For the most part, American Christmas specials are dominated by a handful of animated programs made between 1964 and 1970.
Fully three of those specials — 1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1969's Frosty the Snowman, and 1970's Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town — hail from the same production studio: Rankin/Bass Productions.
Founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass, the studio did a fair amount of hand-drawn animation but was best known for its stop-motion animation, featuring tiny, doll-like figures that moved through hand-crafted wonderlands. Rankin and Bass directed most of the studio's output, and they worked with many of the same collaborators over and over again, including writer Romeo Muller and musical director Maury Laws.
Just in the Christmas special subgenre alone, Rankin/Bass made 18 specials, of varying length and ambition, between 1964 and 1985. Nearly all of these films revolve around the performance of some Christmas song or another. Nearly all of them deal with the crippling scars of childhood shame.
And nearly all of them are completely off-the-rails insane.
I watched all 18 of these Christmas specials. At the end, my mind had mostly detached from my body, but once it returned, I was able to provide this definitive ranking.
18) Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)
For some reason, Rankin/Bass thought it would be a good idea to do a very loose adaptation of Pinocchio set at Christmastime. What's even weirder about this is that it presumes you're already familiar with the story of Pinocchio, so the characters will act as if this is a loose sequel to that story, then immediately dive into scenes straight out of it, as if the characters have never done any of this before. It's confused and more than a little boring. And the Christmas connection is very nebulous.
17) The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981)
This one sits at the center of a whole bunch of Rankin/Bass trends that had ceased to bear fruit long before 1981. It's mostly an excuse to allow for the performance of an incredibly obscure song ("Christmas in Killarney"), it's an attempt to create a Christmas special that will double as a special for another holiday (St. Patrick's Day), and it's trying to build up an elaborate mythology around holiday trappings that probably don't need one. (In this case, those most Christmas-centric of sprites, leprechauns.)
Mostly, though, this is perhaps peak Rankin/Bass insanity. Roughly two-thirds of the script is exposition, and much of that is about the laws of leprechaun land, laws that have little bearing on anything that happens. The villain is a banshee, made out of tears, who can only attain her true form or ... something, if she gets her hands on some "Christmas gold." And the banshee is the only proactive character in this thing, so you end up feeling sort of sorry for her when she doesn't get her Christmas gold because she doesn't know how to tell time.
16) The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)
Rankin/Bass somewhat simplified the plot of the Charles Dickens story this is based on (and added a bunch of talking toys, of course), but for the most part, the weirdest bits here are all Dickens. There's blindness caused by grief, melodramatic plot twists by the bushel, and a cricket narrator. But it's all a little bland, with songs that last way too long.
15) Frosty's Winter Wonderland (1976)
Even by the nonsensical standards of Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, this awkward Frosty sequel is pretty inessential. Frosty faces off against Jack Frost, except not really, because most of the film is about the existential malaise of being the only walking, talking snowman, a problem solved by building Frosty a wife.
So, yes, this is Bride of Frankenstein with Christmas characters.
14) Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)
This movie, which saw very brief theatrical release, is the longest Christmas special Rankin/Bass ever produced. The only thing is, as you'll note from the title, this is really more of an Independence Day special, centered on Rudolph and Frosty trying to save a circus, while Santa fights off the evil wizard Winterbolt, who can only be stopped by the magic of Rudolph's nose (seriously).
The attempts to turn these corny stories into some sort of epic strain with flopsweat, and the hoped-for Avengers-style team-up of the company's big two mostly results in scenes where you wonder why Frosty's not melting in the middle of July, until you remember the plot device keeping him alive.
13) The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
This adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel of the same name isn't good by any stretch of the imagination, and it's come in for quite a bit of mockery from Rankin/Bass fans for its attempts to bring something like high fantasy to Christmas. (It was also the last animated special of the classic era and the last the company would make for 16 years.)
But, man, I kinda like this one in spite of myself. The story is a mess, and this is something like Rankin/Bass's fifth attempt to tell the back-story of the jolly old elf. But there's something so pleasingly goofy about Santa wandering into scenes that might as well be ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics.
12) The Little Drummer Boy: Book II (1976)
The first Little Drummer Boy saw a surprising amount of success for such an overtly religious special, but there was always a strain of religiosity running through Rankin/Bass's work. (It would work references to the Christ child in as often as it possibly could.)
This special, however, has no real reason to exist. All of the major conflicts in Drummer Boy are resolved at its end, so this special is, instead, about some dude who's trying to make silver bells for the baby Jesus and the Roman soldiers who want to stop him. There's a nice version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" though.
11) 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
This is generally considered one of the Rankin/Bass standards, mostly for its tuneful score (just the name of "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand" will probably cause the song to take up residence in your brain). But it makes me cringe.
In particular, the special's message boils down to the idea that doubt is almost always a terrible thing to have. Even weirder, Albert, the mouse who doubts Santa's existence, lives in a universe where he can see the big red guy himself, making it not so hard to convert to the special's terrifying Santa divinity cult.
10) Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)
Unlike Charlie Brown, who could do pretty much anything, story-wise, Rankin/Bass couldn't just take a beloved character and put them in new seasonal situations. Thus, it kept trying to ship Rudolph and Frosty off to other holidays, with limited success. Still, telling a New Year's story with Christmas characters makes more sense than telling an Independence Day story.
And in its best moments, Shiny New Year lives up to the howling madness at the center of all Rankin/Bass. There are sequences here, where Rudolph searches the past for Baby New Year, that are essentially the True Detective "time is a flat circle" monologue re-imagined as a stop-motion children's musical.
9) Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
Turning the donkey that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem into the Christian Rudolph makes a certain amount of sense. But the song Nestor is built around never caught on because it had, conservatively, 400 verses. So this is more curiosity than must-see.
But, man, there's something sad and pure at the heart of this one. When Nestor's mom dies, it's maudlin, to be sure, but Muller's script is willing to go for the jugular in terms of pathos. Plus, watching this one lets you realize how much terror of being made fun of as a child animates Rankin/Bass. There's a whole song here about how you should never laugh at someone, because you might make them cry, complete with giant puddles of tears.
8) Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Yeah, this is one of the Rankin/Bass big three, but even as a kid, I could tell its story was lacking. There's this pitfall so many of these specials fall into, where the story basically amounts to a kid sitting down with you and saying, "And then this happened! And this happened!" This is by far one of the biggest offenders. It earns points, though, for Jimmy Durante's performance of the title song and Jackie Vernon's hyper-earnest portrayal of the lead.
7) Jack Frost (1979)
Here's a special to show your kids if you want to teach them life is full of crushing disappointments. The central conflict between Jack Frost and a robot army (no, really) doesn't really work, and the whole "here's a crazy mythology about how winter happens" feels especially superfluous. But this is a love story that ends with the hero not winning the heart of the woman he loves, and that's rare for a kids story. That gives this ... well, not a "hard edge," but a kind of edge. (Also, the climax of this story is built around Groundhog Day instead of Christmas, which is a weird holiday to build toward.)
6) The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
This feels like cheating, since it's based on a superb musical version of A Christmas Carol from the early days of television. But it's still a superb version of a very good story, with some terrific songs. The special loses something by condensing the story as much as it does, but it's hard to go wrong with Dickens in song.
5) The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
We're getting into the very small portion of the list that consists of genuine recommendations, beginning with this one. This doesn't get shown as much on TV anymore, probably due to some borderline racist caricatures on the film's sidelines, but there's something very moving about its climax, in which the drummer boy drums right in the baby Jesus' face and has his lamb healed as reward.
Plus, before he meets the baby Jesus, the drummer boy is a misanthrope who hates all of humanity, which makes for a surprisingly entertaining character to follow around. Rankin/Bass was terrified of playing up the darker sides of its characters. It shouldn't have been.
4) The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
This is, like, 15 different specials awkwardly stitched together. That's normally a bad look for Rankin/Bass, but it works here, where the battles of the Miser brothers play nicely off Mrs. Claus's attempts to save the holiday, which dovetail perfectly with Santa's crisis of confidence. Sure, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but this is the studio at the peak of its imaginative powers.
The overly redundant title is the worst thing about this one, which features Angela Lansbury as a nun who takes a young shepherd struck blind by lightning under her wing as Christmas rolls around. What the special loses because of its melodramatic climax it gains from sheer simplicity. Instead of trying to graft a whole bunch of ideas together, this tells one small story, and it's all the better for it.
2) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
I used to maintain this special was overrated as Christmas specials go. I no longer do so after having watched Rankin/Bass's entire output.
1) Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (1970)
Everything Rankin/Bass did works perfectly here. The guest voice (Fred Astaire) is dead on. The filling in of mythology around a holiday figure is just great. And even the song the special builds toward is one of the better Santa Claus songs out there. In a way, most of the specials after this one were Rankin/Bass's attempts to remake something that had been so good from the first.
The studio should have quit while it was ahead.