I'm not very religious, but I love Christmas specials. I love how everyone tries to find the true meaning of Christmas, I love the threads that unite all of them and I love the music. But what makes for the best special?
I have some specific criteria to really enjoy a Christmas special. First, it has to be a Christmas special, not a movie. It can be a very special episode of a television show, but not a movie. Christmas movies are too long. "It's a Wonderful Life" is a fine film, but it takes forever. That thing is over two hours long. That's too much. Also, nothing ever happens to Mr. Potter, and that guy is a total jerk. Give me a nice, 50-minute special.
Second, it has to be something that I saw as a child. It needs that nostalgia kick to it. Christmas is also about nostalgia. I didn't mention that up there, but it is.
This eliminates recent productions and TV shows -- which is too bad, because there have been some very fine outings from my favorite TV shows in recent memory, especially the recent Claymation Christmas episode of "Community."
I also enjoy a quirky set of characters, and either animation or stop motion.
My three contenders are probably as follows: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
I enjoyed Rudolph as a child, but when I look back, I get a little annoyed at Hermy. On the other hand, Yukon Cornelius is awesome no matter what the age. His song "Silver and Gold" is one of the best moments in the special, and he also comes to the rescue against the snowman. Fun fact, he is apparently searching for a peppermint mine, which was edited out of the special during my youth. It makes tasting his pickaxe more reasonable, knowing that.
Another benefit for Rudolph is the Island of Misfit Toys. It's just an awesome idea, with a winged lion thing as its ruler. Winged lions need to be rulers more often. It's like someone read the Narnia books and said, "This lion that dies for that kid's sins isn't cool enough yet."
I also just spoiled "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," so I got that going for me, which is nice.
But when you come right down to it, Hermy knocks Rudolph out of contention.
When I was a kid, Grinch was probably my favorite, but I just can't muster as much enthusiasm for it now. I don't know why. I love the songs, the Grinch's heart growing is still good. I love his dog. Max is among the most loyal dogs in all of fiction.
The odd thing here is that Grinch is probably the best special from a mechanical standpoint. The animation is directed by Chuck Jones, one of the masterminds behind the best of Warner Bros. animation. Boris Karloff voices the Grinch. From every standpoint I can think of, it should be the best special, I just can't put it over Charles Schulz's work.
What "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has going for it that other specials don't is its weaknesses are actually strengths. It was done on a low budget, the voice acting sounds odd, and the melodrama, emotion and message are just so bare. Those are all why it works, though. It's incredibly heartfelt and the voice acting and small budget end up charming instead of cheap. Just looking at the characters dancing makes me happy.
Plus, Charlie Brown has one of the most kicking soundtracks ever. "Linus and Lucy" alone almost wins the game -- it's basically thought of as the Peanuts theme. I love that song.
In the end Peanuts wins the day because it's able to turn its issues into strengths. Another example of its victory -- when I picked up a Christmas tree for my tiny apartment, you can bet it was a Charlie Brown Tree.