Christmas TV specials
These are the TV specials you know and love. Most are only available via rental or purchase (or less ethical means). Either way, though, these are true holiday gifts that will bring you back to your childhood.
A Very Murray Christmas, 2015
OK, technically this isn’t a TV episode, but … whatever. Some comedians are wont to gather their very famous friends together and film a funny little Christmas special, which is what Bill Murray did here. A Very Murray Christmas opens with Bill in his suite at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel as a snowstorm brews outside, threatening his planned special by forcing guests to cancel. Of course, the show goes on in a very meta manner, and lots (and lots) of big names show up to help things along. Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, George Clooney, Michael Cera, and Miley Cyrus are just a few of the stars that appear, with numerous cheesy musical numbers keeping things spirited.
The Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974
This special — for many of us, the most recognizable of the Rankin/Bass stuff, despite not being based upon a classic Christmas song — scared us all by showing us how terrible the wintry season would be without our portly delivery man from up north. When Santa is sidelined with a head cold, he delegates gift-giving duties to elves Jingle and Jangle, who are promptly shot down by the Scrooge-like Heat Miser (which, fun fact, was also the name of Elliott Smith’s rock band) and Snow Miser. Jingle, Jangle, and Mrs. Claus must work to find a solution and keep Christmas on schedule, even going so far as to appeal to Mother Nature (who birthed the Miser brothers). Unlike the other Christmas specials on our list, you can actually watch this for free if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber.
A Christmas Carol, 1999
The story has been interpreted time and time again, with each version putting its own spin on things. As a made-for-television adaptation of this classic Charles Dickens tale, Patrick Stewart is a perfectly surly Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas and everything for which it stands. He’s visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, and realizes how his selfish, money-hungry ways are, and how they impact both his life and those of others. Naturally, there’s a happy ending, and the true meaning of Christmas is realized.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, 1969
As with many of the classic entries, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was crafted by the stop-motion wizards at Rankin/Bass Productions. Hollywood legend Fred Astaire — perhaps the most famous dancer ever to hit the silver screen — voices mailman/narrator S.D. Kluger (pictured), who offers some insight into the history behind several classic Christmas traditions. Mickey Rooney plays Santa Claus himself, while “Man of 1,000 Voices” Paul Frees takes on several characters. ABC airs this special, based upon the eponymous 1930s song, every year on its Freeform channel, but you can also buy or rent it from one of the sites listed below.
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, 2010
Another episode inspired by a classic Charles Dickens tale, this one adds a sci-fi twist, as one would expect from this series. A cosmic cruise ship housing more than 4,000 people is heading toward disaster, and The Doctor (Matt Smith) must use his time- and space-traveling capabilities to make a miserable man (played by Michael Gambon) understand why it’s important to help others and have a heart. The episode features flying sharks and a breathtaking performance by operatic singer Katherine Jenkins, and is widely regarded as the best of the sci-fi series’ annual holiday specials.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1967
This 1967 stop-motion classic is even weirder than you remember it, offering fun for the kids alongside a clear and sustained shout-out to the 1960s civil rights movement — all while staying impressively close to the plot outlined by the titular Christmas tune. Rudolph’s journey to prove that even red-nosed reindeer can have a purpose in society manages to stay fun and compelling, even as it offers campy songs and dialogue. Burl Ives leads the show as the snowman narrator, and an elf dentist somehow saves the day in this bizarre, nostalgia-laden tale.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965
“Christmas time is here,” as the tune so helpfully reminds us in this classic from the mind of Charles Schultz. While the story is nostalgic, if not particularly captivating, it’s the music from piano-jazz great Vince Guaraldi that makes this tale of Christmas with the ever wishy-washy Charlie Brown a timeless treasure. While it might not be quite as quintessential as the Halloween special — It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — we dare you to try and watch this without getting the warm fuzzies!
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special, 1988
Revisit the ‘80s and classic Pee-Wee Herman humor (“I know you are, but what am I?”) with the one-of-a-kind entertainer Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens), as he revels in all of the glitz, glamour, lights, toys, and fun that the Christmas season has to offer. The special has it all: Musical numbers, skits, and an impressive list of guest appearances from the likes of Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Magic Johnson, and other familiar faces of the era. There are plenty of quirky and goofy moments to get you in the holiday mood, but also an underlying theme of giving.
Frosty the Snowman, 1969
One of the few Rankin/Bass products that doesn’t feature stop-motion animation, Frosty is nevertheless an obvious inclusion for our list. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass apparently wanted this special to look like a Christmas card, so they went and hired Paul Coker Jr. — who also illustrated for parody publication Mad Magazine — for the job. Legendary comedian Jimmy Durante provides narration (in one of his final film roles), and the special continues to air each year on CBS, where it originally aired in 1969.
BoJack Horseman Christmas Special: Sabrina’s Christmas Wish, 2014
BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is a washed-up ‘90s actor (who also happens to be a horse) living in an alternate world with anthropomorphic animals, and he has zero interest in Christmas. But when he and his slacker friend Todd (Aaron Paul) catch wind of an old Christmas-themed episode of Bojack’s show Horsin’ Around, where his adopted daughter wishes for her parents to be alive again, he has a change of heart.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1966
If you don’t already know this story, please turn around, surrender your Christmas badge at the door, and leave immediately. With all due respect to Green Eggs and Ham, How The Grinch Stole Christmas might just be Dr. Seuss’ best story. It focuses on an an angry, mountain-dwelling monster who preys upon the residents of Whoville by stealing gifts, trees, and general Christmas cheer. Though the 2000 live-action remake starring Jim Carrey might be more recognizable to some (and there’s a new, animated version on the way with Benedict Cumberbatch), the 1966 TV film — starring horror icon Boris Karloff! — is a must-watch this season.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A Midwinter’s Tale, 2018
Set to debut on December 14, this Christmas special will provide a glimpse into teenage witch Sabrina’s life as a young and precocious child. “While The Church of Night celebrates the Solstice,” reads the official description, “that doesn’t stop Li’l Sabrina from asking Santa for something special.” The new series, a companion to Riverdale, takes a dark look at the Archie Comics’ character Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a half-witch, half-human girl who attends high school during the day and satanic rituals at night.
Updated on December 4, 2018: This post has been updated with more Christmas episodes and specials, as well as to adjust for shifting streaming access.