Animation Cel-ebration
December 13, 2021 posted by Michael Lyons

Seldom Seen Christmas Specials

Let’s face it, the Christmas season now starts, for many, as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves their front porch on Halloween night. With this earlier timeframe, many may have already watched their fill of the standard, seasonal specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer may already be on their second or third viewings for devotees.

You may find yourself looking for some additional options to round out your Christmas special rotation. What follows are just a few that have become forgotten (by some, not by all) with the passage of each holiday Season:

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (1973)

From DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (the studio behind Saturday morning’s original Pink Panther series) comes this animated special about Theodore Edward Bear, a/k/a Ted E. Bear (voiced by comedian Tom Smothers) who decides to search for Christmas. Like other bears, Ted usually misses Christmas, as it’s hibernation time. But this year, he decides to forego his usual long winter’s nap and find out what Christmas is all about.

With the familiar DePatie-Freleng style that looks here like a carefully illustrated children’s book and narration by Casey Kasem, The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas provides a tremendous amount of comfort for Christmas special fans.

Directors Gerry Chiniquy and Hawley Pratt do an excellent job building a world here: the bears in “Bear City” work at the “Organic Honey Works” factory. Ted takes a tremendous amount of flak as he tries to stay awake for Christmas each year, and his daydreaming is taking its toll on his job and his friendships.

Despite this, Ted goes in search of Christmas, coming to a busy city, where he eventually meets up with Santa and learns that Christmas isn’t a “place,” as he had thought, but is indeed so much more, which he soon sees first hand when he meets a kind family. This outsider’s view of Christmas and realization of how special it is, provides a sweet perspective that only adds to the charm of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas.

Greg Ehrbar wrote more about The Bear When Slept Through Christmas on this previous Cartoon Research post.


A Very Merry Cricket (1973)

The remarkable style of legendary animation director Chuck Jones is on full display in his Christmas-themed sequel to Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square (also 1973). That special, based on the children’s book by author George Selden, told the story of Chester Cricket (voiced by Les Tremayne), who finds himself in a picnic basket in his home of Connecticut and winds up traveling to New York City. Here, he is befriended by Tucker the mouse (Mel Blanc) and Harry the Cat (also Tremayne).

Chester, who can imitate the music he hears on the radio by rubbing his legs together, eventually holds concerts in Times Square, bringing a sense of peace to New York City. Chester returns to Connecticut, and as A Very Merry Cricket opens, it’s Christmastime in the city.

New York is very loud and overwhelming, with few people seeming to grasp the season’s true meaning. Tucker and Harry believe they have the solution: they set out for Connecticut, knowing that if they can bring Chester back to New York City, his music will be exactly what the city needs, once again.

While A Very Merry Cricket does recycle scenes from the original special, as it looks to re-cap its “back story,” there is enough here to provide a remarkable statement about how the cacophony of some parts of the season can be a distraction. Jones provides nice, stylized animation depicting an overly-active New York and Chester’s performance of “Silent Night” and a medley of other traditional Christmas carols is a satisfying, emotional climax.

A Very Merry Cricket is still a relevant special that speaks to the calm we all seek this time of year.


The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

The “Grumpy Old Man” is the “Stingiest Man” in this 2D animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from the legendary holiday TV special wizards at the Rankin/Bass studio.

None other than Walter Matthau provides the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge (the actor is also humorously caricatured) in the well-known Christmas tale, which is a remake of a live-action version of The Stingiest Man in Town that aired as part of the anthology series The Alcoa Hour in 1956.

What differentiates Rankin/Bass’ version from other Christmas Carol adaptations is not just the studio’s recognizable animation (based on the style of artist Paul Coker, Jr), but also the addition of the character B.A.H. Humbug (voiced by Tom Bosley), an insect who narrates the special.

Additionally, there are memorable songs by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre, including the lovely ballads, “Yes, There is a Santa Claus” and “Birthday Party of the King.”

The Stingiest Man in Town is a memorable take on one of the world’s most familiar stories.


Ziggy’s Gift (1982)

When A Charlie Brown Christmas was a tremendous hit in 1965, other comic strip characters threw their hat into the Christmas special ring over the next several decades. One of these was Ziggy, created by Tom Wilson, who made his television debut with his 1982 Christmas special, Ziggy’s Gift.

Directed by the late, great Richard Williams, the renowned Academy Award winner behind 1971’s A Christmas Carol and the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the special features the work of many immensely talented animators, including Eric Goldberg and Tom Sito.

Ziggy’s Gift tells the story of how the main character, the mild-mannered Ziggy, takes a job as a sidewalk Santa in the days before Christmas. He doesn’t realize that he is working for a disreputable company and is being pursued by both an odd-looking pickpocket and a determined police officer. In the end, thanks to Ziggy’s kindness, they all learn a lesson about the season.

The animation perfectly captures the style of the strip and couples it with full animation. Told with minimal dialogue (Ziggy doesn’t speak in the special), the animation of the physical humor is terrific to watch.

Ziggy’s Gift won an Emmy, and rightfully so. It’s a warm, quiet special that’s as easy to take as Ziggy’s comic strip itself.


Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work (1991)

Two other popular and beloved comic strips, Bloom County and Outland by Berkeley Breathed were translated to animation for this Christmas special. While featuring characters from both strips, the special was based on a children’s book written by Breathed the same year the special aired.

Opus, the penguin (voice of Michael Bell), wants nothing more than to fly and writes to Santa asking for wings for Christmas. Of his “wings,” Opus says, “This is a bad joke! This is built-in obsolescence.” He even attends an earthbound bird’s support group and tries to fly using balloons, but neither works.

Then, on Christmas Eve, when Santa’s sleigh crash lands in a nearby lake, only Opus, with his ability to swim, can pull it from the water so that Santa can continue his flight.

On Christmas morning, all the ducks in the neighborhood show up on Opus’ doorstep and reward him by taking him for a flight so that he can have his wish.

Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work captures the irreverence and satire of Breathed’s comic strip. There are even several laugh-out-loud one-liners. The scenes depicting unkempt and off-kilter Bill the cat (a favorite character from the strip) are particularly well done and a sequence involving a hairball is disgustingly hysterical

The special also features the voices of comedian John Byner, voice acting veterans Tress MacNeille and Frank Welker, Robin Williams, billed as Sudy Nim, as the Kiwi, and even an uncredited Dustin Hoffman as a cross-dressing cockroach named Milquetoast.

Directed by Skip Jones, Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work merges full animation with the look of the comic strip, much like Ziggy’s Gift. And, like all of the Breathed comic strips, there’s well-crafted story-telling and humor here, coupled with a perfect dose of heart.

These are just some of the many Christmas TV specials that may have somewhat faded with time. This is by no means a definitive list of them, and there are plenty more out there to choose from, as alternatives to seasonal familiars, to help animation fans balance their diet of Christmas viewing over the next several weeks

19 Comments

  • All of these are great, especially Ziggy’s Gift and Opus and Bill.

    I’d add:
    Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration for its variety, humor, and mastery of stop motion.
    A Cosmic Christmas (1977) by Nelvana for it’s very expressive animation and sci-fi/alien take on the 3 wise men.
    Kellogg’s Christmas animated commercial (1980) A surprisingly well done commercial with multiple Kellogg’s cereal mascots. Nice music, nice animation, and a sweet little story.

    Would love to see these and all of the above remastered/restored for at least Blu-ray releases.

    • These are all wonderful! I’ve never seen that Kellogg’s commercial and will now seek it out. Thank you!

  • While I do enjoy all the listed specials, the true gem of the bunch is “Ziggy’s Gift”: kindhearted, quirky, and a showcase for the talents of Richard Williams and his fellow animators, it deserves to be remembered alongside other Christmas perennials. As a bit of a Christmas obsessive, I can’t help but throw out a few more suggestions:

    There are three (3!) animated specials about the equine who bore Mary into Bethlehem, all produced in 1977-78: Rankin-Bass’s “Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey”, Disney’s “The Small One”, and Atkinson Film Arts’s “The Little Brown Burro” (aka “The Little Christmas Burro”). While there are similarities in the underlying story of them all, each has its own charms and its own flaws. The latter special is fairly easy to find online and in “public domain” releases on both DVD and streaming, for those who might be curious.

    At just under 12 minutes, Lotte Reiniger’s “The Star of Bethlehem” is more a short than a special, but is worth a mention as well if solely for the beautiful artwork and delicate silhouette animation, as one might expect from Reiniger. Probably the easiest version to find is one made by Cathedral Films in 1956 with Barbara Ruick narrating, but there’s at least one other version I know of with a male narrator.

    Bill Melendez, taking a (slight) break from Peanuts specials, directed 1974’s “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus”. It’s very low-key, rivaling “The Small One” in that regard, but its UPAesque artistry builds nicely to the climactic essay.

    There have, so far, been three efforts made at a sequel to Rankin-Bass’s “Frosty the Snowman”; IMHO, the only one worth a second look is Rankin-Bass’s own attempt, “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” from 1976. While there’s no replacing Jimmy Durante, Andy Griffith provides some folksy charm as the narrator, and Paul Frees gets to ham it up as the villainous Jack Frost.

    • Do wish more “lost” Christmas specials would gain more popular attention: Love “The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas,” the seventies “Yes, Viriginia There is a Santa Clause,”

      Would love to add “Silent Night,” and “The Night Before Christmas” from the sixties. They’re low-key, sort of in the HB style, and hokey. But they had a quaintness I found reassuring. More Lost Christmas specials please.

  • The only one of these I remember seeing is “A Very Merry Cricket”. When the cat and the mouse go to Connecticut to visit the cricket, he’s playing the finale to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a piece I had only just discovered and fallen in love with. I don’t recall that there was any other classical violin music in the special, just Christmas standards like “Jingle Bells”. At least they could have included Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or the Corelli Christmas Concerto.

    Barbara Feldon should have done more cartoon voice work. Maybe a recurring role on Inspector Gadget.

  • “even an uncredited Dustin Hoffman”
    That’s weird, just the other day I was thinking about Dustin Hoffman’s work in animation and how he either does it anonymously as mentioned here or on an episode ‘The Simpson’s. Or, as The Father in ‘The Point'” only allowing his voice to be used for one broadcast.

    • He also did a “Simpsons” episode billed as “Sam Etic” (i.e., “Semitic”),

  • The Ziggy’s Gift special I remember seeing on Nickelodeon on a Sunday back in the 1990’s. I think A Very Merry Cricket may also have haired on Nickelodeon back then as well. I think some other Chuck Jones specials aired on there during that time as well.

  • I remember a great (but low key) B.C. Christmas special that used Bob and Ray as the two Key voices.

  • Berke Breathed’s dislike of A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK is well known. A few years ago, when asked by the Washington Post where a copy of the special could be found, Breathed replied, “Hopefully in the rubbish pail. We can do better than that and we will with an eventual Opus film, but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I presume your family was on speed when they watched it. I would imagine it helps.”

    The Opus film Breathed mentions was stuck in development hell for years and never materialized.

  • This is a super theme….[and we all know there are 700 more, lol.] I hope there’ll be more days of this one!! TY

  • I will add the Bill Melendez adaptation “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”
    It used to air on TV annually until Macy’s knocked the classic off the air in favor of THEIR version which is basically a kid-friendly Lifetime movie

  • My lesser-known favorites include “The Gift of Winter,” with voices by pre-“SNL” Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd and its unmistakably ’70s graphic style that I’m sure influenced Cathy Guisewite’s eponymous comic strip character (who looks more than mere coincidence like an adult version of “Tender”); and Shamus Culhane’s faith-based “The Night the Animals Talked” with songs by Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. I like a bit more than it warrants Playhouse Pictures’ Hanna-Barbera-ish “The Night Before Christmas,” with the famous poem (which, according to this, Clement Moore wrote as a present to her sick daughter who had asked for a storybook about Santa Claus) sung by the Norman Luboff Choir. There was also a 30-minute cartoon based on “The 12 Days of Christmas” that I keep looking for; my memory of it is vague, not having seen it in more than 40 years, but I think it had something to do with a bird–a goose?–wandering around New York City; again, very ’70s looking.

    But of course nothing beats the Holy Trinity of animated Yuletide TV specials: “Charlie Brown,” “Rudolph,” and “The Grinch,” followed closely by “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” How lucky we of a certain age are that these premiered during our childhood.

  • Back in boomer childhood, I thought of “Gay Puree”, “Alakazam the Great”, the stop-motion “Hansel and Gretel”, “Daydreamer”, and both the Fleischer Studio features as holiday specials, since that’s when they’d turn up on TV. They were usually on local stations, often in the pre-dinner afternoon when siblings, cousins and other kid table candidates were hanging out in the TV room. One I remember, “Ruddigore”, was a one-hour version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. So far as I know, it never played again in America.

  • Chad Rocco of the web series Familiar Faces featured a few of these (namely, “The Stingiest Man In Town”, “Ziggy’s Gift”, and “A Wish For Wings That Work”,) on some lists he made about Forgotten Christmas Specials. The first list of the bunch also featured such specials as “Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration”, Nelvana’s “A Cosmic Christmas”, and “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”.

    I remember watching “Ziggy’s Gift” on VHS and finding it a fun, warm hearted and well-animated special. The only gripe I can think of is the decision to not have Ziggy talking, since he was perfectly capable of doing so in the comic and has even done so in a couple of Richard Williams’ commercials, so why not here? I don’t know, that detail’s always bothered me, but it doesn’t hurt the special overall. I’d still like to see “A Wish For Wings That Work” at some point, despite Berkeley Breathed’s backlash towards it.

  • The only things I remember about the original broadcast were the intros and outros to the commercials. They used someone imitating Walter Cronkite (?) saying “We now return to Ziggy’s Gift.”

  • Superb post, Mike, and great choices.

    This year in doing research I took a look at Hanna-Barbera’s both popular lesser-known holiday specials and had a couple of thoughts. “The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn’t” and “A Christmas Story” were both syndicated by Avco. Each was bookended with several seconds of blank “Bewitched”-like animated starfields. That must have been provided for local sponsors to key up “Madison Mortgage Company Presents with Holiday Wishes” or some such message, but our local station just left it blank. My mom kept saying, “Why is it doing that, Greg? What happened to the picture?”

    I seem to remember “A Christmas Story” being titled “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” when it first aired. If so, maybe it was changed because of the Paul Tripp/Rossano Brazzi movie of the same name.

    “A Christmas Story” concerned a dog (Paul Winchell) and a mouse (Daws Butler) trying to get a boy’s letter to Santa. It has several songs by Hoyt Curtin, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, including the opening theme, which was (thank you, Tim Hollis) also used in 1972 for the Enchanted Voyage boat ride attraction in The Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera at King’s Island in Cincinnati with different lyrics. Several H-B holiday specials shared Curtin/H-B songs in the seventies and eighties.

  • Still have those specials on VHS tapes somewhere! Ralph Bakshi’s”Christmas In Tattertown” (1988) is another good one.

  • R.O. Blechman’s ‘Simple Gifts’ Christmas special was only broadcast twice on PBS as far as I know (individual PBS affiliates may have shown it more that that, I’m not sure … I only recall it being shown twice and then it disappeared. )

    https://vimeo.com/492677204

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