The holiday season creeps closer and closer with each passing day, but it brings with it the all-too-familiar rotation of Christmas specials and films. From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to A Charlie Brown Christmas, audiences are well-versed in these comforting but well-worn specials that appear every December.
This time, Wealth of Geeks would like to showcase underrated holiday specials that, while an audience member may know, nevertheless deserve their own time to shine. Hopefully, these selections can also find a place in the traditional holiday repertoire alongside the perennial favorites.
1. The Snowman
It wouldn’t feel quite right for a list like this to not have some familiar holiday staples and a magical snowman that comes to life is a classic trope. Based on the 1978 children’s book by Raymond Briggs, The Snowman follows the Christmas Eve adventure of a young boy, James, who builds a snowman that comes to life. Told entirely without words and punctuated by gorgeous pastel animation, The Snowman has been a holiday staple in the United Kingdom for over forty years. Stateside, however, it remains one of the most underrated holiday specials ever.
2. The Twilight Zone: “The Night of the Meek”
Between acclaimed science fiction and horror-based tales, it can seem that The Twilight Zone never had the time to delve into more light-hearted endeavors, let alone Christmas episodes. “The Night of the Meek” was the first of three Christmas-based episodes for the beloved anthology and is one of its most life-affirming.
A drunken, but good-hearted department store Santa gets fired from his job on Christmas Eve. Stumbling over garbage, the ‘Santa’ discovers a bag that can magically produce gifts for anyone who asks. With a captivating performance by Art Carney, “The Night of the Meek” is easily one of the most magical trips into The Twilight Zone, and one of the most underrated holiday specials.
3. Top Gear: “The Nativty Special”
A more unorthodox sort of holiday special, “The Nativity Special” saw the original presenting trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond recreating the journey of The Three Wise Men. Across Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, the Top Gear Boys journey 1200 miles to bring gifts to a certain baby in Bethlehem. A particular highlight of this special is the bewilderment of the trio discovering how massively popular Top Gear had become in the Middle East at the time, being swarmed by devoted fans in Syria.
4. George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker has been a beloved staple of classical ballet and an annual tradition for those with the means to see a live stage production each December. Less well-known are the numerous film and television adaptations of this Tchaikovsky masterpiece, particularly this 1993 film version released by Warner Bros.
Based on the acclaimed George Balanchine choreographed production for the New York City Ballet, the 1993 adaptation is, essentially, a filmed version of the stage production. In one highlight, Macaulay Culkin appears at the height of his fame as the titular Nutcracker. Though it doesn’t quite take advantage of its medium, it remains a lavish production that celebrates the spirit and joy of the Christmas season.
5. Rugrats: “The Rugrats Chanukah”
Christmas tends to dominate the holiday-themed specials each December, but it is easy to forget that it is called “the holidays” for a reason. In that respect, viewers should give special attention to this 1996 special, with the Rugrats cast learning the meaning behind the Jewish holiday. It was the first children’s animated TV show to focus on Chanukah and is still widely acclaimed for its writing over twenty-five years later. Despite the accolades, it remains one of the most underrated holiday specials ever.
6. Peanuts: “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown”
A Charlie Brown Christmas, without a doubt, towers as a Christmas classic, so Charles Schultz or Bill Melendez would never have an easy time creating a compelling follow-up. Twenty-seven years later, in November 1992, they would create this special that focuses on various Peanuts gang vignettes instead of the single storyline from the original. While not as well-received as the first, It’s Christmastime Again still possesses much of the same Peanuts charm and remains one of the most underrated holiday specials ever.
7. Alvin & the Chipmunks: “A Chipmunk Christmas”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas wasn’t the only holiday special that the legendary Chuck Jones co-produced over his storied career. Fifteen years after that production, he would collaborate with Bagdasarian Productions to create A Chipmunk Christmas, promoting Ross Bagdasarian’s beloved novelty group Alvin & the Chipmunks.
In it, the titular Alvin gifts his beloved Golden Echo harmonica to a sick child in the spirit of the season. However, he jeopardizes an opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall when the venue requests he play a harmonica solo, causing him and his brothers, Simon and Theodore, to cook up ways to buy a new harmonica in time. With the same fluid character animation as in the aforementioned Grinch, “A Chipmunk Christmas” basks in the warmth of the season, with some classic jingles to match.
8. Arthur Christmas
Produced in 2011 by the beloved Aardman Animations company, Arthur Christmas offers a modern dose of British wit on classic Christmas stories. Arthur Claus is the son of Malcolm Claus, the current Santa Claus, and is caught up in the high-tech modernization of the North Pole operation. Upon discovering a bicycle wasn't delivered to a young girl, Arthur sets out to deliver the gift personally, alongside his traditionalist grandfather and an enthusiastic elf.
With a keen focus on the dysfunctional family dynamic of the Clauses and a voice cast featuring James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, and Bill Nighy, Arthur Christmas is a showcase of Aardman’s talent at spinning a classic Christmas yarn.
9. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
Nobody could compile a list of underrated holiday specials without at least a few mentions from arguably the kingmakers of the holiday special, Rankin/Bass Productions.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s book of the same name and produced in 1985, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus offers an interpretation of how Santa Claus became a beloved holiday icon. While similar in premise to Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Life and Adventures feels more akin to a classic fantasy adventure, featuring more mysticism than expected. This special also serves as the final stop-motion production by the beloved Rankin/Bass, ending a nostalgic era for the studio.
10. Doctor Who: “The Christmas Invasion”
Doctor Who never had Christmas-themed specials until its revival in 2005, kicking off with this episode formally introducing David Tennant’s beloved Tenth Doctor. In the special, the newly rejuvenated Doctor, still recovering from his prior injuries, must work alongside his companions in thwarting an invasion of the Earth by the barbarous Sycorax species.
Though focused primarily on the Doctor’s supporting cast, the episode still earns wide acclaim for Tennant’s performance. It ranks highly among not just Doctor Who’s Christmas episodes, but among the show as a whole.
11. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
One of the many direct-to-video releases Disney created at the beginning of the millennium, Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas initially met with a mixed reception but has gone on to become a cult Christmas sleeper. Structured around three short stories, Once Upon a Christmas focuses on the core Disney gang of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, as each celebrates or honors the Christmas spirit in their own way. The standout story of the production retells The Gift of the Magi, starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
12. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
The original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer kicked off a productive era for Rankin/Bass in 1964, but not many realize the studio produced more than a few follow-ups to that Christmas classic. This 1976 production begins right where the original special ended, with Rudolph tasked with finding Baby New Year before midnight on December 31st, or else the new year will never come. More ambitious in scale, with a sequence dedication to an archipelago of past years, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is a novel New Year’s Eve companion to its shiny predecessor.
13. Ranma ½: “Tendo Family Christmas Scramble”
Critics seldom cite anime as a source for Christmas specials, but holiday-themed episodes have been part of the scene for decades. None have gone to the root of the Christmas spirit quite like Ranma ½’s second OVA, however.
The Tendo Family hosts a massive Christmas Eve party, inviting most of their friends and rivals over to celebrate the holiday. Naturally, chaos ensues as the Tendos and Saotomes ‘scramble’ to get everything in order. More so than most Christmas anime, “Tendo Family Christmas Scramble” captures the sheer madness that can occur, especially when preparing for Christmas.
14. The Powerpuff Girls: “Twas the Fight Before Christmas”
Of the many classic Cartoon Network cartoons of the late 1990s, no doubt one of the most beloved was Craig McCracken’s The Powerpuff Girls for its homage to superheroes and anime. “Twas the Fight” takes the same high-octane action the series was known for and sets its action on Christmas Eve, where Princess Morbucks tricks Santa Claus into granting her wish to become a Powerpuff Girl, powers and all. Now, it’s up to the Powerpuff Girls to take down Princess, expose her deception, and save Christmas for all the children of the world. A ludicrous set-up, yes, but one that makes a viewer want to pump their fist in the air all the same. That earns it a spot among the most underrated holiday specials.
15. Blackadder: “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol”
A profoundly subversive take on the Charles Dicken classic, “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” takes the basic premise of the original story and turns it on its head with the trademark wit becoming of the Blackadder series. Ebenezer Blackadder, in contrast to his more duplicitous ancestors, is a kind-hearted but naïve businessman taken advantage of by his fellow Englishmen. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas, Blackadder sees scenes from his ancestors’ lives to congratulate him for embracing his better angels.
Rather than taking comfort in his better nature, however, this Blackadder comes to admire his predecessors and takes heart to emulate them instead. If one is eager to dive into a twisted version of a Christmas special, “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” is the one to beat.
16. Mr. Bean: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean.”
Blackadder wasn’t the only classic Rowan Atkinson character to serve as the source of another underappreciated Christmas special. Befitting the more child-like central character, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean” focused less on dialogue and more on physical comedy, having been influenced by comedians such as Jacques Tati. With the nativity treated like a toy set and a turkey skit that no doubt inspired Friends years later, this special showcased Atkinson’s knack for timing and captured the more juvenile side of the holidays.
17. Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas
The original 2003 film directed by Jon Favreau remains a modern Christmas classic, but this stop-motion interpretation made in 2014 has a certain nostalgia that nestles it with other underrated holiday specials.
Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame takes over from Will Farrell as the voice of Buddy in this throwback to classic Rankin/Bass Christmas productions. While only half the runtime of the live-action production, Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas still captures the spirit of the holiday season and pays a welcome homage to the original.
18. The Small One
Before Don Bluth parted ways with Walt Disney Animation in the early 1980s, he completed this last project for the studio in 1978. Like most Disney productions, The Small One is based on a children’s book, telling the story of a young Galilean boy who must sell the titular donkey due to its old age. Determined to find him a kind master, the boy encounters several prospective buyers only to meet rejection each time until he happens upon a certain couple on their way to Bethlehem.
Though not often discussed outside of its significance in Don Bluth’s career, The Small One remains a cult holiday favorite for its earnest heart.
19. Frosty’s Winter Wonderland
The original Frosty the Snowman remains a staple of holiday programming and, much like Rudolph before it, has seen several follow-ups over the past half-century. The first, 1976’s Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, remains the best of the bunch, possessing a more refined animation style and truly capturing the joy and wonder of the winter season. Antagonist Jack Frost, who himself would receive a Rankin/Bass Christmas special three years after this production, deserves a special commendation.
20. Doctor Who: “A Christmas Carol”
A more traditional Christmas special but with a shrewd Doctor Who twist, “A Christmas Carol” was Matt Smith’s first holiday episode as the Eleventh Doctor.
Starring Sir Michael Gambon as this iteration of Scrooge, the Doctor plays the role of all three Ghosts of Christmas to rescue a space liner from electrified clouds controlled by an intergalactic miser. The touch of fantasy within the special also serves as a hallmark of this era of Doctor Who, particularly under the penmanship of then-showrunner Steven Moffat.
21. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
Lost in the shuffle among the more famous Rankin/Boss productions, this hand-drawn animated special arrived in 1974. Loosely inspired by A Visit from St. Nicholas, ‘Twas the Night follows the story of a small town in turn-of-the-century New York that inadvertently offends Santa Claus thanks to an anonymous letter published in the local newspaper.
While not as high stakes as Rudolph’s Shiny New Year or The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is a charming special filled with Rankin/Bass’s trademark winter nostalgia.
22. Peanuts: “Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne”
The most recent holiday special on the list and the latest Peanuts holiday special comes from 2021. Breaking from tradition by being an Apple TV+ exclusive, For Auld Lang Syne follows Lucy as she throws a massive New Year’s Eve party after finding out her grandmother won’t be arriving for the holiday. What follows is a scramble to host the perfect New Year’s bash, with Lucy beginning to feel the strain not unlike her put-upon friend, Charlie Brown. Even in the 2020s, the Peanuts charm continues to cut across generations of fans and For Auld Lang Syne refreshes the tradition by focusing on Charlie Brown’s greatest foil.
23. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
Of the many underrated holiday specials overseen by Muppets creator Jim Henson, none have captured the spirit of the holiday quite as gracefully as this 1977 special. Loosely inspired by The Gift of the Magi and based on the children’s book of the same name, Jug-Band Christmas follows a poor otter family who strive to win a Christmas talent show to afford gifts to one another. It wouldn’t quite be a Muppets special without an appearance from Kermit the Frog, who narrates the piece and the soundtrack shines with songs from the acclaimed Paul Williams.
24. Spongebob Squarepants: “Christmas Who?”
A highlight from the early years of the long-running Nickelodeon franchise, “Christmas Who?” deserves mention as the show’s first double-length episode. Presented as a special within a special, the story follows SpongeBob as he learns about Christmas for the first time from Sandy Cheeks and his enthusiastic quest to spread his newfound holiday cheer. With a delightful central song and the madcap humor that SpongeBob is famous for, “Christmas Who?” would be the show’s only Christmas episode until the Rankin/Bass-inspired “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!” in 2012.
25. The Flintstones: “A Flintstones Christmas Carol”
Don’t ask how on earth a modern stone-age family can mount a stage production of a Christmas story from 1843, let alone know what Christmas is in the first place. What matters is the delightful story within a story that the special creates as Fred Flintstone is given the role of “Ebenezer Scrooge” and lets the starring role get to his head, ignoring his family and friends.
Fiction and reality collide, as Fred and “Ebenezer” merge and come to terms with their past mistakes. As a retelling of A Christmas Carol, the special is shaky, but as a story reinterpreting the text, it’s a commendable production from Hannah-Barbera’s twilight years.