Have A Cup of Cheer: A History of Television’s Animated Christmas Specials

Hermey the Elf and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Wikimedia Commons.

By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist

What would Christmas be without Charlie Brown and the Grinch? It’s hard to imagine a time when these beloved characters didn’t beckon to us from our televisions each Christmas season, but the animated holiday special is an invention of midcentury America.

In the prosperous years after World War II, with more families buying homes and setting up their own suburban domains, a nesting instinct took hold of the American family. Holidays, a time that used to be about going out and visiting friends and family, were now focused on staying at home, decorating, cooking, and entertaining as a family unit. The television became a large part of the entertainment portion of that equation, so it isn’t surprising that television networks sought the family audience as the holidays drew near.

In 1962, NBC aired Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. The one hour special, featuring the voice of Jim Backus as the beloved cartoon character Mr. Magoo, offered a relatively straightforward take on Charles Dickens’ classic story and featured songs by famed Broadway songwriters Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. It’s no coincidence that one year after Magoo, two other classic Christmas specials were already in production: the show was such a success that other networks clamored for their own holiday specials, setting off a golden decade of the Christmas classics that are still airing today.  

Next, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a stop motion animated adventure that first aired in 1964. Featuring Burl Ives as the narrator and snowman  “host,” the show expanded on the story of the classic song, adding new tunes and new characters for children to love. It also launched the careers of Rankin & Bass, who would go on to produce more classic holiday specials than any other team.

An anomaly among the specials despite being perhaps the biggest classic of all, A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965. No celebrity voices were used, and even the practice of using adult voice actors for the child characters was overthrown in favor of using the voices of real (non-show business) children. A melancholy story, a jazzy soundtrack, and a reading from the Gospel of St. Luke all made the network executives nervous, fearing that the special they had expected to be a hit would end up being too much of a downer. Instead, the show defied their fears to become a smash, airing every year since.

1966 saw the introduction of Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. This special featured Boris Karloff as the narrator, reading Dr. Seuss’s 1957 picture book as Chuck Jones’s animation brought the words to life. It was costly to produce and some considered it a risk, but it too became a classic.

Rankin/Bass returned in 1968 with The Little Drummer Boy, read by Greer Garson, and then again in 1969 with Frosty the Snowman, featuring the voicework of Jimmy Durante. But it was their 1970 production of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, starring Fred Astaire, that took the cake: it’s often considered to be the best of all their holiday specials.

While Rankin/Bass continued producing specials in the 70’s and 80’s, including Year Without A Santa Claus and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, both in 1974, most specials that followed used characters from hit shows, incorporating them into holiday stories. 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol saw Mickey Mouse stepping into Charles Dickens’s world, along with a host of other Disney characters, while 1987’s A Garfield Christmas Special allowed viewers to share the holiday with that famous grumpy cat.

These classic specials are rerun on television each year, leaving not much room for new specials, although some, like 1999’s Olive, The Other Reindeer and 2007’s Shrek the Halls have managed to work their way onto the list of perennials. The next great holiday special could be airing any day now, so just watch those TVs!

Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.


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