Times certainly have changed since I was a kid. Looking through my mom’s extensive collection of Christmas DVD’s I see plenty of movies that had been made specifically for television had been shown on network TV for a couple years. With the rise of cable and streaming services it’s much more cost effective for studios for focus this output to where people are paying for them as opposed to worrying about interruptions to network television.
Yet despite this, there are three specials that have been shown continually for a half a century. All three of them are animated, which is more surprising considering those tend to have a shelf life of five years at best before being retired to cable. Those three are A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In fact in a letter to a critic for TV guide, one person bemoaned the fact that those aren’t on cable or as far as legal streaming goes, the websites for ABC, CBS, and NBC are the only places to find them for free.
Matt Rouse for TV Insider explained when asked about the propriety rights to CBS that exist for Rudolph that prevent it from airing on Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas,
“CBS has exclusive rebroadcast rights to the original…Rudolph special, which is why it wouldn’t show up on a cable outlet that’s part of the ABC-Disney stable. I get the confusion… These are precious properties, which is why they don’t air everywhere.”
These three specials are mentioned in the same breath as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Like the classics of Dickens and Capra the networks initially dismissed all three specials, but time has vindicated them as it did their festive forbearers. There have been some other good specials, such as the Animaniacs Wakko’s Wish, The Pinky and the Brain Christmas Special, and Winnie-the-pooh and Christmas Too. Sadly these three have been retired from the airwaves to make room for more reality competitons. Yet Rudolph, Charlie, and the Grinch specials remain favorites.
What makes these three so precious that the big three networks would hoard them like a dragon’s treasure? Why is it after 50 years we still carve out time in our schedule to watch them? Why do people defend them, warts and all, yet mock and derided the CW’s Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer? Doesn’t Shrek the Halls boast better animation and laugh out loud humor? Isn’t Arthur’s Perfect Christmas more inclusive of the holidays in December, and a because better reflection of our society, while Charlie Brown looks like a VeggieTales video?
Maybe. But maybe, like the Grinch hearing that sound in Whoville and realizing the holiday means something more, maybe there is something more to these three specials that makes them so enduring compared to some of their more modern brethren.
While Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer may be based on a song like Rudolph there’s no real poignancy to the story. Grandma gets drunk, gets hit by Santa’s sleigh, there’s something about a cousin trying to take over the family business, a lawsuit against Santa, the evil cousin wanting to take over Christmas and a big Miracle on 34th Street level trial. Yet despite being based on a song, the characters don’t really learn or grow . I’ve watched it a dozen times and I still can’t tell you what it’s about. It has more plotlines then the entire Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy, and unlike Lord of the Rings, none of the plot lines for Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer connect.
Contrast that with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The main thesis for the story is the song Rudolph the red Nosed Reindeer, and even in that little song you have the story of a Reindeer who is ostracized because he’s different. Yet despite of it all, Rudolph not only finds a way to overcome his obstacles but selflessly lends his services to Santa when needed. It’s a much more accessible and universal theme. Add to it a host of new songs by Johnny marks who wrote the original “Rudolph” song, memorable characters, a tight, engaging story, and the stop motion animation that included Rudolph having an actual working nose, you have nothing short of a masterpiece.
Unlike Grandma, Shrek the Halls is at least loved by viewers. In fact until ABC lost the airing rights to Grinch to NBC, they used to package the two together in the 8/7 central slot as the “two green meenies.” It’s a pretty good connection, especially since both Grinch and Shrek don’t seem to understand what the day is about. Shrek the Halls has a good story and some funny bits, they even pay homage to A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and It’s a Wonderful Life. As a story, it fits into the vein of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in which everything that can go wrong will inevitably go comedicaly wrong. In the wake of all of this, Shrek admits that he doesn’t understand Christmas as Ogres don’t celebrate anything. His friends explain it to him as being about food, fun, and family as it winds down to a similar conclusion as Christmas Vacation and Home Alone, that being with the family at the holidays will inevitably lead to chaos so you might as well embrace it in all it’s glory.
Yet as funny as those situations are, let’s remember that the noise and chaos was what led the Grinch to wanting to steal Christmas. Grinch lists the obnoxious toys they play with, the singing and the food as among the things he hates about the day. Yet when he steals it and is about to dump it he finds that Christmas still comes without all the trimmings and trappings that Shrek’s friends mention are part of it. Grinch learns that Christmas means a little bit more.
Arthur and his friends seem to think the same thing as Shrek’s friends in Arthur’s Perfect Christmas. It certainly one of the better holiday specials to air on PBS, and one of the few on that network to at least acknowledge the religious aspects of the holiday. It also features a similar plot device to Charlie Brown as one of Arthur’s friends, Buster Baxter is in the same place as our favorite blockhead. He’s burned out about Christmas thanks to his mom waking him up every morning. He sings about how great it would be to just have fun, sleep late, and spend time with her, the very things he can do at Christmas. Yet in the end, he and his mom put the kibosh on the whole Christmas thing and decide to celebrate Baxter Day instead.
In contrast, Charlie Brown doesn’t decide to turn around and celebrate Boogalooda Day because he’s burned out by Christmas. Rather after Linus gives his stirring speech, Charlie Brown is actually even more determined to try and hang onto what the day is all about and not let the commercialism ruin his Christmas. Remember, in all the years we’ve seen Linus and Charlie together, the only time Linus sets down that blanket is when he’s quoting the Gospel of Luke in a Charlie Brown Christmas. Following his sage-like friends advice, steps out in a simple, child like faith and just keeps plugging away.
Further, all three of these classic specials have one other trait that sets them apart from these three more recent specials. There is a certain timeless quality to Rudolph, Grinch and Charlie Brown. Arthur’s Perfect Christmas looks like it is set in the 90s and thus like many PBS older Christmas specials is largely retired. Shrek the Halls features some very early 20’s humor that goes over the heads of younger viewers. Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer tried to do what Batman: The Animated Series did so well and mix and match the time periods but failed as it lacks the film noire credentials of Batman to pull it off, and instead became a tawdry mish-mash that tried to hard to be relevant. Yet, the Grinch, Rudolph and Charlie Brown despite clearly being 50 years old have managed to transcend the 60s and remain part of our cultural Holiday lexicon.
Maybe that is why these three classics have continued to delight us, even when other worthy specials have been retired. They remind us that Christmas doesn’t come form a store, as the day will still come even without the trimmings and trappings and chaos. They remind us how a simple childlike faith can give us the strength to carry on no matter how burnt out and frustrated we are. And more importantly, they remind us that even a little light can shine through the murkiest fog and to give of ourselves. More importantly, like Dickens and Capra, they manage to transcend the period in which they are set and remind us of a story for the ages.
And that’s what great Christmas specials are all about, Charlie Brown.
2000 Warner Bros, 1964 Rankin/Bass/ Videocraft International, LTD/Universal Television, 1966 Cat in the Hat Productions/MGM Television/Warner Bros., 2007 Dreamworks, 1965 Peanuts WOrldwid, LLC/Lee Mendelson Films/Warner Bros., 2000 CINAR.