This Christmas is surely all about finding comfort where we can, and for many, that means looking back on old times. For me, it started with the discovery of a Dolly Parton Christmas special buried in the archives of Youtube, which got me wondering. Sure, there’s the infamous ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ Star Wars Special of ’78, but what other gems (and doozies) are being overlooked? So I went digging and here’s what I found. From the world’s first Christmas movie made in 1898 to the height of kitschy musical medleys in the 1970s & 80s, there’s something for everyone. Have yourself a merry little Christmas friends…
A Smoky Mountain Christmas, 1986, starring Dolly Parton
An icon of positivity, Dolly Parton has arguably become the voice of America in a divided nation, so this made-for-TV special that first aired in 1986 is probably just what the doctor ordered.
For Generation X and early Millennials, the feature may be a precious holiday memory growing up, but perhaps it’s time to introduce a new generation to the magic of the holidays with Dolly. Fun fact: it was directed by Henry Winkler, aka the “The Fonz”! Dolly Parton plays a country singer who returns to her mountain hometown, adopts some cute orphans, and defeats a witch.
But the holiday magic with Dolly doesn’t end there! Two years earlier in 1986, she teamed up with the legendary Kenny Rogers for “A Christmas to Remember”. You’re welcome, enjoy..,
It would be remiss at this time of year if i didn’t mention Parton’s tireless philanthropy work, most notably, her book gifting program, “Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library”, which mails millions of books to poor children around the world. You can donate to the program here.
And I just thought I’d throw it out there if you haven’t discovered it already, but you might also enjoy her new podcast, Dolly Parton’s America from Radiolab.
The Mr. T & Emmanuel Lewis Christmas Special, 1984
Mr. T plays a sidewalk Santa Claus and Lewis is a lonesome kid wandering the city streets in search of Christmas cheer and the two embark on a charming and nostalgic holiday adventure. Also, magician David Copperfield makes a inexplicable appearance.
The Sound Of Christmas with Julie Andrews, Placido Domingo & John Denver
It’s like The Sound of Music sequel you never knew existed! Worth it alone just for the breathtaking moment when Julie emerges on that Austrian snowy mountain meadow, but this is a truly gorgeous Christmas special filmed in 1987 not to be missed. “The Sound of Christmas” is filmed in Salzburg around the filming locations of the iconic movie, The Sound of Music. Plus, Julie is joined by the King Singers, John Denver, and Placido Domingo.
Santa Claus, the world’s first Christmas film (1898)
Damn, the editing was pretty slick for 120 year old technology…
Johnny Cash & Family Christmas Show, 1976
Country’s legendary bad boy, Johnny Cash ran a Christmas special every year from 1976-79, featuring June Carter and more. Find all the episodes here.
Bing Crosby’s last Christmas special featuring David Bowie and Twiggy, 1977
This show originally aired in 1977, after Crosby’s passing and highlights include a duet with David Bowie of “Little Drummer Boy” in counterpoint to David Bowie, a Charles Dickens sketch featuring Ron Moody and Twiggy, as well as a rendition of “”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with the 1960s supermodel. Christmas variety shows like this just doesn’t exist anymore.
A Motown Christmas Special with The Pointer Sisters, Natalie Cole, Smokey & The Temptations
Aired in 1987 on NBC, and hosted Miami Vice co-star Philip Michael Thomas, unfortunately, only a very grainy upload of the full show exists on Daily Motion or Youtube. Side note: here’s a great article here that schools us on true Motown.
Christmas with The Martins and The Sinatras, 1967
A musical time machine featuring legends Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and their families, resulting in a perfectly nostalgic Christmas with an Italian-American twist. I found this particularly touching note in the comments section of Youtube where this special has been uploaded:
“Dear Mom and Dad, I miss you so much. Thank you for the best childhood and family a person could ever hope for. These shows bring me right back to that time of the 1960’s when life was simpler, sweeter, kinder and less jaded. I can still hear the laughter, the sound of relatives enjoying togetherness at our home on Christmas eve…the smells from the kitchen of Mom and Grandma and the Aunts preparing our traditional Christmas eve feast of Eggplant Parmigiana, sausage, peppers and onions, meatballs and sauce, then the ham and salads and almond paste cookies , Italian chocolate balls and pistachio candies. Tangerines floating in sweetened wine and Dad making whiskey sour’s in the blender for the grandparents. Dino and Frank on the TV and stereo. It was simply the best evening a young child could ever have. How I miss all of it. So sad that these times are gone and my children of today will never see the togetherness and joy of our extended family coming together as we did during that time…”
The Junky’s Christmas, 1989, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, narrated by William S. Burroughs
Because Christmas is also a dark time for many. This is a short story by American writer and visual artist William S. Burroughs, adapted into short claymation film produced by Coppola, in 1993 about a penniless withdrawing from opiates on Christmas day. Trigger warning.
A spoken word version was performed with Kurt Cobain on guitar.
In a nutshell “one down-and-out junky sharing his only fix with a man suffering from kidney stones—that is, after the junky spends the day trying to steal enough to buy heroin, finds a suitcase containing two severed human legs, and finally scores a little morphine by goldbricking at a crooked doctor’s house”.
Arguably the world’s most successful heroin addict, in this clip from 1977, the renowned William S. Burroughs, the author of ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Junkie’, talks about his addiction to heroin.
Judy Garland’s Christmas Special, 1963 (vintage commercials included)
In 1963, President Kennedy had just been assassinated and this was Judy Garland’s gift to cheer people up during a rather miserable Christmas for America.
The show also features Judy’s children, Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft, as well as guest stars Jack Jones and Mel Torme. “It’s just an informal evening here” she says with her full gown with fur collar. And of course, Judy sings “Over the Rainbow.” Another heartwarming comment I found in the Youtube comments:
“I remember watching this with my mother during the holidays in 1963. Our country was so sad at that time, with the assassination fresh in our minds. Judy and her kids helped to make things better; At least for this kid who had just turned 12. I’ve always loved Judy.”
Bewitched at Christmas, 1970, a controversial episode about racism
The story of “Sisters at Heart” was written by 26 African-American students from a 10th grade English class at Jefferson High School. The star of Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery, considered it her favorite episode of the series and her biographer Herbie Pilato wrote that “no episode of the series more clearly represented [the] cry against prejudice” than “Sisters at Heart”.
Despite its noble intentions, the episode is certainly not without serious error, showing some unfortunate examples of blackface on network television. “Sisters At Heart”, which was awarded an Emmy, now stands as a pretty unique piece of television history.
The X Files “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, 1998
Who doesn’t love a bit of ghoulish fun at Christmas?
Mulder talks Scully into investigating a haunted house on Christmas Eve where several couples have met their fate on that very night. While there, they encounter endless tricks and traps set by a ghostly couple who originally made a lovers suicide pact in the house. The ghosts try to convince Mulder and Scully to kill each other. Stream it via Amazon or iTunes.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Christmas Special, 1994
This one goes out to the 90s kids, a Christmas Special so awful that it makes “The Star Wars Holiday Special” look like “Citizen Kane”! Songs include here “We’re the Turtles, “Up from the Sewer” and “Gotta get a Gift”.
A Christmas Special with Pavarotti
A young Luciano Pavarotti sings Christmas favorites from Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal for a very classical Christmas.
A Flinstone Christmas
Let the childhood memories coming flooding back with this animated 1964 Christmas television special produced by Hanna-Barbera.
If it hasn’t been blocked in your country, the full special is on the Warner Bros Youtube archives here.
The Christmas Martian, a Strange Post New Wave French Canadian Christmas Film, 1971
The hockey scene alone is worth the torture.
Based on a couple of 1970s news articles I found, it appears that Xerox was responsible for dubbing it and distributing it in the United States.
The Snowman featuring David Bowie, 1982
Every year, I almost forget to watch this magical movie. If you’re discovering it for the first time, lucky you.
There’s an HD version (without the Bowie intro) here.
Bonus: That time Joe Pesci had a Bizarre Christmas Song in 1968
While working as a barber in the 1960s, he tried to start a musical career, releasing his debut album Little Joe Sure Can Sing! (billed as Joe Ritchie), on which he sang covers of contemporary pop hits. As a teenager, Pesci was also friends with Frankie Valli and in 1959, at age 16, he helped the formation of the band The Four Seasons.