Nathan Thompson is a New York City physician who has tapes of more than 250 Christmas specials. Here he picks the dozen most memorable in a half-century of television. All are available on video or DVD unless noted.
(1965) Almost unique among Christmas specials, this show focuses on the real real meaning of Christmas—not caring, sharing, and giving, but the birth of Jesus. When Linus gets onstage and recites from the second chapter of Luke, the show suddenly and surprisingly shifts direction. Even more than the Vince Guaraldi music, that moment sets it apart.
(1978) In a two-hour hodgepodge that was shown only once, Chewbacca returns to his home planet, Kashyyyk, for a Wookie holiday called Life Day. Along the way, Art Carney interacts with magical holograms, Bea Arthur sings cabaret, the Jefferson Starship performs for storm troopers, and Harvey Korman appears in drag. The climax comes when Carrie Fisher sings off-key for Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. (Illicit copies of this monstrosity, varying widely in quality, are available on eBay for $10 to $20. Stills can be seen at
(1999) A compilation from “SNL”’s first 25 years, with John Belushi as a drunken department-store Santa, Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford trimming the tree (literally), and Dana Carvey as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey getting even with Mr. Potter.
(1977) Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass popularized stop-motion animation with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. In this forgotten special, Nestor’s ears act like Rudolph’s nose.
(1962) Many television shows have adapted our most venerated secular Christmas scripture. “Mr. Magoo” does it best, with “The Odd Couple” a close second.
(1972) Jason Robards stars in a heartwarming story about a tree—and a Christmas—that he does not want his daughter to have.
(1955) Through an O. Henry-inspired plot, Ralph Kramden learns that Christmas is not about gifts but about spending time with the ones you love.
(1974) Mention Heat Miser or Snow Miser to anyone who grew up in the 1970s and watch a smile come to their face.
(1963) Mr. Ed tells Wilbur the story of Christmas from a horse’s point of view. (Sadly, “Mr. Ed” videos are hard to find, but they can be taped off the air, and some fans have copies available to swap.)
(1970) Another Rankin/Bass classic. Fred Astaire narrates the story of how Kris Kringle grew up to become Santa Claus. Burgermeister Meister-burger steals the show.
(1995) Santa Claus is a dealer in a different sort of snow as the beloved children’s classic becomes a blood-soaked, obscenity-filled four-minute homage to Martin Scorsese. (Not on video, but you can see it at
(1992) Imagine being five years old and waking up on Christmas morning to find no presents under the tree. That’s the feeling you get when you watch this special, which is guaranteed to clear the room.