All 19 Fun, Festive, Bizarre Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials, Ranked

TV Lists Rankin/Bass Productions
All 19 Fun, Festive, Bizarre Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials, Ranked

From Rudolph to Frosty, no production company has done more to flood the airwaves with Christmas specials than Rankin/Bass Productions. Founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, Rankin/Bass created dozens of cartoons from the early 1960s through the 1980s, from ThunderCats to the animated version of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Yet the company is most famous for its holiday specials—often based on popular songs and existing properties—and its innovative use of “Animagic,” which combines stop-motion animation with puppets to create a unique visual style.

While there are Rankin/Bass entries for Easter and Thanksgiving, too, the company earned its reputation with a series of 19 Christmas specials—18 of which were created between 1964 and 1985—that dazzled and occasionally horrified small children. It can be difficult to know where to get one’s Yuletide on with such a massive catalogue.

Thankfully, Paste is here to shepherd you through the world of Rankin/Bass, from worst to best:

19. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

If you watch the original Rudolph and think to yourself, “This is fun and all, but I really wish they found a way to work in a caveman, a camel-clock hybrid and Benjamin Franklin,” then this is the Christmas special for you. Easily the weirdest of the Rankin/Bass specials, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is a mess: Taking place immediately after the first Rudolph, it features a time-traveling quest in which our favorite red-nosed reindeer travels across time periods (technically, time islands) to find Happy, the big-eared New Year’s baby that’s gone missing. There’s a bunch of exposition to explain the increasingly murky concept of time in the Rudolph-verse, but basically Happy has to be found before New Year’s Day or else the current year will go on forever.

Rudolph collects a number of forgettable side characters on his adventure, including the aforementioned caveman and American founding father, while also being pursued by a villainous vulture who for arbitrary reasons will die if the New Year begins. On paper, the special sounds like a fun trip, but it’s a laborious viewing experience. The weird factor can only do so much to cover up the weak story, songs and supporting characters.

Best Song:Have A Happy New Year
Bizarre Factor: 10. None of this makes any sense no matter how hard they try to explain it.
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, YouTube and DVD (paired with The Year Without a Santa Claus)

18. Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

After the smashing success of Rudolph, Rankin/Bass took three years to produce a follow-up. What they came up with was Cricket on the Hearth, an hour-long special that swapped out the now-iconic Animagic for unappealing traditional animation. It also removed any really engaging songs or fun characters. Loosely based on a Charles Dickens Christmas story of the same name, the special follows a poor toymaker who must take care of his daughter after she goes blind due to the overwhelming news that her fiancé has been lost at sea. The toymaker’s miser of a boss takes an interest in the daughter, as does the old man with a bad wig and the same blue eyes as the fiancé who randomly shows up just before Christmas.

With poor, blocky animation and forgettable songs; there’s a reason this special hasn’t caught on like the rest of Rankin/Bass’ earlier output. At nearly 50 minutes, it’s a drag for those without nostalgic feelings for it. The only truly memorable moment is the hard left-turn it takes halfway through its runtime. It involves the kidnapping of the cricket narrator, an animal-only cabaret show and perhaps the most surprising (yet casual!) murder scene ever depicted in a cartoon Christmas special.

Best Song: “Fish ’n‘ Chips”
Bizarre Factor: 5. Mainly for the bizarre cricket subplot that takes up the middle portion of special.
Availability: On DVD

17. The Little Drummer Boy, Book 2 (1976)

The Little Drummer Boy, Book 2 answer all your unresolved questions from the first Little Drummer Boy. With a name only slightly less clumsy than 2 Little 2 Drummer Boy, this special takes place immediately after the end of the first Little Drummer Boy and continues the saga of the aforementioned drummer boy, Aaron. No longer angry with the world, Aaron goes with one the three wise men to visit a bell maker who is making special silver bells to ring in honor of the birth of Jesus. But Roman soldiers, go-to villains in a lot of these specials, arrive first and steal the silver bells. It’s up to Aaron to recover the bells, which he does in about three minutes and without much difficulty.

Even at 22 minutes, this special labors to fill its run time, as summed up the nearly four-minute middle section that revolves around one song about the glory of using currency for trade. The song is pure filler, but “Money, Money, Money” is one of the catchiest songs in any of the Rankin/Bass specials. Unfortunately, the rest of the special never matches the thrill or emotional weight of the song or the original special.

Best Song: “Money, Money, Money”
Bizarre Factor: 2
Availability: On DVD

16. Jack Frost (1979)

More of a Groundhog Day special than a Christmas special, Jack Frost sits comfortably in the ‘meh’ category. It stars the embodiment of winter himself, Jack Frost, who’s become lonely due to his inability to interact with the society he brings winter to every year. After falling in love with a beautiful woman, Frost is allowed to become a human for one winter to woo her and complete a series of tasks to remain a human. But he has competition from the gorgeous knight in gold armor and from Kubla Kraus, the despot leader of the village.

Since every other character is a forgettable bore, let’s focus on Kraus, who owns the special whenever he’s on screen. A weird hybrid of Burgermeister from Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (both are voiced by Rankin/Bass regular Paul Frees) and Dr. Eggman from the Sonic series, Klaus has built an army of tin robots—as well as a tin forest, tin horses and a tin ventriloquist dummy named, err, Dummy, who Kraus has delightfully weird conversations with throughout the special. There’s nothing inherently bad about the special, and it does have a number of entertaining songs, but one could probably find more entertainment in reading its Amazon reviews, in which it’s often confused with the atrocious 1998 Michael Keaton movie of the same name.

Best Song:There’s the Rub
Bizarre Factor: 4
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, YouTube or DVD

15. Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980)

After 15 Christmas specials in 16 years, it seems Rankin/Bass started to run out of Christmas songs or stories that could feasibly be turned into a special. So, naturally, the company took one of the most iconic figures in children’s literature and forced a Christmas theme onto him, creating a weird and clumsy feature known as Pinocchio’s Christmas.

A prequel to the original Pinocchio story, the special follows our wooden protagonist through a series of misadventures as he tries to learn what gift to give his father, Geppetto, for Christmas. Since this is Pinocchio, the source of his misadventures are twofold: He’s a jerk to everyone, going so far as to smack Dr. Cricket (Jiminy, for those more familiar with the Disney version) with a book, and he’s also shockingly naive when it comes to stranger danger. Marionette kidnapping, mistaken death and the introduction of a love interest never mentioned in the original ensue. There’s quality Animagic in the special, three good songs, and the lack of narrator is a welcome change of pace. But your enjoyment is going to depend on how much you can stand Pinocchio himself. It works best if you imagine Pinocchio as an endearing scamp, not a burgeoning sociopath.

Best Song:Knock on Wood
Bizarre Factor: 9
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, iTunes or DVD

14. The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981)

Latter-era Rankin/Bass specials really push the definition of “Christmas special,” and aside from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, no special does that more than The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold. The second-to-last Christmas special made during the golden era of Rankin/Bass, it’s a particularly odd tale of an Irish cabin boy who accidentally releases a banshee who was trapped inside of a pine tree (hold on, it gets weirder). The boy meets an elderly leprechaun, who tells him that the banshee will torment the leprechauns on the island in hopes of getting their gold. If she doesn’t get gold by dawn of Christmas morning, she will turn into salty teardrops.

The special understands that none of this makes sense, so half of its 25 minutes are give over to the leprechaun narrator explaining the lore behind the gold, the banshees and his own estrangement from his family (all of it thankfully wrapped up in the final three minutes). The movie is so overwhelmingly Irish, you half expect the leprechaun to be named Mickey McPotato O’Guinness. On the bright side, the Celtic folks songs are catchy and stand out favorably compared to some of the sameness that hurts the other specials’ songs.

Best Song: “Christmas in Killarney”
Bizarre Factor: 8. The banshee turning into tears seals it.
Availability: On DVD

13. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)

Before there was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was the Rankin/Bass Christmas universe. Starring Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus—with a late cameo by Jack Frost—this full-length special perfectly embodies all the pros and cons of Rankin/Bass.
Along with the aforementioned Christmas favorites, Christmas in July introduces a handful of one-off characters, from welcome additions (the main villain, Winterbolt, and the cowboy circus owner, Lilly Loraine) to utterly forgettable bores (Milton, the ice cream salesman whose troubles set the special’s plot in motion).

And what a plot it is! It would take hundreds of words to do it justice, but it does involve a circus by the sea, a wizard risking war with the Starks by proclaiming himself The King of the North and the human embodiment of Aurora Borealis (at this time of year) retconning most of the plot from the original Rudolph. Overall, it’s a quirky special with some of the best Animagic Rankin/Bass ever did, but it’s a long 97 minutes. A solid 20 to 30 minutes and three or four songs could be cut and nothing of real value would be lost. If you’re willing to make the time for it, it’s worth the view.

Best Song:Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Bizarre Factor: 8. Snow snakes, Aurora Borealis and a floating circus make this one of most bizarre in the collection.
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, iTunes or DVD

12. Nester the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Nester is essentially the re-telling of Rudolph, except it’s set in Biblical times and all the music is straight out of Nashville. Instead of a shiny nose, it’s long ears that lead to Nester being mocked by his fellow animals. Long story short, Nester is thrown out of his home, and his mother dies protecting him from a snowstorm. A cherub befriends Nester and leads him to the outskirts of Bethlehem, where he’s once again tormented about the length of his ears—that is, until Mary and Joseph buy him. It’s here that Nester needs to prove his worth, as a sandstorm stands between them and the baby Jesus being born in that manger.

As a whole, Nester is a well-intentioned (if lesser) version of the “misfits can make a difference” story that Rankin/Bass did much better in Rudolph. The story is thin and sometime struggles to fill the brief 22-minute running time. Thankfully, the special is lifted by country singer Roger Miller, who narrates and sings the special’s three songs. His warm, folksy narration and singing style does everything it can to lift the been-there, done-that material.

Best Song: “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry”
Bizarre Factor: 3
Availability: On DVD

11. ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

Santa Claus is a wonderful and caring toymaker, but he will ruin you if you get on his bad side. That’s the message learned by residents of a small New York town in ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, as Santa returns their letters after being offended by an anonymous column published in the newspaper that claims St. Nick doesn’t exist. The town is freaked out by the situation and the column, penned by a nerdy mouse who signed it ‘all of us’, and hire the clockmaker narrator and his mouse assistant to build a clock tower to appease the angry Claus and make sure he does not skip over the town.

There’s a lot of weird stuff going on aside from the premise, including a central theme of “Shut up, nerd! Stop thinking and just believe.” (For instance, the mouse assistant constantly berates his son, the author of the letter, for not believing in Santa Claus.) But the traditional animation is appealing and the show-stopping tune sung by the main human character, “Even A Miracle Needs a Hand,” is arguably the best original song to appear in any Rankin/Bass special. If it sounds familiar, it’s likely from when South Park unironically used it in a montage when the boys put together an animated Christmas special.

Best Song: “Even A Miracle Needs A Hand”
Bizarre Factor: 3. Pretty straightforward, except for the whole mice-and-humans-living-in-harmony thing.
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, DVD or Blu-Ray

10. Santa, Baby! (2001)

A true oddity in the Rankin/Bass collection, this little-seen special deserves a far better fate. Set in modern day New York City, it follows parallel stories about a struggling songwriter in danger of losing his job and his angelic daughter’s attempts to keep a wacky bunch of shelter animals safe from the cold. Through their efforts, the dysfunctional neighborhood comes together to help one another and embrace the Christmas spirit. (Also, there’s a magical singing partridge, voiced by Patti LaBelle, that magically transports people to the North Pole.)

If it weren’t in the opening credits, one could be excused for not believing that Rankin/Bass made Santa, Baby! at all. Sixteen years after the last Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and 14 years after the company shut down its animation studio, the special aired once on Fox and has more or less been forgotten: There hasn’t been home release in more than a decade, nor are there any quality streaming options. It’s a shame, as it’s a lighthearted romp anchored by some interesting soul and R&B reworkings of Christmas tunes. The most fascinating song is a remix of the title track, with new vocals from the original singer of Santa Baby, Eartha Kitt. Fun fact: The special was co-written by Suzanne Collins, who would go on to write the Hunger Games trilogy.

Best Song: “Santa, Baby”
Bizarre Factor: 6. Pedestrian until the introduction of Santa Claus.
Availability: On DVD

9. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Santa Claus’ origin story was in need of a gritty reboot, and this special was there to fill that void. The last special made during the company’s golden era, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a fascinating tale that lacks the lighthearted charm of the earlier specials, but makes up for it in its tight plot and the best Animagic the studio ever did.

The special is similar to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town in explaining some of the Santa traditions (albeit in more vague ways), but here Santa was raised by an immortal wood nymph and there’s a huge battle between the immortal forest beings and evil, orc-like creatures known as Awgwas. Also, there’s a council meeting of immortals judging whether Santa is worthy of joining their ranks.

At first glance, the special’s fantasy plot seems like an insane attempt to make a heavy metal Christmas album celebrating pagan gods. But the plot is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1902 book of the same name written by The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum. This special is a sharp turn away from what made so many other Rankin/Bass classics stand out. But judging it on its own merits, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a fine swan song for the company.

Best Song: “Big Surprise”
Bizarre Factor: 9. Lord of the Rings meets Santa Claus is as bizarre as its sounds.
Availability: On DVD

8. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

The Stingiest Man in Town is the Rankin/Bass re-telling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: Outside the addition of a totally unnecessary bug narrator named B.A.H. Humbug, this special sticks to the source material.

Technically an animated version of a 1956 TV special of the same name, The Stingiest Man in Town is carried by its Ebenezer Scrooge, voiced to perfection by Walter Matthau in full curmudgeon mode. Setting the tone early, the opening song refers to Scrooge as “the Devil’s stooge,” and Matthau’s miser fits that description to perfection. Within the first 10 minutes, we’ve seen Scrooge steal from vendors, dock his employee’s pay for arbitrary reasons and generally mock the poor to their faces, which makes Scrooge’s eventual redemption all the more impactful.

The fifth and final special to have traditional animation, The Stingiest Man in Town is a visual treat, with it’ anime-like style—fitting, as many of it animators would go on to join Studio Ghibli. If there’s a problem with this special, it is that it peaks too early: There are 13 songs spread out over its 50-minute running time, with three of the four best coming in the first half. But the animation and Matthau help to create one of the most underrated specials in the Rankin/Bass catalogue.

Best Song: “Humbug”
Bizarre Factor: 1
Availability: On DVD

7. Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976)

The true sequel to Frosty the Snowman (Wikipedia has more on the odd copyright situation that keeps this one and the original separated on TV and home releases), Frosty’s Winter Wonderland is a fine follow-up to its predecessor. Feeling melancholy after several years of living at the North Pole, Frosty decides to head back south and visit the same children from the original, while also gaining a wife and a new winery friend.

The special can feel a bit sporadic with its various plots: Aside from the aforementioned wife, there’s a minor subplot involving an antagonistic Jack Frost (with different voice and personality than in his self-titled special). But that’s resolved by the midway point, and a final conflict is introduced and resolved within the final three and a half minutes of the special. That said, the absent-minded Frosty character is a delight, and his specials have some of the best supporting characters. Plus, it’s no Frosty Returns, which is the highest possible compliment.

Best Song: “Frosty the Snowman”
Bizarre Factor: 5
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes or DVD

6. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

The first Rankin/Bass special not to be based on an existing property, The First Christmas succeeds in its low-stakes approach. The plot is simple, following a young shepherd, Lucas, who’s taken in by nuns at a nearby abbey after he’s struck blind by a bolt of lightning. There’s some conflict with a priest who wants to send the boy to an orphanage and local boys who make fun of his blindness; but for the most part the story stays focused on Lucas’ adjustment to his new condition, preparation for the local Christmas pageant and desire to experience snow.

The First Christmas is charming in its simplicity, doing away with the grander stories or weirdness that can bog down other Rankin/Bass specials. It’s a tight 24 minutes and is highlighted by a fantastic rendition of the Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”. Forgotten in recent years and no longer running as part of Freeform’s “25 Days of Christmas,” The First Christmas is a real hidden gem of the Rankin/Bass collection.

Best Song: “White Christmas”
Bizarre Factor: 1
Availability: On iTunes or DVD

5. The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

This special certainly lives up to its reputation as the bleakest of the Rankin/Bass collection. But the 20 minutes of wallowing in misery is worthwhile for the company’s best finale ever. The Little Drummer Boy wastes little time getting viewers ready for the rough patch, as a kidnapping occurs before the opening credits even roll. Once the credits are over, we flashback and learn more about the Little Drummer Boy, Aaron, who receives a drum for his birthday (yah!) before he watches his parents get brutally murdered by bandits (Eek!). The latter teaches Aaron to hate his fellow man, and the kidnapping certainly doesn’t help matters.

There are notable flaws with The Little Drummer Boy, from the weakest Animagic of any Rankin/Bass special to a middle section that drags as we wait for the all the players to get to Bethlehem. But all of that is forgiven after a finale that truly earns the emotional impact it strives for. Anchored by the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing the definitive version of the title song, Aaron plays before the newly born Jesus in hopes of healing his recently run-over (!!) lamb and learns to love and embrace his fellow man. At the very least, The Little Drummer Boy stands out among its peers for its emotional weight, and no mediocre sequel can take that away.

Best Song: The Little Drummer Boy
Bizarre Factor: 2. Dancing animals aside, it’s fairly routine.
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes or DVD

4. Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Following the stomach punch of feels that is The Little Drummer Boy, the next year’s Rankin/Bass special, Frosty the Snowman, is a charming story that rightfully holds a place in the pantheon of Christmastime television. The story is simple, as the aforementioned snowman is brought to life by a magic hat and becomes friends with all the local children. But as the temperature rises, Frosty and the kids cook up a plan to get the snowman up to the North Pole before he melts; all while being chased by the nefarious Professor Hinkle, the original owner of the hat.

Featuring traditional animation leaps and bounds more skillful than the company’s other specials, Frosty remains a treat for viewers. It’s a tight narrative that avoids unnecessary detours or mediocre songs, and Professor Hinkle is the perfect foil for the children and the kind, absent-minded Frosty. There’s even some real poignancy near the end, as Frosty sacrifices himself to help his new friend.

I’d be remiss not to mention that unlike most specials, Frosty has some clever jokes and slapstick that elevate it to the top tier of the Rankin/Bass collection.

Best Song: “Frosty the Snowman”
Bizarre Factor: 6
Availability: on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes DVD or Blu-Ray

3.Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Here it is, the granddaddy of them all—and likely the sole reason you’re even reading this piece. Viewing it more than 50 years after it first aired on NBC, it’s amazing how such an odd children’s show became a cultural milestone. From the elf who longs to be a dentist and an island of misfit toys (A Charlie in the Box? Absurd!) to the seemingly thrown-in subplot about Santa needing to fatten up before Christmas Eve, there’s a lot to unpack here. But it all works toward the central message of the special: Embracing one’s unique qualities regardless of what society thinks.

That message comes across thanks to the friendship between the trio of misfit heroes, including Rudolph, Hermes, the dentist elf and prospector Yukon Cornelius. Together, the three bring out the best in one another and save the misfit toys, Rudolph’s family and eventually Christmas. Rudolph set the template for dozens of specials to come, from the theme of acceptance to celebrity narrators and original songs, but few ever matched the captivating high of the godfather of Christmas specials.

Best Song: “A Holly Jolly Christmas”
Bizarre Factor: 9
On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, DVD or Blu-Ray

2. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970)

Rankin/Bass was firing on all cylinders by the late 1960s, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town continued that streak with another winning special. Where The Life and Times of Santa Claus leaned toward gritty fantasy in explaining Santa Claus’ origin, this special is more in line with the light-hearted cheeriness one would expect when talking about elves and an immortal toymaker. As narrated by Fred Astaire, the reason Santa wears red, has a beard and sneaks into houses at night to put toys in stockings starts to make perfect sense, especially as the charming (and kinda dreamy) younger Santa faces off against the Burgermeister Meisterburger, the toy-hating curmudgeon of a mayor living in the nearby town. I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic designs for characters like the villain-turned-ally Winter Warlock, or the future Mrs. Claus’ trippy song straight out of the ‘70s, but that just goes to show how much this special has going for it. Santa Claus was a character that Rankin/Bass always fell back on in their specials, and it’s easy to see why when his life story is so captivating.

Best Song: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other”
Bizarre Factor: 7. Every character has weird googly eyes!
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, DVD or Blu-Ray

1. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

While Rudolph set the template for a Rankin/Bass special, The Year Without A Santa Claus is the one that puts all the pieces together in perfect harmony. With improved Animagic, great original and cover songs, memorable characters, and the right amount of engaging weirdness, this is the rare special that hits its mark on every level.

Fighting a cold and feeling unloved, Santa shocks the world by canceling Christmas. It’s up to Mrs. Claus, two elves, a young boy who once had doubts about Santa, and the embodiments of snow and heat to make sure Christmas is back on. There’s so much cheer and jubilation that works in this special, from Shirley Booth’s engaging and witty turn as Mrs. Claus, to the Miser Brothers’ iconic ditty, to a surprisingly touching children’s choir version of “Blue Christmas.” It’s understandable why this was the first Rankin/Bass special put on Blu-Ray, and one that has continued to spawn sequels and remakes of varying quality to this day. Though they would try, Rankin/Bass could never match the pure Yuletide cheer captured here.

Best Song: “Snow Miser” / “Heat Miser”
Bizarre Factor: 8
Availability: On Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, DVD or Blu-Ray

BONUS: A Christmas Tree (1972)

I actually discovered this one near the end of putting together this piece. Airing as part of Rankin/Bass’ short-lived Festival of Family Classics animated series, this special is only available on VHS or through various uploads on Youtube. It begins like its source material, another of Charles Dickens’ non-Christmas Carol Christmas stories, with Dickens himself telling two children about the Christmas trees of his youth. As this is Rankin/Bass, things soon veer off course: Peter Piper arrives and tells the group that “the essence of Christmas” has been stolen by the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. After a 10-minute detour into giant world, Piper pulls a “JK!” and reveals that the essence of Christmas was actually stolen by Mantu, a Fu Manchu-style Asian stereotype in possession of a wide variety of useless snow-themed magic.

The kids easily defeat Mantu and his henchman and release the essence of Christmas before the special goes all Dallas and reveals it was all a dream. Apparently Dickens is a terrible storyteller, as the children fell asleep at the very beginning of his story and dreamt the rest of the special. As the whole, the special is a quick, inoffensive way to spend 23 minutes. There are no songs, and the story moves at a brisk pace. There are several VHS copies available on Amazon.

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