The Top 10 Best Animated Christmas TV Specials Of All Time

Photo: YouTube

Christmas tree and decor? Check. Gifts for parents, friends, relatives, kids, colleagues, and other relations? Check. Egg nog? You bet! So what’s missing from our list that will make this holiday season complete? Our favorite animated TV specials, of course! As the streets and skylines and halls are decked with the adornments of the season, our living rooms are also aglow with the ornamental display of each monster, woodland creature, and harried human whose televised tales we appoint to watch each December. So many treasured programs return this time of year to fill our eager hearts with cheer. Here we rank the ten best.

The Best Animated Christmas TV Specials Of All Time:

10. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

animated christmas specials

Photo: NBCUniversal Television Distribution

Hanna Barbera, Pixar, and Dreamworks are all famous production companies known for their animated fare. But when it comes to Christmas TV specials, the star on the tree is one who’s name you probably don’t remember: Rankin/Bass. Responsible for four entries on our list, including this one, they are recognizable for their stop-motion features with doll-like characters engaged in storylines often set within snow-covered landscapes. An animation technique called “Animagic.” Finding continued success translating beloved holiday songs into memorable TV specials, their 1970 release was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Framing the action around a narrator based on a legendary celebrity became a staple of Rankin/Bass films. Here, Fred Astaire takes those reins, telling a sweet Santa origin story with some healthy scoops of Fascism thrown in to terrify the kids. But if you get past the bonfire of burning toys and forced imprisonment, a viewing of Claus will cause visions of dancing sugarplums in no time.

9. The Snowman (1982)

It is hard to separate the festivities of Christmas from the bold colors that leave the holiday awash in its singular glow. The brash reds and greens. The shimmery silvers and golds. Each provide a palate soaked up by most of the animated fare ablaze on our TV screens in December. A notable exception is “The Snowman,” a mostly dialogue-free British import. This hand drawn enchantment is painted in soft pastels, reinforcing its buoyant delicacy.  A color scheme more similar to a snowfall at sunrise than a gregarious Christmas tree, the story follows a young boy whose frosty creation magically comes to life like another snowman we’ll find on this list — and meets a similar end. Though silent, The Snowman dazzles as it soars to fantastic heights on a journey that includes an unexpected stop at The North Pole. David Bowie provides the live-action introduction in the most well-known re-release of this TV special, yet despite his celebrity, it is The Snowman and his young companion who end up leaving us starstruck.

8. The Spirit of Christmas (1995)

It’s likely that your Lord and Savior would get a kick out of the fact that his birthday was also the origin of one of the greatest cartoon TV sitcoms of all time. Future South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a short animated feature as college students called The Spirit of Christmas using construction paper, an 8mm camera, and immeasurable doses of outlandish brilliance. This caught the eye of a powerful Hollywood exec who gave the duo $1,000 to reinvent their short as a holiday greeting card for him. The second version of Spirit taught us many lessons within its less than 6 minute runtime. The most important, perhaps, was that it probably would be more impressive to meet Brian Boitano than Jesus Christ himself. This “video card” went viral during a time when we thought that term meant certain death. Instead South Park was born, bringing the world the merriest comedy to all, and to all a good night.

7. The Simpsons – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989)

animated christmas specials

Photo: 20th Television

On the air for an astounding 28 seasons and counting, it is hard to imagine what life was like before The Simpsons. Though Bart and company were first unveiled to the world in short interstitials during Fox’s The Tracy Ullman Show, most of the world remembers their origin as “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” Their first full length episode aired as a Christmas special — the only one to ever premiere in the 1980s. Its premise is a familiar one — Christmas is threatened because of lack of money, partly due to an unplanned tattoo removal, and it is Homer who has to figure out how to make it all right. Hilarious and heartfelt, this was the perfect introduction to a family who would become a part of our own households, and notable for the addition of Santa’s Little Helper into a brood that would soon become a phenomenon.

6. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

animated christmas specials

Photo: Buena Vista Distribution

Playing Scrooge in his own version of the Charles Dickens classic, the beloved, sight-challenged gentleman was not only the earliest cartoon character to do so, but Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol became the first animated made-for-TV special ever. A Christmas Carol soon became a template for any and every cartoon franchise to eventually step into, but the cream of this crop was most definitely Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck in a role he was literally born to play. Though this short was originally released theatrically to accompany The Rescuers in 1983, it found a home on TV the next year and stayed in heavy rotation thereafter. Scrooge’s transformation from miser to altruist is as captivating as any live-action production of this well-known tale, and with all our favorite Disney characters rounding out the cast in parts both large and small, it is no wonder this version is the fairest of them all.

Also: The 10 Craziest Christmas Crimes

5. Frosty the Snowman (1969)

A disloyal rabbit, a magic hat, and two eyes made out of coal are all part of another Rankin/Bass animated special on our list. But instead of employing their trademark Animagic, this one was traditionally drawn with the specific intention of resembling a Christmas card. Frosty the Snowman tells the simple story of a snowman brought to life by a magician’s wayward hat, the dastardly magician who wants it back, and the children who will go as far as needed to bring their new friend to safety, even if that’s all the way to the North Pole. Joyous and bright like the song itself, Frosty still manages to pull off the suspense of pursuit and is well-remembered for an ending that can make grown men — even the burliest of them — cry.

4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Lest anyone think that Mrs. Claus is just a trophy wife, we’re proven otherwise in the Rankin/Bass Animagic classic The Year Without a Santa Claus. In this story — based on a children’s book and not a song — Santa takes a hiatus after feeling underappreciated, so two determined elves decide to step in as replacements and become embroiled in a dispute over weather patterns. Enter Mrs. Claus, who helps them out and restores faith in her husband’s legacy. Released in 1974, this was an early tip-off to Bill O’Reilly that the War on Christmas was coming down the pike like gangbusters. Year is Rankin/Bass’s most delightfully giddy offerings and boasts one of the best musical numbers in a TV special to date, especially compared to the cumbersome Live! Broadway telecasts that we’ve been bombarded with recently. Which, despite featuring living and breathing performers, are all somehow much less animated.

3. Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

animated christmas specials

Photo: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Adapted from the classic children’s book by the legendary author, Dr. Suess’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was brought to life as a TV special in 1966 by another legend, animator Chuck Jones. It was also voiced by a third, horror movie icon Boris Karloff. With such a triumvirate, it is no surprise that Grinch became an enduring, international holiday favorite as beloved now as it was upon its first airing. Essentially a Scrooge story with a similar ending, it follows the nefarious doings of a green, furry malcontent who has become so fed up with Yuletide cheer that he joyfully plots to bring the whole thing down by committing impressively executed grand larceny. But Christmas is much more than its ornate trappings, which comes as an unexpected revelation, particularly for the king of sinful sots.

2. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

If you know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer, et al, then you probably know Rudolph and the gist of his inspiring story. But in Rankin/Bass’s best TV special on this list comes the discovery that we never knew the half of it. The bullying and ostracization of an innocent reindeer solely due to his unique deformity is all there. But we never new about Hermey, the elf whose interest in dentistry over toymaking has made him an outcast as well; and Yukon Cornelius, perhaps the first lumbersexual since Paul Bunyan to find such a wide audience of kids. Together, they forge an adventure in their quest for social acceptance and manage to save Christmas along the way. Though he’d done it already officially, the TV version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer further ensures that our hoofed hero has indeed gone down in history.

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

animated christmas specials

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC (Getty).

The network suits didn’t want real children to voice the characters, which was a departure from standard practices at the time. They also fought the jazz soundtrack, the lack of a laugh track, and the biblical recitation Linus delivers at the end. Though the main question posed by A Charlie Brown Christmas is “What is the meaning of Christmas?,” maybe it should have been “Why are there even network suits in the first place?” The animated TV special they couldn’t envision became the best there ever was. Like the small sapling of a Christmas tree Charlie Brown selects to enliven the school play, A Charlie Brown Christmas is solitary and spare, but deceptively gorgeous and primed to burst with festivity when you least expect it. Certainly an entertainment to delight the kids, its intelligence and thought-provoking complexity are still as relevant and incisive for everyone today as it was when the world’s most beloved blockhead searched for the true purpose of the world’s most well-advertised holiday so many years ago.

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