December 1, 2013 posted by

Christmasy Cartoonz, Part 2: TV Cartoon Specials (to 1979)

Starting about 1950, Christmas animation began to be made for television. An early example is the first animation of the Frosty the Snowman song (above), 3 minutes by UPA in 1954 and shown annually for some time. This was in black-&-white since all TV broadcasts were in black-&-white in the 1950s, though theatrical animation had long since become in full color. There may have been other 1950s-early 1960s TV animation. A similar example is the one-minute holiday interstitial that aired on CBS, of birds in a tree being serenaded by a man with a musical saw playing “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”, directed and designed by R.O. Blechman.
 It is titled today “R. O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message”, although the only text in it is “Seasons Greetings from CBS”. This was first broadcast during the holiday season of 1966, and has been shown often thereafter.

The first animated TV special was the December 18, 1962 60-minute Christmas special Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, produced by UPA; and it really opened the floodgates. It seems to be the first animation of Charles Dickens’ classic December 1843 seasonal ghost story, A Christmas Carol; starring the nearsighted (but not for this role) Quincy Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge, of course. It has since become a classic – and I highly recommend Darrell Van Citters’ hard-cover history of the film.

Also of course, there had been several live-action theatrical and TV productions of A Christmas Carol by this time. I cannot speak for all of the Christmas-themed regular episodes of TV animated cartoon programs, but the TV animated Christmas specials came increasingly thick and fast following the Mr. Magoo special. Dickens’ novella remained the golden model. The half-hour and one-hour animated Christmas TV specials ranged from straightforward dramatizations with humans, to straightforward dramatizations starring a popular studio’s or popular TV cartoon of the moment’s cast, to recognizable adaptations of varying degrees of faithfulness, to completely original stories. According to The Big Cartoon Database, there have been TV Christmas specials – and later, in the era of videocassettes and DVDs, direct-to-video movies of over an hour — starring the cartoon casts of Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Warner Bros., singly and all together; and of Alvin and the Chipmunks, American Dad, The Berenstain Bears, The California Raisins (Will Vinton’s Claymation), Dora the Explorer, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Family Guy, Frosty the Snowman, Garfield, He-Man & She-Ra, Little Lulu, Pac-Man, Phineas and Ferb, Postman Pat, Ren & Stimpy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sesame Street (so The Muppets aren’t animated; so sue me), the Smurfs, SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidbillies, The Wild Thornberrys, and many others. Even Hoops & Yoyo, a cartoon pink cat and green rabbit on a series of Hallmark greeting cards, have had a half-hour animated Christmas TV special; Hoops and Yoyo Ruin Christmas (November 25, 2011). I won’t try to list them all, but here are some that stand out.

First, an anomaly. Ralph Bakshi worked with Nickelodeon to create Tattertown, a 39-episode TV cartoon series during 1988. A pilot episode, set during Christmas, was produced, but Nickelodeon finally aborted the series. To salvage the pilot, it was turned into a half-hour TV special, Christmas in Tattertown, broadcast on Nick on December 21, 1988. It thus became the only Christmas animated TV special based on a nonexistent TV cartoon series.

The Story of Christmas. December 22, 1963. The first one-hour TV special, narrated by Tennessee Ernie Ford with music by the Roger Wagner Chorale. It was mostly live-action, but it included 18 ½ minutes of animation, with art direction by Eyvind Earle, who had designed Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.

A Charlie Brown Christmas. December 9, 1965. Wikipedia’s summary: “A Charlie Brown Christmas is the first prime-time animated TV special based upon the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. It was produced and directed by former Warner Bros. and UPA animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for the character of Snoopy. Initially sponsored by Coca-Cola, the special debuted on CBS in 1965, and has been aired in the USA during the Christmas season every year since: on CBS through 2000, and on ABC since 2001. Long an annual telecast, the special is now shown at least twice during the weeks leading up to Christmas. The special has been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award.” A half-hour special; 25 minutes plus commercials. (This should not be confused with the later It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, November 27, 1992.)

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. December 14, 1970. A one-hour (48-minute) TV movie by Rankin/Bass in their stop-motion Animagic process, with an all-star voice cast. IMDb’s synopsis: “The Mailman [S. D. Kluger, voiced by Fred Astaire] decides to answer some of the most common questions about Santa Claus, and tells us about a small baby named Kris who was left on the doorstep of the Kringle family (toymakers). When Kris grew up [Mickey Rooney], he wanted to deliver toys to the children of Sombertown. But its Burgermeister (Herr Meisterburger) [Paul Frees] is too mean to let that happen. And to make things worse, there’s an evil wizard named Winter [The Winter Warlock; Keenan Wynn] who lives between the Kringles and Sombertown, but Kris manages to melt Winter’s heart (as well as the comely schoolteacher’s) [Miss Jessica; Robie Lester] and deliver his toys.”

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass specialized in animated holiday TV specials, especially for Christmas, from 1964 through the 1970s. Some others were Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, and the feature film, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July.

A Christmas Carol. December 21, 1971. Animator Richard Williams’ 25-minute straight adaptation of Dickens’ tale is a classic in its own right; directed by him to look like 19th-century illustrations, and produced by him and Chuck Jones. Although for the American ABC-TV network, it felt like a top-quality British job with narration by Sir Michael Redgrave, and Alastair Sim and Sir Michael Hordern reprising their 1951 live-action roles as the voices of Ebenezer Scrooge and of Marley’s ghost. The TV special was so popular that it was rereleased theatrically, and won the 1972 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. The Oscar rules were subsequently changed to remove TV specials that are later shown theatrically from Oscar eligibility.

A Christmas Story. December 9, 1972. A half-hour Hanna-Barbera TV special written by Ken Spears and Joe Ruby before they started their own animation studio in 1977, featuring many of H-B’s top voices: Daws Butler, Don Messick, Hal Smith, Paul Winchell, Janet Waldo, Walter Tetley, and others; designed by Iwao Takamoto, with music by Hoyt Curtin. A young father and mother, dressed in Victorian styles prepare to celebrate Christmas. The father reads Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas to young Timmy. Timmy’s dog Goober, and Goober’s friend Gumdrop the mouse, find Timmy’s letter to Santa Claus unmailed. They set out to deliver it to him.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. December 17, 1973. A half-hour (25’06”) TV special, directed by Gerry Chiniquy & Harley Pratt, and produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Narrated by Casey Kasem. Theodore Edward (Ted E.) Bear (voice of Tom Smothers) is a laughingstock for believing in Christmas, which all other bears in Bear City hibernate through. His girlfriend Patti Bear (Barbara Feldon) fails to talk him out of it, and Professor Werner von Bear (Arte Johnson) ridicules believers in Christmas on television. Ted E. is determined to skip hibernating one winter while all the other bears fly on BearAir to Bearbank to sleep, and goes looking for Christmas which he thinks is a place. He wanders into a human city, where a street-corner Santa Claus (Robert Holt) who is really the real Santa explains to him what Christmas really means.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. December 6, 1974. Director Bill Melendez’s 25-minute Emmy-winning dramatization of New York Sun editor Francis Church’s famous 1897 editorial reply to an 8-year-old girl’s letter, asking if there was a real Santa Claus.


The Year Without a Santa Claus. December 10, 1974. A one-hour (51 minutes) Rankin/Bass Animagic production. Narrated by Mrs. Claus, this is the story of how Santa gets a bad cold on Christmas Eve and is persuaded to stay in bed over Christmas. The main characters are two of Santa’s elves, Jingle and Jangle, and Vixen, the baby reindeer, who deliver the presents and run into a Southern U.S. town where people do not believe in Christmas. Mrs. Claus must persuade two grumpy nature spirit brothers, the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, to make it snow in Southtown on Christmas. When they refuse, she goes over their heads to Mother Nature.

A Cosmic Christmas. December 6, 1977. This half-hour TV special is memorable because it was Nelvana Ltd.’s first production. The original story was by Patrick Loubert, one of Nelvana’s founders. Amalthor, Lexicon, and Plutox, three space aliens who look like elongated, stylized versions of the Three Wise Men, come to a small Canadian town to learn the Meaning of Christmas. They are befriended by the boy Peter and Lucy, his pet goose, who save the spacemen from the panicked townsfolk. Nelvana tried to make the aliens look more alien by moving them in limited animation, while the humans got full animation.

Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper. November 30, 1978. A half-hour TV special by Chuck Jones Enterprises, funded by Bobbs-Merrill. June Foray and Daws Butler voice Raggedy Ann and Andy, versus Les Tremayne as both Santa Claus and villainous Alexander Graham Wolf. A. G. Wolf, who looks just like Wile E. Coyote, is an inventor who plans to take over Santa Claus’ workshop. Alexander W. has invented gloopstik, a transparent and unbreakable substance that he plans to coat all toys in, making them unbreakable (but also unplaywithable). Santa’s reindeer Comet overhears Alexander’s plans, and goes to Raggedys Ann, Andy, and their dog Arthur to stop him. It turns out that the only thing that can break gloopstik is LOVE!

The Stingiest Man in Town. December 23, 1978. This was Rankin/Bass Productions’ one-hour (51 minutes plus commercial time) musical adaptation of Dickens’ story, produced in traditional cartoon animation rather than the stop-motion “Animagic” that Rankin/Bass usually used, by the TopCraft studio in Tokyo. It was actually an animated remake of a 1956 live-action TV production, with Walter Matthau’s voice replacing Basil Rathbone as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The First Christmas. 1979. A half-hour Australian cartoon TV special, animated by Air Programs International (API). The story of the Nativity, from the appointment of Quirinus as governor of Syria to the birth of Christ. More of an impartial history dramatization than a Christian religious story. Not to be confused with The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, a 1975 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special.

Yarst! This column is going to have to be divided into two parts. Feel free to add to this list in the comments below. Next week: The animated cartoon Christmas TV specials from the 1980s to the early 2000s. (They’re almost all CGI after that.)


  • A sidebar to this story could be the commercials made for the original runs of Rudolph & Magoo’s Christmas Carol which are probably controlled by General Electric.It would also be interesting to see are the Peanuts commercials for Dolly Madison snacks.

  • Is this list supposed to be exhaustive? HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS is one of the biggest holiday specials, airing since 1966 and also THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY by Rankin Bass.

  • All I have to add is that if anyone hasn’t read the previously mentioned book about the making of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, I can highly recommend it.

    I think the classic, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” received scant attention here. The late Phil Hartman hosted a “Making of” documentary.

    • Sorry, here’s the link I meant to provide.

    • The special does reference Magoo’s eyesight a few times within the story itself: The Ghost of Christmas Present makes a remark about being too cheap to by spectacles, and near the end Scrooge mistakes a painting and a bust for a mirror.

      Still think it’s hilarious that the success of this special made network executives think America craved Magoo in more costume dramas (“The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”).

  • Richard Williams’ 1971 “A Christmas Carol” took both the Emmy and the 1972 Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film. It may be the sole animated production to reap those two awards, to some degree because of the later rule change which thereafter forbade placing into consideration an aired television program for an Oscar.

    Ralph Bakshi’s 1988 “Christmas in Tattertown” was both a series pilot and a holiday special, not an afterthought aired only ‘to salvage the pilot’. It was made as a standalone holiday special and was always intended to run as such on Nickelodeon, as the very first original animation that Nick ever bought. It was sometime later that the decision was made not to continue with a series. “Tattertown” contains what may be the final animation done by Irv Spence and Virgil Ross also animated a few scenes. Curiously, these two giants of comedic cartooning picked subtle character scenes to do. That special was laid out in the U.S. and about five minutes of footage animated here. The original concept was based on a comic strip that Ralph had done in high school, called “Junktown.” Charles Solomon in the pages of the L.A. Times gave this special a good review, praising its energy.

  • Chuck Jones’s “A Very Merry Cricket”

  • wasn’t there an interesting back story to jones’ raggedy ann? can’t recall what it was … perhaps the project was from abandoned work started by Williams?

    more important … we are long overdue for a dvd release of cosmic Christmas!

  • How’d you miss “Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Tales”? Actually, I’m not sure if that’s the exact title, but I know it aired at Christmastime in 1979 and was basically three Looney Tunes shorts (albeit on lower budgets) — two Bugs Bunny stories directed by Friz Freleng (the latter short co-starring the Tasmanian Devil), and a Road Runner/Coyote short directed by Chuck Jones.

  • I acknowledged the Grinch and the Looney Tunes TV specials in passing when I said that the Big Cartoon Database listed many other animated Christmas TV specials including the Grinch and those featuring Warner Bros. cartoon stars; also Disney’s and Hanna-Barbera’s.

  • Always loved Magoo’s Christmas Carol. So wonderfully emotional. Could be Jim Bacus’ finest hour. Had no idea it was a first of it’s kind! Thank you for all this info!

  • I remember The Night Before Christamas, produced by Playhouse pictures long ago…

    And where does Santa and the Three Bears fit into all this?

  • Playhouse Pictures made “The Night Before Christamas” which I remember seeing years ago…

    Also “A B.C. Christmas” is a rarity…

    • That version of “The Night Before Christmas” is rather cut down for time, here’s a longer version I recall best from an VHS tape I had of it. It was kinda interesting to notice the studio behind this since they were mostly into doing commercials anyway, this was one chance to shine I suppose (if only as a holiday special).

  • Don’t forget “Olive the Other Reindeer”.

    • With Drew Barrymore and Michael Stipe, right? Yes! And, the WALTON’S Christmas (Patricia Neal) That’s about the ONLY movie that woman didn’t die in.

  • Jim Backus as narrator of Yes Virgina? All I can say is Yes Virginia, There is a Mr. Magoo 😉

    • Of course at the end of the special it’s implied what Jim Backus’ role in the special really was (don’t want to spoil here but it was cute).

  • Maybe “From All of Us to All of You” deserves a mention? A holiday clip show episode of the old Disney show in America; a near-cult in Sweden where it’s still run annually as a special.

  • Is there a place on this list for “Simple Gifts” by R.O. Blechman, airing on PBS in 1977?

  • What about Rankin/Bass’s 1969 Frosty the Snowman (12/7/69), with Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon (the always birthday wishing Frosty), Billy De Wolfe (the delightfully villainous Prof.;Hinkle, the magician), Paul Frees (Santa, the whistle swalling cop, and the train station clerk with the southern accent), and June Foray (teacher, 1969 voice of Karen the little girl), song by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, music underscore by Maury Laws, designed by Paul Coker Jr. with animation by Mushi Prod. (Kimba the White Lion, GIgantor,and other Japanese shows), and of course produced and directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass.
    Frosty comes to life due to Professor Hinkle’s magic hat, not working momentarily, landing on the snowman as Karen and her riends build him, with Professor Hinkle storming outside and trying to reclaim it first at the schoolyard and later, grabbing the hat but mute assitstant rabbit Hocus Pocus putting it right back on Frosty, then trying to stalk the kids (thank God this was made back in 1969).

  • THANK YOU for posting these classics! Even going so far as to add a t.v. guide ad for ‘Yes, Virginia….” I LOVED the animated Christmas Carol and remember watching it every year as a kid, before graduating to the full movie!

    One special that got forgotten, though was a Rankin/Bass show, “T’was the Night Before Christmas” , that included the voices of George Gobel (Hollywood Squares) and I THINK Paul Freese. In any case, thanks for sharing these memories. It’s nice to remember Christmas before Political Correctness turned it into a greedy shadow of its true self.

  • I know this is a subjective opinion, but I wouldn’t inculde Hanna-Barbera’s A CHRISTMAS STORY on this list: to me, it’s one of the weakest Christmas TV specials ever done. To begin with, the title itself is unimaginative. Also, the animation and character design are on a par with an average Scooby-Doo episode -which means that it’s no big deal- and the story is painfully predictable -everybody can be sure that Timmy’s delayed letter will eventually be picked up by Santa- with no inspired gags or scenes.
    On the contrary, I would add to this list DePatie-Freleng’s THE TINY TREE (1975).

  • That’s not true that ‘all TV broadcasts were in black and white’ in the 50s. CBS had a color system for a short period in the early 50s. NBC started compatible color in the mid-50s. I have a DVD from a 99-cent store with a Howdy Doody Episode from 1955 that announces this was their first color broadcast. I believe it was around Labor Day of that year. The show was then shown daily in color. On that episode Buffalo Bob announces that they’ve got a full length color cartoon for you. He called it ‘Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus’, which is a Technicolor David Hand production. This might be the first nationally broadcast color cartoon. Such things are practically impossible to nail down because color shows could only be preserved on black and white kinescopes, or in rare cases, lenticular color kinescopes (which are hard to find and even harder to play), until color videotape in 1958. CBS rarely broadcast in color, usually only for specials, as they had to pay NBC to use the compatible system. An example is CBS’ first showing, in color, of The Wizard of Oz, in 1956. This was in reaction to NBC’s successful live color broadcast of Mary Martin in Peter Pan. As for animation in color I have late 50s examples of The Ford Show with Tennessee Ernie Ford opening with the Peanuts gang. Saturday mornings, from 1956 on, had Howdy Doody in color, although I’m not sure Ruff & Reddy, which followed on NBC, was broadcast in color.

  • Although it is certainly challenging to make a comprehensive list of animated Christmas specials in one article, the featured selections here seem a little curious. There are a few rather obscure inclusions, while specials which have aired annually for decades like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frostty the Snowman are barely mentioned. How the Grinch Stole Christmas has what I would consider perhaps the best animation of any Christmas special to date. It would be great to hear the backstory about its production.

  • I love A Cosmic Christmas, I’m so glad it was included in this article.

  • Great list! Since animation and Christmas are two of my favourite things it’s odd that I don’t think I’ve seen ANY of these all the through. Being born in 1983 in the UK, I grew up with The Snowman (1982) already being seen as THE Christmas animated classic. Perhaps unfairly (as I said, I haven’t seen any of these all the way through), most of the entries in this list, which already aren’t so famous outside the US, seemed to represent cheap-seeming specials (without the full animation or detailed backgrounds of golden age cartoons) and/or the absolute worst kind of forced American sentimentality.

    On top of my Christmas to-watch list is Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol. I’m embarrassed to say that compared to Mickey’s Christmas Carol (and later the muppets) this animation looked so, so, so dull and boring to my childhood eyes. After that I’ll have to watch Charlie Brown. Then I’ll probably watch Mr Magoo (never was a fan of the character, but it is a special people enthuse about so I’ll check it out). Finally I might see if can bring myself to watch one of Rankin/Bass things, but honestly they look like crap.

  • Sad that nobody at all seems to remember Shamus Culhane’s “The Night the Animals Talked,” an animated Christmas special dealing with the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the animals in the stable. I believe it aired only three or four times in the early 70’s and it does not exist on home video (other than bootleg copies).

  • I was just about to suggest “The Night the Animals Talked”! I loved that special when I was a kid! Not only directed by Shamus Culhane, it has songs by Sammy Cain.

  • There was a LITTLE RASCALS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL that aired on NBC in 1979. This was produced by Fred Wolf, and had no relation to the later Hanna-Barbera series a few years later.

  • Thank you very good!
    Do you like flowers? Do you have paper crafts in your house?
    There are beautiful pop up thank you cards bouquets of woodland christmas tree three-dimensional greeting cards flower bouquet card paper bag
    You’re welcome!

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