; and a trio of villains who want to kidnap the kids to make them work in their mines. It’s 25 minutes of madness in the form of an extended toy commercial. (And if it leaves you craving more tacky, craven ‘80s nostalgia, make this a double-feature with 1982’s equally cheap tie-in, Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, in which Santa helps Pac-Man and his family fend off menacing ghosts.)
Ziggy’s Gift (1982)
Speaking of better ’80s holiday specials, Ziggy’s Gift brings the comics page’s lovable loser to life for a sweet special animated by the legendary Richard Williams (now best known for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit) with songs by Harry Nilsson. The perpetually put-upon Ziggy can be cloying on the page, but this special finds just the right mix of fatalism and sentiment (to say nothing of the gorgeous animation and Nilsson songs), following Ziggy as he navigates a treacherous world after taking a job as a Santa to raise money for the needy.
A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
Animator Will Vinton enjoyed his greatest success in the 1980s via his commercials with the California Raisins, and Domino’s Noid. The Raisins appear in this half-hour special, but they’re just one stop on a string of music-filled sequences showcasing Vinton’s stop-motion artistry. Widely acclaimed and rerun for years, this has become hard to find in recent years but anyone who likes inventive animation would do well to seek it out.
Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999)
Drew Barrymore voices Olive, a sensitive dog who races to the North Pole to help Santa (Ed Asner) after one of his reindeer is injured. (She mistakes Santa’s hope that “all of the other reindeer” will be able to do the job as a plea for “Olive, the other reindeer.” Later she encounters a character named “Round John Virgin.”) Produced by The Simpsons’ Matt Groening, it’s self-aware without ever feeling cynical, grounded by Barrymore’s unflaggingly sweet performance. It also plays like a special that could only have been created at a particular moment in the late 1990s, from its self-aware jokes to its voice talent, which includes a musical cameo from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. With characters from Vivan Walsh and J. Otto Seibold’s children’s book of the same name brought to life by 2-D animation, this late-90s special has a look that stands apart from its peers.
The True Meaning of Christmas Special (2002)
Where Olive, the Other Reindeer is informed by a knowing, skeptical Gen-X sensibility, this Canadian special written by and starring The Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley features that tone in pure, uncut form. Foley (who also wrote and directed the special) stars as himself, a rising star who faces an existential crisis after becoming famous enough to anchor a Christmas special—one staged as a beachside party complete with the musical accompaniment of surf music legend Dick Dale. Unsure if he really should be using it to sell products (with the help of the surfing Santa Dude, played by Jason Priestley), Foley eventually returns to Canada in search of the true meaning of the holidays, with some help from fellow Canadian comedy stars like Mike Myers and Dave Thomas. It’s an absurd send-up of the very idea of Christmas specials, complete with a skating sequence featuring Olympic legend Elvis Stokjo.
Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular (2013)
Apart from a gender-reversed duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” performed by Lady Gaga and guest Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there’s not much holiday spirit in this team-up between Gaga and the Muppets, but maybe that’s OK. Gaga has a long record of finding common ground between tradition and contemporary trends and here she folds performances of songs from her recently released album Artpop into a Muppet-filled variety show. Like the variety shows that inspired The Muppet Show in the first place, there’s something for everyone here. The performances are all strong, but some of the best moments are those in which Gaga and Kermit simply hang out and bond over the difficulties of being traveling artists. And if scenes of a pop star bonding with a felt frog doesn’t capture the Christmas spirit in some weird way, what does?