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10 Totally Unconventional TV Christmas Specials

Jon O'Brien
Rankin/Bass's version of a leprechaun, from The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981), is your new worst nightmare.
Rankin/Bass's version of a leprechaun, from The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981), is your new worst nightmare. / Warner Home Video
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Some holiday TV specials have become part of the festive fabric. Who didn’t grow up watching the super-charming A Charlie Brown Christmas every December, for example? But not every seasonal offering brings as much yuletide cheer. Here’s a look at 10 that suggest that those responsible might have indulged in a little too much eggnog.

1. Bewitched // "Sisters At Heart" (1970)

Oh, where to start with this problematic festive episode of classic nose-twitching sitcom Bewitched. In “Sisters at Heart,” Samantha casts a spell on a racist client of husband Darrin, which makes him see everyone as Black (this being 1970 and all, the white cast quite happily wore blackface for the occasion). And then daughter Tabitha uses her witch powers to make herself and African American friend Lisa more aesthetically alike. To be fair, the storyline was conceived by a bunch of tenth-graders who obviously meant well, but perhaps weren’t the best equipped to deal with such a sensitive issue.

2. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special has gained almost mythical status since its one and only screening on CBS in 1978. There’s a good reason the bizarre attempt to combine the space opera with old-school variety has never been re-run. The story itself—Chewbacca must return home for a fictional celebration dubbed Life Day—is pure nonsense and the sets are creakier than Obi-Wan Kenobi, while stars including Carrie Fisher (forced to perform a vocal version of the film’s theme tune) and Harrison Ford all look like they’re about to fire their agents. It's little wonder George Lucas wanted to smash every copy in existence with a sledgehammer!

3. Rich Little’s A Christmas Carol (1978)

There was obviously something in the mulled wine in 1978. Just a few weeks after the Star Wars fiasco aired, impressionist Rich Little delivered a bonkers take on perhaps the most famous Christmas story (well, apart from the nativity, obviously). You have to applaud his work ethic, and indeed budget management, if nothing else. The Man of a Thousand Voices assumed every single role in the hour-long CBC Television special. And just to make things a little more difficult, he also played each character as a different famous figure, resulting in Scrooge as W.C. Fields and Jacob Marley as Richard Nixon.

4. The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold (1981)

We could probably fill this entire list with the increasingly off-the-wall stop-motion animations of Rankin/Bass. But this 1981 special, far more suited to St. Patrick’s Day, may well be the most tenuously themed. Indeed, the only yuletide connection is the use of the song “Christmas in Killarney” and the fact that December 25th is the deadline for its villain’s quest. That involves a pine tree-dwelling banshee, accidentally unleashed by a cabin boy, who’ll get turned into salty teardrops come Christmas morning if she fails to dispossess a bunch of leprechauns of their gold.

5. A Christmas Dream (1984)

Mr. T as a street corner Santa tasked with showing Emmanuel Lewis’ young Scrooge the magic of Christmas with a little help from David Copperfield. Could this NBC special be any more 1984? It certainly couldn’t be much more surreal, with The A-Team’s finest forced to deliver lines such as “The blessed of us must try to save the less of us” with a straight face, while his diminutive co-star squeals and shuffles his way through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” as if forced at gunpoint. Throw in a ventriloquist's dummy and a quest to discover whether baby Jesus ever smiled and this is a dream of the fever kind.

6. Andy Williams And The Nbc Kids Search For Santa (1985)

Who knew that your grandma’s favorite crooner, Andy Williams, and mid-'90s ultimate TV pin-up Joey Lawrence once did a duet together? Well, for a few seconds, anyway. The unlikely pair briefly did an awkward song-and-dance routine atop a kid’s bed for what was undoubtedly the most random of Williams’ many festive specials. As its title suggests, 1985’s Search for Santa saw several child stars recruited from the likes of Punky Brewster, The Cosby Show, and Silver Spoons head to Finland to help the singer track down the elusive St. Nick. The result was a stage school nightmare that flitted between annoyingly wholesome and unintentionally creepy.

7. The RuPaul Christmas Ball (1993)

After 13 seasons and counting of Drag Race, not to mention its never-ending spin-offs, RuPaul’s unique take on the traditional variety show now appears relatively tame. But way back in 1993, its low-budget mix of near-the-knuckle jokes, provocative parody infomercials (Whore d'Oeuvre, anyone?) and New York club kid aesthetics provided the most transgressive Christmas special around. Celebrity guests as diverse as Nirvana, Eartha Kitt and Elton John also joined in with the unapologetically queer fun, filmed exclusively in New York for Britain’s Channel 4, that served charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

8. South Park // "Mr. Hankey, The Christmas poo" (1997)

OK, so South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker were never going to commit to a heart-warming, chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire-type of Christmas special. Even so, a talking, Santa hat-clad piece of feces was still a giant, and unashamedly gross, curveball. Airing during the series's first season, this ninth episode finds the high-pitched Mr. Hankey emerging from a toilet bowl to help South Park’s residents discover the true meaning of the holiday season. But not before inadvertently sending Kyle, initially the only character aware of his presence, to a mental institution for being an "acute fecalphiliac."

9. Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe In Santa (2002)

“I saw my parents die, and I’m not sure this wasn’t as emotionally devastating as that.” That’s how Rapsittie Street Kids executive producer James DeLuca described first watching the copious amounts of dead air, parade of obnoxious characters, and the kind of blocky, featureless animation quality you’d expect from a Commodore 64. This baffling musical (oh yes, there are plenty of terrible songs, too) bizarrely boasts a talented voice cast including Nancy Cartwright and Mark Hamill, ensuring that A Star Wars Holiday Special isn’t the most embarrassing thing on the latter's resume.

10. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014)

This 2014 TV movie is proof that even a network as cookie-cutter as Lifetime can still occasionally get weird during the holidays. Jumping on the bandwagon just a couple of years too late, Grumpy Cat’s festive outing was inspired by the self-explanatory meme that made a mixed breed named Tardar Sauce a worldwide phenomenon. But while the story was relatively traditional, it was told in a very post-modern way, with numerous fourth-wall breaks, meta jokes, and pleas to get it trending on Twitter. Sadly, despite Aubrey Plaza lending her entertainingly snarky voice to the eponymous feline, many critics dubbed Worst Christmas Ever as the Worst Christmas Film Ever.

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