More than wreathes and presents and bell-ringing Santas, nothing heralds the arrival of Christmas like the month-long marathon of weird old animated TV specials you see on cable television. And with a few exceptions (like "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas"), almost all those specials you probably grew up watching as a kid were produced by one studio: Rankin/Bass.
But not all the Rankin/Bass specials that Freeform (formerly ABC Family) airs every year are on the same level of classics like "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "Frosty The Snowman," of course — some of them are just plain old '70s nonsense. To get you hyped for the next 25+ days of non-stop Christmas sappiness, here are the best and worst of all the specials they've ever put out:
“T’was the Night Before Christmas” (1974)
Usually Santa Claus is just a metaphor for an all-seeing, all-knowing deity, but “T’was The Night Before Christmas” goes all in and makes his godhood a terrifying allegorical reality. After the townspeople in Junctionville, New York find their letters to Santa returned unopened, they worry that they’ve accidentally done something to anger him, presumably because because Santa doesn’t have the power to make their crops fail like other angry gods do.
Turns out that some intellectual atheist nerdbro mouse child wrote a letter to their local newspaper claiming that Santa is scientifically impossible and signed it “All of Us,” so Santa called quits on the whole dang town. But don’t worry! The day is saved when everyone rallies together and spends all of their money on a giant gilded clock tower that sings Santa’s praises into the sky, with the hope that he’ll hear it on his way to some other town full of good pious Santa-worshippers. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon mice and the rhyming couplets, this special is completely bonkers.
“The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold” (1981)
Odds are you’ve never seen this 1981 TV short, as it doesn’t tend to make the 25 Days of Christmas rotation. Despite its relative obscurity, it has all the hallmarks of a standard Rankin/Bass production — a kindly male narrator who introduces himself at the top of the short, a sweet but naive young protagonist who waltzes in with his pretty blue eyes and messes up everything, and nice but forgettable songs about Christmas decorations and the power of love. Sadly, there’s not much here, unless you like listening to Art Carney from “The Hooneymooners” approximate an Irish accent.
“Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey” (1977)
One day somebody at Rankin/Bass must have thought, “Hey, you know how people love ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy?’ What if we combined ‘em?” Thus, Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey was born. Like Rudolph, he has a peculiar physical disability that causes others to mock him, only for it to become a useful superpower — and like the Little Drummer Boy, his mom dies tragically so that he can venture out into the world and witness the birth of the baby Jesus firsthand. Nestor himself is extremely adorable, but the strong similarities to other Rankin/Bass films keep this from being a classic — or, you know, interesting in any way.
"The First Easter Rabbit" (1976)
Objectively, the Easter Bunny makes even less sense as a concept than Santa Claus does — it's a holiday marking the death and resurrection of a God, and its mascot is a rabbit who delivers eggs. This film supposes that the Easter Rabbit (Robert Morse, AKA Bertram Cooper of all people) is actually a Christmas toy come to life who travels to the North Pole to save Easter from — you guessed it — an evil ice wizard. Points for creativity, but there's a reason you never see this on television in December.
“Pinocchio’s Christmas” (1980)
In 1980, Rankin/Bass more or less ripped off the Disney version of Pinocchio, put a flower on his hat instead of a feather, and dropped him smack dab in the middle of a Christmas movie — which isn’t actually that weird, as the company also produced a whole television series of “The New Adventures of Pinocchio” twenty years prior (the fox and cat who appear in this movie are also the show’s central antagonists). It’s a fairly standard “Pinocchio does something dickish and learns the true meaning of Christmas” sort of story, which, while sweet, is kinda just… there.
“The Little Drummer Boy” (1968)
Okay, let's be honest with ourselves: Yes, we all love this ridiculously melancholic and sappy song, but it's basically the mid 20th-century equivalent of “The Christmas Shoes.” And like Lifetime's version of “The Christmas Shoes,” this adaptation of “Drummer Boy” isn’t afraid to get dark super quickly; our hero Aaron is orphaned when bandits kill his parents and burn his house down, turning him into an incredibly bitter kid who hates everyone and whose only friends are animals.
This, plus the religious overtones, makes “Little Drummer Boy” the most serious and somber of all of Rankin/Bass’ films — which, when combined with the really unfortunate anti-Arab stereotyping, makes it kind of a rough viewing experience in 2016. Still, at least the songs are catchy, right?
"Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July" (1979)
This 90-minute 1979 TV crossover special is like the Avengers of Rankin/Bass Christmas movies: In it, Rudolph, Frosty, Jack Frost, and the Mickey Rooney Santa from “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” and “A Year Without A Santa Claus” all join forces to stop an evil winter wizard (not the Winter Warlock, a different one) who wants to take over the North Pole.
Except then they all get sidetracked to join the circus (which is run by Ethel Merman because sure, why not), so some ice cream man they just met can reunite with his pretty blond girlfriend, and Winterbolt uses that to to his advantage to hold Frosty’s entire family hostage — okay, no, we have to stop here, if I tried to explain this movie we would be here all day. It’s so, so goddamn weird, and not in the fun way where Santa fights demons (more on that in a bit). But hey, at least it’s memorable. That’s more than we can say about Pinocchio.
“The Little Drummer Boy, Book II” (1976)
Look at Rankin and Bass, gettin’ away with a two-part sequel years before anybody else tried one! This 1976 short special picks up right where the first one ends; our titular hero Aaron leaves the manger with one of the three Kings to save a set of Silver Bells meant to mark Christ’s arrival on Earth from a band of Roman soldiers.
“Book II” is much less somber and more jokey than its predecessor, partly because it doesn’t have baby Jesus looming quite so heavily over the plot, and partly because the lead general is played by Zero Mostel and you don’t wanna waste a comedic talent like that. Plus, the villains aren’t unfortunate Arab stereotypes this time around — they’re unfortunate Roman stereotypes instead, which is a much easier sell. Still, odds are you’re not going to see this movie on Freeform any time soon, because it’s the other one that’s considered the classic.
“Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” (1976)
The 1976 movie “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” is basically what would happen if you got high while reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” and then decided to write a “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” sequel. This time, Rudolph is sent on a secret mission by Santa Claus: he must rescue the missing Baby New Year, or else it will be December 31st forever (in the year of 2016, this would be considered a horror film). It takes place almost entirely on the Archipelago of Lost Years, where the living embodiments of past years get to live out their retirement as kings of their respective time periods.
In other words, it’s an excuse for Rudolph to hang out with a caveman and Benjamin Franklin, which is weird as heck but still surprisingly engaging. Still, this movie’s definitely not on the same level as the original one, if only because where the heck are the Misfit Toys and Yukon Cornelius, though?
"The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow" (1975)
A young shephard named Lucas wants to see Christmas snow for the first time in his life, but there's one problem: he's blind, having been struck by lightning as a child, so he has to rely on the nuns who took him in to describe snow to him instead — you know, until your standard Christmas miracle happens during the Abbey's nativity play and he gets his wish. This special doesn't get aired very much anymore either, but it's got Angela Lansbury as a kindly nun narrator, which earns it a heck of a lot of brownie points,
"Santa Baby" (2001)
I can guarantee none of you have heard of this Suzanne Collins (yes, the "Hunger Games" author) co-written 2001 special, which was Rankin/Bass' first production in over 16 years, as well as its last — and the only one to feature a predominantly black cast, as near as I can tell. The animation might not be as iconic as earlier specials, but with a voice cast that boasts Gregory Hines, Eartha Kitt, Vanessa Williams and Patti LaBelle, it certainly has one of the cooler Christmas soundtracks of the bunch.
“Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” (1974)
Rankin/Bass’s usual formula is to take a popular song and base an entire movie premise around it, but with their sequels they instead tend to focus on the character they’ve turned into a beloved Christmas icon. “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” does both: it brings Frosty back, but it also introduces elements from the song “Winter Wonderland,” specifically the idea of a snowman Parson Brown (because the human Parson refuses to marry Frosty and his new Frankenstein’s Snow-bride on the grounds that they aren’t real people. Come on, dude, what happened to Love is Love?).
Crystal is a cute snow-wife and it’s a sweet enough movie overall, but the implication that Frosty needs a romantic soulmate to be less lonely is a little annoying today. You couldn’t have made him a snow-friend first and then waited to see if they had any chemistry, kids? Maybe Crystal wants to move to the North Pole and see what living together with Frosty is like first before she takes on such a serious commitment?
“Jack Frost” (1979)
The 1979 “Jack Frost” special is actually less of a Christmas movie than it is a Groundhog’s Day movie, really, as it’s narrated by a Punxsutawney Phil lookalike and revolves around Jack Frost’s “Little Mermaid”-esque quest to become human before spring so he can win the love of a beautiful woman. It has a pretty great villain in Kubla Kraus (boy, does Rankin/Bass know how to sell a comically eccentric dictator) and a surprisingly bittersweet ending considering the type of movie it is. Forget about “Rise of The Guardians” — why aren’t we shipping this version of Jack Frost with Elsa from “Frozen,” Tumblr animation fandom? He’s so much more chipper and friendly!
"The Stingiest Man In Town" (1978)
Of all the traditionally animated Christmas specials Rankin/Bass produced, this one is the most visually interesting — it looks more like "The Last Unicorn," a later Rankin/Bass work, than the cutesy cartoonish "Frosty" movies. It's also a remake of a live-action 1956 musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," told from the point of view of an actual bug named B.A.H. Humbug. Nowadays its basically impossible to find anywhere but on VHS, but if you like '80s anime it's absolutely worth trying to hunt down because it's surprisingly gorgeous.
“The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus” (1985)
Whether or not you enjoyed this movie as a kid is entirely dependent on how many “Lord Of The Rings” books you read and “Legend of Zelda” games you played growing up. Were you an obsessively witchy nerd who loved stories about fairies and other immortal beings sitting around an elegant conference table, using their infinite wisdom to make very important decisions? Then you definitely loved this 1985 movie, which was inspired by a book written by “The Wizard Of Oz” scribe L. Frank Baum.
The story of an pagan, multicultural-minded Santa who fights demons by giving gifts to children is definitely the farthest thing from a Christmas story that you can probably get while still being about Santa Claus (although, “Christmas in July”…). But it’s because of this that “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” completely stands out from all of the other Rankin/Bass productions, evoking their animated version of “The Hobbit” more than it does any of the other Christmas movies.
“Frosty The Snowman” (1969)
Forget about “Westworld” or “Ex Machina” or “Battlestar Galactica”: This is the best story about a man-made object achieving sentience, and it’s only the length of a single sitcom episode. “Frosty” is also one of the very few Rankin/Bass productions where the eccentric villain — this time a terrible magician named Professor Hinkle — doesn’t outshine the dopey naive protagonist, because Frosty’s just so surprisingly chill (pun intended) and good-natured that you can’t help but root for him.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town“ (1970)
“The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” might have the more unique and visually interesting version of the young Santa origin story, but 1970’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” definitely has the better soundtrack of the two — face it, you’ve definitely caught yourself humming “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” to yourself at least once in your life.
“Comin’ To Town” also has some fantastic supporting characters, like the reformed Winter Warlock, and the ill-tempered yet hilariously-named Burgermeister Meisterburger, who’s outlawed children’s toys in his little German town on the grounds that they annoy him. It’s a bit of an odd tale (although the back-and-forth narration, which features little kids asking questions about Santa, makes the weirdness of the story a lot more palatable) but at its core, it’s about Santa hiding out from the law and sticking it to the Man... and what’s not to love about that?
“Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)
Some movies are classic for a reason, and the 1964 “Rudolph” special is every bit deserving of its iconic legacy. Everyone knows the classic story of Rudolph’s red-nosed ostracization, but the Rankin/Bass adaptation adds a ton of other lovable oddballs into the mix — like Hermey, the toymaker who secretly wants to be a dentist, the Island of Misfit Toys, the adventurous Yukon Cornelius, and the similarly misunderstood Abominable Snowman. All together, they’re a stone cold pack of weirdos who teach us that it’s okay to be different, so long as you have friends to be different with.
“The Year Without A Santa Claus” (1974)
The villainous and delightfully catty Miser Brothers are enough to put this film on the top of the list — seriously, just try to get that Snow Miser/Heat Miser song out of your head. But even without the show-stopping weather-related musical number, there’s plenty to love about this tale of Christmas spirit — or Christmas burnout, depending on your point of view.
Thanks to a frustrating illness and growing disappointment with Christmas materialism, Santa gets fed up with his day job and decides to take a vacation somewhere down south where there isn’t any snow, leaving Mrs. Claus to figure out how to get all of their presents to children around the world without him. Anybody who’s ever felt under-appreciated at work can relate to both Santa and Mrs. Claus, I bet (but maybe a little more to Mrs. Claus, because she knows how to get stuff done), and the film’s version of “Blue Christmas” is lowkey one of the most tear-jerking, heartwarming Christmas movie moments ever.