Spiked Nostalgia Nog

The 10 Most Notorious Old-School TV Holiday Specials

Not all TV holiday specials are created equal.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Amazon
Traditions Of The Holidays

Let’s face it: The history of holiday specials is weird and sometimes hilariously unsettingly. For every special that becomes a beloved holiday perennial, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas there are a dozen oddball duds that dress up familiar characters in holiday garb, then ratchet up the maudlin sentimentality.

There are lots of bizarre holiday specials with no real reason to exist but these are the ten most inexplicable and notorious. Perpare to take a strange holiday trip down memory lane!

10. A Christmas Dream (1984)

In 1984’s A Christmas Dream, quite possibly the single most 1980s production of the Reagan decade, a big-hearted professional Santa Claus played by a hilariously earnest Mr. T teaches a whiny little cynic played by Emmanuel Lewis the true meaning of Christmas.

Winter Dream imparts the healthy message that wonderful things happen when lonely children go off with an adult stranger in a costume. Mr. T's Christmas lover takes his new friend on a magical trip through New York, where they enjoy such variety show attractions as the ventriloquism of Willie Tyler & Lester, the magic of David Copperfield, the fancy footwork of The Rockettes, singer Maureen McGovern and a visit to FAO Schwartz that doubles as a commercial for the iconic toy store. There's even a cameo from then-Mayor Ed Koch, the young people’s favorite.

The special climaxes with Mr. T’s street Santa delivering a lengthy monologue about Christ’s birth while dressed distractingly like Pee-Wee Herman, complete with a red bow tie.

9. Halloween is Grinch Night (1978)

The beloved 1968 perennial How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the perfect combination of naughty and nice. The juxtaposition of the Grinch’s unrelenting darkness and contempt for Who-humanity and the equally volcanic force of Christmas cheer amongst the happy residents of Whoville fueled an instant classic.

The same could not be said, however, of its ill-fated 1978 follow-up, Halloween is Grinch Night. Without the wonder and cheer of Christmas the Grinch’s grouchiness is almost too much to bear. The bizarrely grim special posits Halloween as a night of unrelenting terror, when a Sweet and Sour wind fills the air and the entirety of Whoville slams their doors shut and go into lockdown rather than face the Grinch’s wrath.

8. Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Star Wars was not the multi-billion dollar multi-media phenomenon it would become when the Star Wars Holiday Special was rushed into production. It was just an extraordinarily successful movie that had captured the imagination of the American people, particularly children.

So making a glitzy variety show-style Holiday special based on George Lucas’ brainchild wasn’t the worst idea in the world.

Just about every decision and creative choice that followed WAS surreally misconceived, however, beginning with the decision to focus not on Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Princess Leia but rather Chewbacca and his family, and then to have the Wookiees communicate in untranslated grunts and groans. The Star Wars Holiday Special managed to be inappropriately, intensely sexual, particularly when Diane Carroll performs an erotically-charged dance for Chewbacca’s father.

The Star Wars Holiday Special feels nothing like the Star Wars movies and TV shows to follow and a lot like a variety of extravaganzas with names like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine. Star Wars Holiday Special has been hated for being perversely, inexplicably off-brand but it’s also picked up a dedicated cult that loves it for the same reason.

7. Rapsittie Street Kids…Believe in Santa

Throughout December of 2002 WB ran a hypnotically terrible computer-animated special torturously titled Rapsittie Street Kids…Believe in Santa. After 2002, however, they never ran it again and it was never officially released in any form.

It’s easy to see why the WB might want to pretend that Rapsittie Street Kids…Believe in Santa doesn’t exist the same way George Lucas would undoubtedly like to purge the Star Wars Holiday Special from his memory. Rapsittie Street Kids…Believe in Santa is a mind-bogglingly strange cartoon about a despondent little boy whose parents have passed and he’s mocked for this fact. He falls in love with a girl and gives her a teddy bear that is his only link to his dead mom and dad but she hurls it into the trash because she only wants new, expensive gifts that come from the mall.

6. Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976)

Nothing about Paul Lynde’s persona screams “Halloween” yet that somehow did not keep ABC from giving him a special devoted to the holiday in 1976.

The special’s premise is that Lynde is being held hostage by witches played by Margaret Hamilton (reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz) and Billie Hayes (reprising the role of Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo from H.R Pufnstuff).

The witches feel that they are not sufficiently appreciated by the public, so they hire Lynde to do PR for them. As a reward, he’s given three wishes that lead, unfortunately to interminable sketches about trucking and Rudolf Valentino’s films and a not-so-grand finale at a haunted disco where special guest stars Kiss perform 3 songs, including the tender on-the-road ballad “Beth.”

Other guest stars include such variety show staples as Florence Henderson, Betty White, Tim Conway, Billy Barty and Donny and Marie Osmond cast against type as young hooligans. Lynde’s complete disinterest in this tacky nonsense is palpable and understandable. This scrapes the very bottom of the barrel.

7. TMNT—We Wish You a Turtle Christmas

In 1994 the people behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles decided to spread a little live-action Yuletide cheer with their first Christmas special.

These turtles were not the impressive creations of the Jim Henson Creature Shop showcased in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead the “Turtles” are represented by no names in what look like costumes purchased at Spirit Halloween. The threadbare plot involves the Turtles discovering that they neglected to buy a present for their wise rodent sensei Splinter. So they go up to the surface, where they have no concerns about being recognized, and buy him a present. Then, in the thrilling climax, they give Splinter his present while accompanied by unimpressed children.

All the while Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael sing parodies of famous Christmas carols with new lyrics relating to their lives like “Christmas Eve and all is ready/No BeBop and no Rocksteady”, “Let’s all sing this part together/merry Christmas to the Shredder!” And “Gotta get a gift for Splinter/I hate shopping in the winter. The songs cover a wide variety of genres, from opera to reggae to rap. Your nostagalia mileage will vary.

8. B.C: A Special Christmas (1981)

The glaring conceptual flaw in the 1981 Yuletide laugher B.C: A Special Christmas’ is right there in its title. How can you celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus and everything that followed before the Christian savior was even born? The title confusingly seems to cancel itself out. B.C of course stands for Before Christ while Christmas is a holiday inexorably rooted in the birth, life and death of Jesus.

Or at least X-Mas was a holiday inexorably rooted in the birth, life and death before B.C: A Special Christmas got its meaty caveman paws all over it. The special’s semi-clever premise is that its con-man protagonist and his equally duplicitous friend essentially invent a winter holiday they call X-Mas (because they intend to sell an X amount of presents to the Masses) and a peculiar, stout gift-giver named Santa (for Sanity Claws, as he’ll need to have clean hands in order to avoid soiling the gifts) as a way to sell suckers a bunch of crap they don’t need.

These enterprising early men essentially invent capitalism along with Christmas but on December 25th they’re shocked to discover that Santa does exist and has given them all presents, even the objectively naughty.

3. The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas (1996)

When ABC green-lit The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas they hoped that the juxtaposition of Halloween-style spookiness and Christmas would remind viewers of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Nightmare Before Christmas. What they got instead was a candy corn-flavored lump of coal in television form about a whiny and unpleasant Eddie Munster (Bug Hall) pining for an old-fashioned Transylvanian Christmas. He gets more than he bargained for when Santa Claus is teleported to the Munster's spooky mansion along with a pair of horny elves more interested in getting laid than giving gifts.

This regrettable one-off doesn’t feature the cast of the original show or its inexplicably long-lived 1980s reboot The Munsters Today or even Here Come the Munsters, a TV movie from the year before. Instead, it casts Sam McMurray as Herman, Ann Magnuson as Lily, Elaine Hendrix as Marilyn and Sandy Baron as Grandpa. This cheap, endlessly padded, feature-length schlock-fest proved an ending as well as a beginning for this iteration of the famous family.

2. He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Celebration (1985)

He-Man and She-Ra got caught up in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Moralistic busybodies decided that the shows promoted idolatry and witchcraft.

That did not keep He Man and She-Ra from spreading Christmas cheer and the Good News of Jesus’ birth through its own holiday special. In He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Celebration bumbling comic relief wizard Orko crash-lands on earth, where a pair of earth children teach him about Jesus’ birth, Christmas and Santa Claus. When the children are transported to He-Man and She-Ra’s world they are abducted by Skeletor.

Skeletor begins behaving in an uncharacteristically kind and thoughtful manner towards the children. He protects and cares for them rather than kill them, proving that nobody is immune to the awesome power of Christmas, not even effete, theatrical evil skeleton monsters.

1. Christmas Comes to Pac-Land (1982)

Pac-Land, the home base of both Pac-Man and his family and the ghosts that are continually trying to eat them, is canonically a world without Christmas or Santa Claus. So when a tech-savvy Santa Claus crash-lands in Pac-Land after his reindeer are spooked by ghosts they have no context for him. They speculate that he's a Martian or a visitor from another world until he explains the wonder of Christmas to them.

This turns spherical ghost-munching video game icons into instant true believers dedicated to helping Santa and saving Christmas. Even the ghosts are full of Christmas cheer and goodwill to men. After his reindeer eat power pellets, Santa and his slay are on their way and Christmas is saved yet again.