First, I should admit that I’m a sucker for a lot of holiday standards, from The Grinch and Peanuts to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. I adore both White Christmas and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but there’s also a lot of schmaltzy, badly-written nonsense floating around out there like so much stale, crusty fruitcake this time of year…and when the usual holiday fare starts wearing thin, it’s time to mix things up a bit.
The following movies and TV specials are amazing because they find new ways of celebrating the holiday spirit, with all its weird traditions and potentially awkward moments and unmeetable expectations. It’s not about irony or snark or subversion—it’s about making your own odd, goofy, wonderful kind of holiday cheer, wherever you can find it…
There are so many ways in which a late-80s update of A Christmas Carol could have gone horribly wrong, and yet Bill Murray is indescribably brilliant as viciously cynical TV exec Frank Cross, out to score holiday ratings with his tacky, exploitative live production of the Dickens classic (meta!). Murray’s trademark sarcasm and deadpan retorts make him the most entertaining incarnation of Scrooge ever, but when his smarmy yuppie facade finally cracks…well, let’s just say that the end of this movie gets me every time. By the time Murray and the rest of the cast (including Karen Allen, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen and Robert Mitchum) start singing along to “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” I defy you not to get a little teary (in a good way!) One of the greatest holiday movies of all time, in my book.
Christmas At Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)
In which Grace Jones arrives in a giant box and performs the only rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” I’ll ever truly love. Plus, Pee-Wee teaches Little Richard how to ice skate, Charo performs “Feliz Navidad” with robot accompaniment, and Zsa Zsa Gabor appears as “Princess Zsa Zsa” and SO MUCH MORE. A hyper-affectionate throwback to the campy holiday TV extravaganzas of the 60s and 70s, Pee-Wee’s Christmas special is a total bizarre, sparkly delight with a heart of gold.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
I’ve already written about this amazingly bizarre and wonderful special at length, but I really can’t say enough good things about this puppety lovechild of L. Frank Baum and Rankin & Bass. It’s dark and weird and there are elves, wind demons, and a battle that involves a Santa-hating dragon…not to mention the fact that the plot centers on a council of immortal beings trying to decide whether to let Santa join them, or let him die of old age. (Spoiler: he doesn’t die, but it’s not like there aren’t people on the fence, for awhile). In short, not your usual, relentlessly cheery holiday fare, but it’s beautifully made, the design is stunning, and it’s certainly an original, fascinating take on the legend of Santa Claus through the lens of myth and fantasy.
The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)
While there’s nothing else quite as intensely strange as The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus in the Rankin/Bass holiday canon, this little doozy certainly has its moments. You have to love any premise kicked off by a whiny, chronically depressed Santa who just doesn’t give a damn about Christmas anymore. Plus, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser are the catchiest duo to ever hit holiday animation, deep-seated mommy-issues and all; if you need a quick fix, you can catch their classic, campy little number above. In the end, though, the film delivers a fun twist on the Santa story, thanks to the irrepressible Mrs. Claus, who helps her husband rediscover the Christmas spirit and saves the day. It’s also a nice change of pace to see Mrs. Claus taking the reins (with an assist from Mother Nature, no less!)—she’s a smart, sassy holiday heroine, and there really aren’t as many of those as there should be.
The show has had two fantastic Christmas-themed episodes; the first, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” is a smart, warped take on stop-motion animated holiday classics, combining group therapy and psychodrama with a fantasy land full of whimsical talking toys. The second is simply one of my favorite TV episodes of all time: “Regional Holiday Music” starts off as a goofy parody of Glee, but builds into an exploration of why the holidays are important and meaningful, as an opportunity to celebrate with the people you love, on your own terms.
It comes as close to a cliché sitcom-y resolution as Community is ever likely to get, but that happy ending has been more than earned by the fact that the show deals honestly with the reality that the holidays can be a dark time for some people, and all the forced holiday cheer in the world can’t compete with a little sincerity between friends. And I haven’t even mentioned the songs, which are all glorious and amazing—my favorite is probably Annie’s creepy, brilliant pseudo-seduction of Jeff, which deconstructs the infantilized Betty Boop-style appeal of a song like “Santa Baby” in the most hilarious way possible….
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
Not to knock the outstanding Muppet Christmas Carol, but this has always been my favorite Muppet holiday special, bringing together all of the characters from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock for some loosely plotted, rollicking Christmas merrymaking. The basic premise starts off with Fozzy invading his mother’s farm with the rest of the Muppet Show crew, just as she’s trying to leave for a vacation in Malibu. Meanwhile, Miss Piggy is stuck at photo shoot and spends most of the special running late for various reasons, while the house fills up with unexpected guests, carolers and assorted monsters. In the midst of all the chaos and singing and mild dysfunction, of course, a wonderful time is had by all, and we even get a cameo of Jim Henson himself at the very end, as all the Muppets sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” It’s really not to be missed.
Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation! (2009)
Even if you’ve never seen the show, I’d still highly recommend this special, which manages to showcase the writers’ trademark ingenuity in terms of plotting, ridiculously clever dialogue and references and all the show’s usual features and in-jokes while creating a truly delightful, heartwarming celebration of the holidays. The plot’s a little too complicated to some up here, but it’s silly and light, and yet somehow manages to be more touching than it has any right to be. Also, the special guest star who voices Santa? Clancy Brown. Not a bad starting point if you’ve been hearing good things about the series, and a seasonal must-see if you’re already a fan (or if you just love ridiculously clever, warm holiday entertainment).
The Venture Bros. (2004)
The season one episode “A Very Venture Christmas” starts off with a brilliant pastiche of every Christmas special cliché ever and ends with a visit from the Krampus. There’s also a bomb planted in a miniature Nativity scene. I don’t even want to say anything more. It’s just ridiculous, and amazing. Krampus!
Even casual Futurama fans will probably already be familiar with the fact that a psychotic Robot Santa terrorizes the Planet Express gang every Xmas (in the future, of course, the holiday is pronounced “eks-mas”). The character was introduced in the first season’s “Xmas Story” (which ends with a rousing rendition of “Santa Claus Is Gunning You Down”), and returns in the third season episode “A Tale of Two Santas,” which also features Kwanzaabot, mistaken robo-idenitity, and Dr. Zoidberg pretending to be Jesus. Robot Santa also features in the fifth season’s “Futurama Holiday Spectacular” and Bender’s Big Score. Sure, in the future, Santa might be feared across the galaxy as a soulless killing machine—but nothing brings people closer than huddling indoors to escape his holiday wrath, so at least there’s something to look forward to….
Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)
This slice of strange but enjoyable holiday cheer features an odd array of claymation characters, from the California Raisins to a snarky duo of comic-relief dinosaurs. Admittedly, it’s kind of trippy, in that Very Special 80s way. Say what you want about the 1980s—it was a strange decade, especially on the television front—but knock back a few glasses of eggnog and see if you can turn your back on the spectacle of talking dinosaurs and giant anthropomorphized raisins soulfully singing Christmas carols. Maybe not a full-on classic, but call it a fruity palate cleanser between marathon reruns of A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Of course this makes the list, every year, forever. In terms of sheer campy absurdity, the notoriously ridiculous Star Wars Holiday Special is a perennial contender for the What. The Hell. Were They Thinking? Award. From the Boba Fett cartoon to the sight of an elderly Wookiee visibly aroused by the disco stylings of Diahann Carroll to Bea Arthur serenading the Mos Eisley cantina, the Special is a tragic experiment in messy kitsch which continues to wreak havoc in the back alleys of our pop culture consciousness. While it has never been released—in fact, George Lucas has reportedly stated, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it”—the SWHS is surprisingly easy to hunt down if you use The Force. And know how to perform a Google search. It should be noted (as a public service) that the gang from RiffTrax provide the kind of snarky commentary that might be the only way to make it through all two hours with your sanity intact. However you want to go about it, if it’s weirdness you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Scarred, possibly. Deeply traumatized? Most definitely. But not disappointed.
So, those are my oddball recommendations—if the Island of Misfit Toys had its own cable channel, I imagine it would have a lot in common with this particular lineup…maybe with some bonus Gremlins and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (or even Santa Claus: The Movie) thrown in for good (?) measure. However you end up spending the holidays this year, I hope they’re warm, wonderful, and highly entertaining!
Originally published in December 2012.
Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of Tor.com. She can’t believe she missed out on Pee Wee’s Christmas Special for so many years, and is making up for lost time. You can never have enough wigs and glitter around, this time of year…