Traditions are the cornerstone of the December holidays, and without them, getting into the mood of the season would be much harder. From religious tradition, such as lighting the Menorah during Hanukah, to personal traditions, such as opening one present on Christmas Eve, they all have a special part in how we observe our holidays. For many, a crucial tradition in their household is watching holiday specials.
Between Freeform’s annual 25 Days of Christmas celebration and the various holiday specials you find within your favorite television show, it seems like there is an abundance of television to watch every December. From Ranken-Bass to Dreamworks, everyone is in on the holiday game.
It feels like holiday specials have been around forever, but the first official Christmas special was intitled “Bedtime for Sniffles” and it was produced by the Warner Brothers. It was classified as a “Merrie Melody” – the series of cartoons that first introduced Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. It’s eight minutes long and it focuses on a mouse named Sniffles as he tries (and fails) to wait for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
The next year Hanna-Barbera released their first Christmas special, “Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas.” The plot is very similar to most other Tom and Jerry shorts, except it ends with the two putting their differences aside for Christmas.
For the next decade there was a lack of new Christmas specials, but the 1950’s sought to fill the Christmas-shaped hole in television history. In February 1952, Warner Brothers returned with a short called “Gift Wrapped” which, like the Tom and Jerry short, was a standard Sylvester and Tweety movie themed around the Christmas season.
Throughout the 50’s, animated Christmas specials took a backseat to live action musicals and spectaculars. On December 24th, 1951 “Amahl and the Night Visitors” aired from the NBC Opera Theater. It was the first made for television opera, and it marked the first time a Christmas special to be traditionally aired every season. It continued to be aired from 1951 to 1962, only stopping for a new version to be recorded.
Opera’s weren’t the only type of live show on Television. Musicians such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hosted variety shows themed to the holidays. These specials are where many of the classic Christmas songs come from.
Many Christmas specials at this time were retelling of a handful of classic Christmas stories, such as the Nativity or Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” This changed with Ranken-Bass’s instant classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was the beginning of the reign of Ranken-Bass. From 1964 to 1974 they released many instant classics such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “The Little Drummer Boy”, defining the idea of the Christmas special.
As years go on, every show seems to have an episode set aside to spend on a Christmas episode. Many are parodies of pre-existing, classic plots (such as a Gift of the Magi plot, or being separated from family on Christmas eve) which helps play into the timelessness of the Christmas special.
Some television shows decide to avoid mentioning Christmas whatsoever, and they make up their own holidays in response. In the television show,” My Brother, My Brother, and Me” the last episode is dedicated to celebrating Candlemas, their “pan-religious, pansexual, personal pan pizza winter holiday” celebrated every winter, around the time of the three major December holidays.
Despite the fact that Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are real holidays, there is a staggering lack of holiday specials around these holidays. Recently there have been strides towards making more inclusive holiday specials.
“Rugrats” is famous for the episode “A Rugrats Chanukah” acting as an introduction to the holiday for younger kids and it was included in TV Guides 1999 list of top ten best holiday specials. It tells the story of Hanukkah it a very digestible way – using the characters to act out the story. The B-Plot emphasizes the meaning of Hanukkah and the importance of community.
If there’s a lack of Hanukkah specials, there’s more so a lack of Kwanzaa specials in the world. One of the ones many remember is episode of the Proud Family entitled “The Seven Days of Kwanzaa.” In the episode, The Proud’s learn about Kwanzaa through a homeless family who they offer to spend Christmas with. Throughout the episode they learn about what makes up the holiday – again teaching kids the importance of a holiday.
Holiday specials are an important part of the season, never failing to get viewers in the mood for celebrating their favorite holiday. For a full list of holiday specials that I recommend, go to The Alabamian website to read more.
Katy Barnes is a writer for The Alabamian. She is a third year theatre major who enjoys movies, comics, and Montevallo culture. Previously she has written a Lifestyle Column for the Alabamian.