The 5 greatest Christmas specials you've never seen (but should watch right away)

Joal Ryan
Contributor

When it comes to holiday TV, the forsaken inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys are doing just fine. They’re beloved, quoted and widely watched year after year. It’s Ziggy, Yakko and Tina Sinatra who could use some PR. As you prepare for the seasonal onslaught of Yuletide treats, here’s Yahoo Entertainment’s quick guide to some ghosts of Christmas past, those specials that are indeed special but sadly overlooked.

1. Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales

A Charlie Brown Christmas is an impossible act to follow. And so although this 2002 animated anthology, featuring the final screenplay from Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, who died in 2000, routinely airs on broadcast TV, as it will Dec. 5 on ABC, it’ll serve as the unbilled, time-slot-filling undercard to its esteemed 1965 predecessor. Give yourself a treat: Check out Christmas Tales‘ five stories in their combined 18-minute-long, uninterrupted entirety. The show stands on its own two ice skates. (iTunes, Amazon) 

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2. A Muppet Family Christmas

It’s safe to say the 1992 theatrically released A Muppet Christmas Carol is the go-to Yuletide offering for most Muppet fans, save Lady Gaga diehards, in that it’s well regarded — and, no small thing, widely available. By contrast, 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas isn’t available on streaming, isn’t scheduled to air on any of the major networks and is out of print on home video. But it’s worth seeking out. It features sunny show tunes, a persistent icy patch and what feels like a rare mashup of Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters. Putting a bow on it: Muppets creator Jim Henson, who would die in 1990, and who handled vocals for Kermit the Frog, Ernie, et al., appears on camera at the close.

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Bonus for Muppet enthusiasts: 1979’s Emmy-nominated John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together is another candidate for a lost Muppet classic. While the special has fallen out of television’s holiday rotation, its soundtrack is impossible to miss.

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3. Christmas with the Martins and the Sinatras

In truth, there’s no reigning Christmas variety-show classic; there’s no single special we collectively and ritualistically watch each year. Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas from 1977 probably comes the closest in that young, old-ish, and old audiences have sampled it by way of the Crosby-David Bowie duet of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” now a Christmas standard.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is no shortage of thoroughly lost-in-time Christmas variety specials. One that was a joy to unearth, thanks to YouTube, was 1967’s Christmas with the Martins and the Sinatras, a holiday episode of The Dean Martin Show. (Careful with the titles! It’s easy to confuse this with 1968 Christmas Show, which was the following year’s holiday special, or The Dean Martin Christmas Special, which dates from 1980.) The 1967 show teams its host with Frank Sinatra, and both singers’ respective families, minus Sinatra’s then wife, Mia Farrow. (Now there’s an oh-what-might-have-been.) It’s smoky, chummy and occasionally bracing: for instance, you don’t just watch the 20-something Frank Sinatra Jr. and Dean Paul Martin (billed as Dean Martin Jr.) sing a song about their fathers; you know in hindsight that neither went on to live as long as their fathers. While it’d be easy to call the show a Rat Pack time capsule (there’s even a cameo from Sammy Davis Jr.), it’s more like family home movies, filled with all the cringeworthy, bittersweet moments those films can evoke.

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4. “The Day Before Christmas,” from Animaniacs

The 1974 animated Rankin/Bass special ’Twas the Night Before Christmas is a favorite, mouse-ified take on the classic Clement Moore poem. The Season 1 Animaniacs tale is a fun, fast, Yakko-, Wakko-, and Dot-ified version told in rhyming verse, punctuated by cartoon mayhem and featuring cameos by Pinky and the Brain. The only problem here is many early Animaniac episodes are not currently streaming.

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5. Ziggy’s Gift

Just about everybody has a favorite obscure Christmas special that they take misplaced credit for discovering. This gentle, quiet show is ours. To cross-reference our holiday specials, Ziggy’s Gift is one sincere pumpkin patch.

Until we started hunting for “lost” TV Christmas treasures, we’d never heard of, much less seen, this 1982 tale — a Primetime Emmy winner, no less, for Outstanding Animated Program. Now we can’t shake its sublime Harry Nilsson contribution, “Give, Love, Joy,” or stop feeling bad that we’d forever written off Ziggy as lame. Turns out Ziggy’s really just a kindhearted guy who says a lot when he doesn’t say anything at all.

Sniff-snuffle-sob is the new ho-ho-ho, right?

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Bonkers bonus: B.C.: A Special Christmas

The Star Wars Holiday Special, starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Bea Arthur, is notoriously bananas. For fans of the truly obscure holiday weird, we present this 1981 animated special, based on the prehistoric comic strip B.C. It’s about a pair of scam-artist cavemen who invent the “myth” and “legend of Xmas.” Since it originally aired on HBO, it also features cleavage and saxophone music. Today the show would be used as Exhibit A in the War on Christmas. Back in the day, it was just another anachronistic Yuletide tale, a companion to every Christmas story ever to feature Fred Flintstone. B.C.: A Special Christmas distinguishes itself with sharp writing, along with voice work by the comedy-team legend of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding.

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(A version of this story first ran in December 2018.)