Animation Cel-ebration
December 15, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

The More the Merrier: Seldom Seen Christmas Specials #2

The buffet of animated TV Christmas specials to choose from is indeed a healthy one, but like any good buffet, one needs variety.

A diet of only wonderful familiars like A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will keep you healthy and merry through the season, but it should be a balanced diet.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for “Cartoon Research” on seldom-seen animated Christmas specials, much as I did for Halloween. Like that Halloween article, readers offered up some other wonderful titles.

With this wealth of riches in the realm of Christmas specials to choose from, here are some additional seasonal offerings from television’s past, suggested by “Cartoon Research” readers:

Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987), suggested by Dustyn

From the height of the California Raisins explosion in popularity came this prime-time special from stop-motion master Will Winton.

Hosted by two dinosaurs, Rex and Herb, the special’s collection of vignettes takes us on a tour of different Christmas carols.

The special runs the gamut from the Three Kings singing “We Three Kings,” with backup harmony provided by their camels, to a group with a Waffle cart mistaking “Here We Come a Wassailing” for “Here We Come a Waffaling,” and from anthropomorphic bells clanging each other on the head to the tune of “Carol of the Bells,” to the California Raisins belting out a Motown-like version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration has a comforting, trademark, offbeat sense of humor.

There is, of course, impressive stop-motion animation, from the opening shot of the camera sweeping across building tops and into a town square, to a rendition of “Oh Christmas Tree,” that’s like a “nesting doll,” as it keeps going deeper and deeper inside different Christmas trees.

This special is non-stop, hand-crafted Christmas magic.

Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977), The Small One (1978), The Little Brown Burro (1978) suggested by Jody Morgan

The story of the little unwanted donkey who winds up carrying Mary to the manger in Bethlehem has inspired not one but three different specials, which all came out around the same time.

The Little Brown Burro (also called The Little Christmas Burro) is narrated by actor Lorne Greene, directed by Vic Atkinson, and produced by the Atkinson Film Arts studio (known for the series of Racoons specials). This version of the tale has a unique character design and fluid animation.

The little burro being befriended by a small mouse named Omar and Greene’s soothing narration gives it all a warm, storybook feeling.

Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, from Rankin/Bass, home of many iconic TV Christmas specials, is an “Animagic,” stop-motion special narrated by Roger Miller in story and song and places a Dumbo-esque twist on the tale.

In this version, the little donkey has long ears that make him an outcast until, after a heartbreaking tragedy, he is helped by a cherub and makes his way to Bethlehem.

Disney’s The Small One was released theatrically as a featurette on a double bill with Pinocchio. Based on a 1947 children’s book, the short film was directed by Don Bluth just before he led a walkout of animators in 1979.

Small One centers on a young boy who must take his family’s donkey, who has grown too old for work, to town to sell him. Having no luck, the boy sells Small One to a kind man, Joseph (not named in the short), to assist with carrying his wife.

The short features a nice, touching connection between the young boy and Small One and the lush, full animation that’s become a hallmark of Disney (although some of the film re-uses animation from The Jungle Book) and packs efficient storytelling into its shortened run time.

The Small One, Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey and The Little Brown Burro all provide emotional versions of the true meaning of the season, each in their unique way.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1974), suggested by James McKee

Director Bill Melendez, well-known for his work on a number of the popular Peanuts specials, helmed this story based on the true-life famous and inspiring 1897 editorial that appeared in The Sun newspaper in New York.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (not to be confused with the 2009 special, Yes, Virginia) is narrated by Jim Backus and relays the fictionalized backstory of what made young Virginia O’Hanlon write her letter to the editor of The Sun. There’s also the fictionalized account of what made Francis Church, the editor, run the story after being befriended by a newspaper boy.

Mr. Melendez’s fingerprints are all over this, as it has the feel of a Peanuts special, with its stylized background and character design, that looks very comforting and comic-strip-ish. If that wasn’t enough, it ends with a bouncy title theme song by Jimmy Osmond.

A Christmas Story (1972), suggested by Greg Ehrbar

No, there’s no BB gun here; this is a different Christmas Story. In this syndicated Hanna-Barbera special, a young boy named Timmy writes a letter to Santa that accidentally never gets mailed. Timmy’s dog, Goober, and his friend, Gumdrop the mouse, decide to set out on a Christmas Eve journey to get the letter to Santa.

A Christmas Story includes lovely songs, several of which were re-used in later Hanna-Barbera specials: 1977’s A Flintstone Christmas also used “Which One is the Real Santa Claus?,” “Sounds of Christmas Day” and “Hope,” and the latter was also used in Yogi’s First Christmas in 1980.

The special also features a voice cast that could be called the Hanna-Barbera repertory company, including Paul Winchell as Goober, Daws Butler as Gumdrop, Janet Waldo as Timmy’s mom, John Stephenson as his Dad, and Don Messick and Hal Smith as other characters.

From these voices, character design, sound effects, and backgrounds, to the story (written by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears), this is pure Hanna-Barbera of the era, along with all of the nostalgia that comes along with it.

These are just some of the many other seldom-seen Christmas specials. There were also plenty of other worthy suggestions (and there may be more after this article). Still, there’s always next year to add some additional options to the never-ending animated TV Christmas buffet!


  • I’m going to bring up this B.C. special again.

  • That 15-second gap at the beginning of A Christmas Story where there’s nothing on the screen but a few twinkling lights on the sides always made me laugh when I watched in my younger days. I assume that was for a local station or sponsor’s name to be superimposed, but without that, it just brings everything to a screeching halt.

    • Guess I should have checked the link to the preceding post up above first–Ehrbar’s earlier remarks about the special are almost exactly the same. Sorry, Greg.

  • I’m not sure these are mentioned somewhere else, but for many years one of our local stations in Chicago (WGN-TV) used to run old black-and-white 1950s shorts with a Christmas themed: HARDROCK, COCO AND JOE, FROSTY THE SNOWMAN and SUZY SNOWFLAKE. I wasn’t all that fond of that version of FROSTY THE SHOWMAN or SUZY SNOWFLAKE for that matter – too jazzy and “in your face” for me, but I DID like HARROCK, COCO AND JOE. (I think Castle Films had a retitled version of that in their “Christmas Films” library for years. I know the short was foreign-made (Yugoslavia?), but a lot of us kids who lived in Chicago “back in the day” considered it part of our “Christmas Tradition”!

    Mike Lyons: Did Jackson Beck do voice-work for the CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION? He told me that he did some work for them, but was kind of vague as to what the Claymation film (or films) were that he worked on.

    • “Hardrock, Coco, and Joe” and “Suzy Snowflake” were both animated by Wah Chang of Centaur Productions; he’s perhaps best know for his props and designs for the original Star Treck, but he also did some work for Disney, including the original maquette for Pinocchio‘s title character and articulated deer models for Bambi.

      • Being that I grew up in the Chicagoland area and was treated to the trifecta of Hardrock, Coco, and Joe, Suzie Snowflake, and the UPA Frosty the Snowman this topic will always get a response from me. The one question that has nagged at me for decades is, “Does anyone actually have a good copy of Suzie Snowflake?” the one that has been shown for generations looks like it was recorded to the worst EP VHS and then left on someone’s radiator for a few months. The visuals are cloudy and the sound of weirdly muffled. Is that just what Suzie Snowflake is or has someone been sitting on a good quality copy of it and isn’t sharing with WGN?

    • Hi Leonard,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. I don’t see the special on any of Jackson’s filmographies, and didn’t spot his name in the ending credits. He certainly was prolific, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he was part of it, but I don’t see anything definitive to confirm that.

      Thanks and Happy Holidays!

  • Seeing this topic repeated for another column makes me as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, and as giddy as a drunken man. I feel if it became an annual feature, we faithful readers of the site could easily keep it going for a decade, with at least one minor classic and one true oddball every year. I highly recommend clicking the link to the earlier column and checking the other specials suggested in the comments, if you’ve not done so yet.

    And seeing the trio of tales I suggested about the Christmas donkey making the cut this year tickles me. While it can’t measure up to the classics, The Little Brown/Christmas Burro has its charms, and if there’s any audience who would enjoy checking out this obscurity, I suspect this is the place.

    While there’s still enough specials suggested in the comments for the last column to fill up at least two more, I do want to briefly mention a couple of Romeo Muller’s last works that have remained obscure. 1992’s Noël, narrated by Charlton Heston, is about a Christmas ornament with “a happiness”, in contrast to the cynical ornaments around him, who over the course of the special learns all about Christmas; 1993’s The 12 Days of Christmas, starring Phil Hartman, is about a knight trying to win the affections of a princess by giving her what he thinks are gifts from her wish list. Both are destined for a niche audience, the former being perhaps too twee and bittersweet simultaneously for most, and the latter being very silly and slight, but I think they both deserve a chance to find that niche.

    And for people who enjoy “so bad it’s good”-type media, seek out Rapsittie Street Kids Believe in Santa, which is mind-warpingly horrible in all the funniest ways. (On the other hand, The Alpha-Bots Christmas, while a fairly impressive accomplishment for a lone animator, is both bad and boring; approach with caution.)

  • Well, as if the voices and character designs in “Yes, Virginia…” weren’t enough of a case of ‘Peanuts’ déjà vu for you, there’s also some staticky audio at the 2:05 mark replacing Billy’s disparaging remarks toward Virginia, reminiscent of a similar situation that occurred in rebroadcasts of It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown (1977). Wonder if Billy blamed Virginia for blowing the homecoming football game, too.

  • I saw the Claymation special at least twice, and at the time I thought it would join Rudolph, Frosty and Charlie Brown in the annual holiday rotation. The individual segments are gorgeous, and the bridging bits are amusing with the interplay of the hosts and the wassail-waffle-waddle-wallow confusion. Looking back, however, I don’t really think it had enough heart to make it as a Christmas perennial. Truly one-of-kind, no question about that.

    Possibly the most obscure Rankin/Bass Christmas production is “A Christmas Tree”, an episode of their 1972 syndicated series “Festival of Family Classics”, which consisted largely of animated retellings of familiar children’s stories that had been handled previously, and better, by Disney. Siblings Peter and Mary, family friends of Charles Dickens, live out the story he tells them about a quest to recover the stolen Essence of Christmas. It deviates substantially from the Dickens original, and is so fanciful that it’s a little hard to follow; but its imaginative power, appealing characters, and heartwarming ending make it well worth watching, and not only for Rankin/Bass completists.

  • My lesser-known animated perennials are: “The Night Before Christmas” (Playhouse Pictures, 1969, supposedly the story of how Clement Moore came to write the famous poem), “The Gift of Winter” (Canadian, 1974, with pre-“SNL” Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd–who knew they were on the brink of immortality?–doing most of the voices), and “The Night the Animals Talked” (David Gerber, 1970, with songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and directed by Shamus Culhane).

    I vaguely recall there being a stylized, urban-set “12 Days of Christmas” in the mid-to-late ’70s; but not having seen it since, my memories of it are pretty hazy.

  • Thanks so much for these! I’m going to suggest THE NIGHT THE ANIMALS TALKED, THE TINY TREE, and THE FIRST CHRISTMAS: THE STORY OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS SNOW for a third installment.

  • Thanks Jody! Now that you mentioned it, I remember seeing the name “Centaur Productions” and I DO seem to recall that Wah Chang was one of the main animators for HARDROCK, COCO AND JOE. Is there more information somewhere about those short subjects?

    • I remember stumbling across a short article about them several years ago, but I can’t remember where I found it. I’ll try to do a bit of online searching. And, of course, if anyone here has more information, we both would love to read it!

  • Another forgotten TV Christmas special was produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studios’ “A Cosmic Christmas”, broadcasted on 85% of independent TV stations on North America in 1977 by Viacom.

  • I remember an nbc special that only aired once in 1977 called the fourth king, and I couldn’t understand why there were no repeats of it.

    • As that special was completely unknown to me, I made a quick web search to read up on it. Apparently it’s not too hard to find online; also, I was flabbergasted to learn it was directed by Romano Scarpa. Definitely putting it on my list to watch this year.

  • Thanks for including Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration, Michael :). I’ll add a couple more here:

    Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol (1971) – Gorgeous animation. Excellent voice work. Parts of it scared the heck out of me as a kid. It’s too bad it’s so short, but it tells the story well.

    Raggedy Ann & Andy: The Great Santa Claus Caper (1978) – Chuck Jones, June Foray, Daws Butler, and a character that could pass as Wile E Coyote’s cousin; what more do you need :). The next year, the same team did RA&A: The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile.

    They aren’t animated, but I really wish these 3 Muppet specials could get unedited disc releases:
    John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979) (never on disc)
    The Christmas Toy (1986) (dvd edited out Kermit intro and outro)
    A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) (dvd edited out songs) – My personal favorite of the three. Love inclusion of the Sesame street and Fraggle Rock muppets, and the carols singing at the end that includes songs from the previous 2 specials.

  • My favorite is “The Story of the Faithful Wookiee”, which was brought up earlier on this site.

  • Something Newer that seems destined to be on next years list is “How Murray Saved Christmas.” And perhaps “Robbie the Reindeer” from the u.k. (I’ve started hunting down DVDs of Christmas specials that I enjoy – that seem as if they will never be rerun> I’ve got two copies of “A wish for Wings That Work.”)

  • You have to have A Chipmunk Christmas

  • The only thing I remember about “The Small One” is the reused animation.

  • “Simple Gifts” (1977), which aired on PBS. A collection of animated seasonal short films, including one by Maurice Sendak, an excerpt from Virginia Wool’s “Orlando” set during the London “Great Freeze” in 1684, a “Toonerville Trolley”(!) short, one based on a Christmas diary entry by an 11-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, one about the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front, and one based on an R.O. Blechmann story about Mary and Joseph.

  • I have enjoyed all three retellings of the unwanted donkey, I can’t really choose a favorite of them. I think I recall seeing The Little Christmas Burro on EWTN in the 90s, but I’m not 100% sure that was where I first saw it. I never miss Nestor. It’s one of those Christmas specials I always catch before the season ends. Also Small One certainly has Don Bluth’s unmistakable style.
    Claymation is just absolute fun and perhaps one of the most creative Christmas specials that unfortunately seems to go unnoticed. Both musically and visually, it’s a real treat!

    Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, have a Happy New Year!

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