Christmas Special
Credit: Classic Media; 1965 United Feature Syndicate; Everett Collection

In the pantheon of great Christmas specials — the yuletide-themed adventures trotted out by the networks each year, usually animated, typically with a theme song so iconic that children can sing the lyrics before they learn how to speak — three titles reign supreme. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! all debuted close to a half-century ago — in 1964, 1965, and 1966, respectively — and they still air each year to respectable ratings, to say nothing of the massive cultural footprint they’ve all left behind. However, one EW staffer has managed to avoid ever seeing these holiday classics…until now. In Part One of our chat, Darren Franich — Holiday Special Superfan and ugly Christmas sweater aficionado — prepares newbie Hillary Busis for the festival of yuletide cheer that awaits.

Darren Franich: Hillary, I’ve been watching these Christmas specials since before I was able to formulate any conscious thoughts. I could probably quote them verbatim. Actually, my family kept a massive VHS collection of tape-recorded Christmas specials, so if pressed, I could probably even quote the commercials that played during the 1986 airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (I definitely recall that Santa Claus really enjoyed Coca-Cola, which is why I’ve never liked Pepsi.) I remember these specials more vividly than most actual memories from my life — possibly because my life doesn’t have fun hyper-descriptive theme songs. So before we watch this trilogy of Yuletide cheer, I want to ask you: How much, exactly, do you know about them? Do you know why it’s important that Rudolph has a red nose? What kind of music do you think is on the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas? And what do you think is the plot of How The Grinch Stole Christmas?

Hillary Busis: Kyle Broflovski might feel like a lonely Jew on Christmas – but growing up, I never did. My neighborhood in Pittsburgh was home to at least four synagogues, and the music teacher at my liberal-minded elementary school was always careful to assign an equal number of Christmas songs, Hanukkah songs, and generic winter songs when December rolled around. (It never occurred to me that any Muslim or Hindu students were sh– out of luck.) So I never felt compelled to watch Christmas specials, especially since I already had to tolerate Christmas-themed episodes of every sitcom and cartoon on TV. (God bless you, Rugrats, for providing sanctuary in that storm.)

Even so, I’ve lived in America for 24 years — which means I’ve absorbed a good amount of Christmas-themed pop culture purely through osmosis. I know all the words to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” so I can guess the special’s plot — though the ad-libs kids insert into the song might throw me a little. (The other reindeer call him Pinocchio and won’t let him play Monopoly, right?) I’m not sure if his nose is just like, really red, or if it literally lights up like a light bulb, but I know it’s important because a) it’s our differences that make us special!! and b) it helps him save Christmas, the Princess Peach of holidays. (Christmas always needs saving. Nobody ever tries to mess with Hanukkah. I’m just saying.)

I’m pretty sure that this is what happens in A Charlie Brown Christmas: After perennial sad sack Charlie Brown buys a crappy tree, his friends transform it into something lush and beautiful using only Christmas magic and their waving arms. I know this primarily because of a mensch named Robert Smigel and his “Saturday TV Funhouse.” As for the music — it’s that low-key, dentist office jazzy stuff, right? I don’t think the characters sing. Unless their “AUUUGGHH!”s are set to tinkling bells.

Finally, The Grinch: This one’s sort of a cheat, because I’ve read the book and seen the awful Jim Carrey version. So I know the Grinch himself is a nasty green guy who lives in a cave and hates the perky Whos. When Christmas rolls around, he decides to don a Santa suit and steal all their presents. But the Whos aren’t as materialistic as the Grinch, so they end up not even caring that he broke into their Who-houses, and then the Grinch learns the error of his wicked ways. Also, it involves roast beast, which I’m pretty sure is not an actual thing gentiles eat.

Close, or no cigar?

Darren: On the scale of “close” to “no cigar,” you definitely know the most about The Grinch, although the fact that you somehow watched the Jim Carrey film before the classic Chuck Jones cartoon makes me weep for humanity. That also means you’ve never heard the great song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — unless you watched the Christmas episode of Glee, in which case I’m once again weeping for humanity.

You do know the most famous plot point of A Charlie Brown Christmas, although that’s a little bit like knowing that Rosebud is a sled. I don’t think knowing that will affect your enjoyment of the special — especially since A Charlie Brown Christmas is basically a plotless proto-Richard Linklater talkfest. Also, I can tell it’s going to be fun to watch these with you, because your cavalier use of the phrase “low-key dentist office jazzy stuff” felt like a dagger through my heart. (Confession: I played “Linus and Lucy” at a grade-school piano recital. It’s actually the only thing I can still play on the piano. Separate confession: I wasn’t very good at piano.)

Now, Rudolph is a different story. You definitely have the rough elevator pitch down, but saying that Rudolph is about a reindeer with a red nose is kind of like saying that Les Miserables is about a guy who steals bread. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by that one. Actually, let’s talk a bit about your expectations for these Christmas specials. Do you think you’ll enjoy watching them now, as a genuine grown-up adult person? Do you think that people like me have been grade-inflating how good these specials are, since we watched them at a time when we still believed in Santa Claus, the great false idol of capitalism? Which one are you most excited about, and which one are you prepared to despise? And are you prepared to be called a Grinch if you do not like The Grinch?

Hillary: I, too, am embarrassed to admit that I’ve seen Taylor Momsen’s finger-in-a-light-socket Cindy Lou Who braids but couldn’t hum more than a few bars of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” And sorry about that dig at Vince Guaraldi (thank you, Google) — I said it mostly because I figured it’d get a rise out of you. Maybe I am a Grinch at heart.

So there’s more to the Rudolph story than Ben Affleck-free reindeer games and rhyming reindeer names — you don’t say! Honestly, I doubt I’ll come away from these specials filled with Christmas cheer; I figure nostalgia is the main reason anyone above Bar Mitzvah age still loves them. But since there has to be a solid foundation for that nostalgia, I’m not prepared to hate any of them. (Although if my grandpa’s Peanuts anthologies are any indication, Charlie Brown might be kind of boring.)

I’m especially looking forward to watching Rudolph, mostly because it’s the source material for all of modern TV’s stop-motion Rankin-Bass homages. It’ll be like that time I watched Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows after seeing Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, but with less melodrama. Or maybe more! I don’t know anything!

What about you, Darren — which of these specials do you think will hold up best to my overly-critical adult eyes? Which is your personal favorite? And generally speaking, why do you think these three shorts have endured for so long, despite our culture’s notoriously short attention span?

Darren: Charlie Brown, “kind of boring”! Now I know I’m going to enjoy watching these specials with you, since I grew up reading various Peanuts anthologies to tatters and spent most of my childhood feeling exactly like Charlie Brown, except not bald and much worse at baseball.

However, all teasing aside, I suspect that a hearty dose of cynicism will be extremely healthy when you’re watching these specials. Actually, you could say that all three specials are about cynicism, which is why I suspect they have had such a long shelf life. All three feature characters who think they know how things ought to be, but who are then confronted with situations that force them to rethink their ingrained prejudices. Generally speaking, every year I get more cynical, and every year, these Christmas specials challenge my cynicism. I think that’s why they’re a bit more iconic than, say, the Frosty the Snowman TV special, which dates from the same era, but which is much more of a goofy caper — it doesn’t have any themes, y’know? (Admittedly, some people like Frosty the Snowman. They are wrong.)

However, I have to admit that I’m a little bit nervous to watch these cartoons with someone who didn’t grow up with them. Perhaps your mere presence will remove the healing veneer of nostalgia, and I’ll realize they are secretly terrible, and thus finally lose my innocence. But no! I do believe in Christmas! Or anyhow, I do believe in Christmas Specials. And I think you will definitely like The Grinch, which is my personal fave. It’s is the funniest — all that Dr. Seuss wordplay! — and the darkest. Although, obviously, by “dark” I mean “less cute than Snoopy dancing in the snow.”

I’m guessing you won’t like Charlie Brown, if only because so much of it has been absorbed into parody at this point, and because it’s by far the slowest-moving of the three. (Again: Think Linklater, but without the swears.) I honestly don’t know what you’ll think about Rudolph. It’s positively dripping with sincerity. But it’s also the most fantastical and the fastest-moving — the only one of the three that’s kind of a real quest narrative. I’m surprised Peter Jackson hasn’t made it into a trilogy yet.

To be honest, I’m feeling very optimistic. I think after you see these specials, you’ll be chanting the theme songs, wearing comical Reindeer antlers, and buying a crappy little Christmas tree of your very own. Possibly ironically, but still.

Hillary: Whoa there, Professor Franich — I didn’t know there’d be themes.

But in all seriousness, your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. To the TV!


A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • TV Show