The Top 10 Christmas Shows, period, the end.

It’s a Wonderful Life. “To my big brother, George — the richest man in town.” (It’s right about here when I start doing the “ugly cry.”)

If you’re like me, you don’t need any help deciding which Christmas shows to watch.  You know what you like and what you don’t.

So why would you come here to read my “Top 10 Christmas Shows, period, the end”?  Easy.  So you can either agree with me, call me crazy, tell me my order is all wrong, or think I’m nuts for leaving something off my list.

Any way you look at it, it’s satisfying.

So here they are, in descending order.  Feel free to chime in with your own list or tell me where I went wrong.

UPDATED FOR 2014: Check out what people have added in the comments section.  Thanks to Joe’s entry, I’m adding “White Christmas” to my Honorable Mention list.

Honorable Mention: “Fred Claus”

Yeah, I know it’s a dumb movie, but the whole idea of Vince Vaughn — “Fred Claus”— being Santa’s Claus’ older brother just cracks me up, not to mention the fact that I love anything Paul Giamatti does.  Best scene of the movie?  When Fred is delivering presents on his brother’s behalf and is eating EVERYTHING that’s left out for Santa.  It seems Vince Vaughn is always stuffing his face in movies, and it’s really freaking funny.

Honorable Mention: “White Christmas”

First, my apologies for pairing this with “Fred Claus.”  Disrespectful, I know.  “White Christmas” is kind of like the song, “Winter Wonderland,” in that it’s more of a winter movie that got adopted forever by Christmas, but aside from the title song and the timing of the climatic scene, doesn’t have much to do with Christmas at all.  It is, however, an awesome movie.  Bing has never been more Bing-like and Danny Thomas is genius.

And now for the real list…

10.  “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”

This is the best of the Vacation movies, I think.  My favorite part is when Clark is staring out the kitchen window at the backyard, daydreaming about his new swimming pool with Bing Crosby singing “Mele Kalikimaka” in the background, and his fantasy is interrupted by Cousin Eddie waving from the diving board.  And every American dad relates to the whole debacle of Clark working his butt off to decorate the house with lights to inspire his family, only to have the big “reveal” ruined when they won’t turn on.  I miss the ’80s Chevy Chase…

9.  “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947 version)

This movie takes a unique angle on Santa Claus, presenting him as an actual man who lives in a New York City retirement home.  It’s handled in such a subtle way that you’re not really sure if he really is Santa or not until the very last shot of the picture — the cane propped in the corner of the new house.  (That always gives me chills.)  The movie also handles the questions of faith and belief in a neat way.  And of course, Mrs. Shelhammer — the drunken wife of the Macy’s executive — is worth the price of admission.  “We’d LOVE to have Santa Claus come and stay with us!”

8. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”

I’m a child of the ’70s, back when animated clay-mation specials were the rage.  This was when there were basically three TV channels and everyone knew what was coming on on a given night and the whole country was watching the same thing at the same time.  When a Christmas special was coming on, it was a big hairy deal, and “Rudolph” was one of the biggest.  A couple of observations:  Does anybody else think that Santa was a bit of a jerk in this story?  It wasn’t until he figured out that Rudolph could save his butt that Santa accepted him.  Not to mention the fact that Rudolph’s own dad made him cover up his nose with mud.  Poor Rudolph probably needed some serious therapy in later years.

7. “Elf”

This is the first of two newer movies that made my list.  For the record, I hate the ending.  The whole engine on the bottom of the sleigh thing is ridiculous.  Ed Asner is a terrible Santa Claus, too.  But everything else is genius, especially the dynamic between Buddy and his store manager.  “Make work your favorite.”  Incidentally, my kids are constantly making me say, “Bye, Buddy!  Hope you find your dad!” in Mr. Narwhal’s voice.

6. “Scrooge” (1973 musical version)

I’m sure my choice of the 1973 version will create some debate, but sue me.  Sure, there are some slow moments, like the Ghost of Christmas Past section, but this is more than made-up-for by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Scrooge (Albert Finney) is hilarious as he gets drunk on the Milk of Human Kindness and sings “I like life.”  The best song is “Thank you very much,” and again, it’s funny that Scrooge is so happily singing to his own demise without knowing it.  If you haven’t seen this version, do yourself a favor and find it.

5. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (original)

This was the “edgy” animated Christmas special when I was a kid.  It’s got just enough of that Dr. Suess weirdness and cynicism to make it cooler than any other animated special, and it’s my opinion that “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” may be the greatest pop song ever written.  I’m also moved to tears when the Grinch’s heart expands to give him the strength of 10 Grinches plus two.  “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

4. “The Polar Express”

I loved this movie immediately upon first watching.  Whenever my kids want to watch it, I roll my eyes and act bored, and then run go get hot chocolate and popcorn and tell everybody to shut up so I can hear.  Not only is the animation, voicing, and soundtrack amazing, but it’s one of those movies that seems to have reached into my childhood psyche and extracted my visions of exactly what it would be like to go to Santa’s North Pole.  I used to lay in bed as a 7-year-old and create scenarios that were nearly identical.  My only critique is that you have to be careful about watching “The Polar Express” with little kids.  It raises too many questions about Santa’s existence for my comfort level.  The same could be said about “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Santa Clause.”

3. “A Christmas Story”

It stills freaks me out that this movie was made in 1983, when I was a junior in high school.  It seems like it’s been around forever, and has a timeless look about it. The great thing about “A Christmas Story” is that any overly saccharine sweetness is offset by equal amounts of near-risque humor.  The whole “fudge” incident, Schwartz getting beat silly over the phone by his mother, the Old Man’s Yosemite Sam-like, nonsensical cursing, Ralphie’s explicative when he realizes he was duped with the decoder pen, and the quick cut from Randy lifting the toilet seat to the Mother lifting the lid of stew cooking on the stove…  All these things make the movie interminably watchable, quotable, and funny.

2. “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Not only is “It’s a Wonderful Life” the greatest Christmas movie ever, it’s arguably the greatest MOVIE ever. The funny thing is, it has very little to do with Christmas at all, but because George Bailey’s “rebirth” happens on Christmas Eve, it is associated with the holiday.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a very dark movie, and  I don’t think it would’ve worked with anybody but Jimmy Stewart.  We’re talking a stock-market crash, corruption, embezzlement, and suicide.  Stewart managed to somehow keep it intense, but not so tragic that people would become uncomfortable and turned off by George Bailey’s predicament.  I think his is one of the best acting performances ever recorded on film.  I’ve watched this movie at least 75 times, and I always — without fail — have to hide my face in a pillow during the final scene.  In the same way I wish I lived in Mayberry, N.C., I also wish I lived in Bedford Falls.  “No man is a failure who has friends.”

1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

It may surprise you that I ranked this No. 1 over “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but the reason is undeniable.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the only mainstream special that recognizes Christmas for what it really is: a celebration of the birth of Christ.  Every other entry on this list is either funny or nostalgic or sweet or addresses Christmas as popular culture or focuses on the worst and best of the human experience, but only Charlie Brown puts Christ back into Christmas.  (Incidentally, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” also features one of the greatest soundtracks ever.  Vince Guaraldi was a genius who died much too young.)

Linus’ monologue about the true meaning of Christmas is easily the most touching and poignant moment in the history of animation, in my estimation, and was so effective because it was delivered by a 7-year-old boy, Christopher Shea.  (Can you imagine Frosty or Rudolph or Clark Griswold quoting scripture?)  And Charlie Brown’s reaction to Linus’ saying, “And that’s what Christmas is all about” makes it for me.  With Guaraldi quietly playing “Oh, Tannenbaum” in the background, Charlie Brown simply picks up his sad little tree and leaves the gymnasium with a bounce in his step, because he now sees the true joy and meaning of Christmas and has been released of his previous burdens.

Linus tells the story of the Nativity.

I’m amazed, in this day and age, that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” hasn’t been banned from network TV because of its obvious Christian overtones.  It would probably never be made in 2012, and it was a difficult thing in 1965.  CBS executives wanted the scripture cut out, but Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schultz refused, supposedly saying, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”

Think of the millions of kids over the past 47 years who have learned about the Nativity through Linus’ recitation, and all of the grownups who’ve been reminded of it.  Whenever I become overwhelmed by Black Friday sales and shopping mall traffic and all the other pressures that come with the season, it’s always a relief when Linus reminds me of what Christmas is all about.

And there you have it.  There’s a comment box below.  Use it!

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25 Responses to “The Top 10 Christmas Shows, period, the end.”

  1. Joe says:

    I’d shuffle the deck, but for the most part, there’s a lot of overlap in our lists. That said, I’m cutting your numbers 10, 2 and 3. I think I binged on It’s A Wonderful Life in the 80s. Either that, or it went bust on my melodrama meter. The Vacation films either trip your trigger, or no. I’m a no. Ditto that for A Christmas Story. I know it’s a classic. I know all America loves it. Further evidence that I’m part British.

    Sidenotes: I completely agree with you on Santa in Rudolph. But I suspect life is tough at the North Pole, and like a lit agent, he’s looking for any excuse to cut candidates. Red nose? You’ve deviated from the traditional format. You’re out. On the flip side–Yukon Cornelius? One of my favorite characters ever.

    The music from Charlie Brown Christmas is still one of my favorite soundtracks today. Love this! And you’re right–the overtly Christian message would never make the cut today. Which is to say, the film’s shining moment would have been lost. Like a Dolly Madison cake left in Snoopy’s care.

    My substitutions: I’d slot in Crosby/Kaye’s White Christmas, Bill Murray’s Scrooged, and Holiday Inn. Granted, Holiday Inn isn’t a Christmas film in the strictest sense. But it opens and closes with Christmas, gives us Crosby crooning White Christmas, Fred Astaire dancing, and a soundtrack courtesy Irving Berlin. This one makes my Top 10 favorites list, holiday or no.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Joe, I struggled with Scrooged and White Christmas. I could easily have them in my top 10, especially Scrooged. I love White Christmas strictly as a great movie, but like Holiday Inn, it doesn’t really have that much to do with Christmas, which is why I left it off. BTW, did you ever wonder how Rudolph’s nose made that noise?? That always confused me.

      • Joe says:

        That would be resonance in the sinus cavities from exotic, charged particles colliding in the marrow and mucosa. Those same particles made him glow. Think aurora borealis, in your nose.

  2. Melissa says:

    Love your list and as a hopeless romantic female I’d have to add Love Actually. So much romance and a naked Bill Nighy singing quite possibly the worst Christmas song ever, what’s not to love.

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Melissa, I must admit, I’ve never seen Love Actually. Guess I’ll have to find it, now! Another one that was a near miss was Fred Claus. I think it’s hilarious that Vince Vaughn is Santa’s brother. The whole premise of that cracks me up.

  3. The coach is the worst character of Rudolph. “All right, listen up, gang! From now on, we won’t let Rudolph play ANY reindeer games, right?” If Rudolph was remade today, the new version would have to include a claymation therapist, and several claymation lawyers and a claymation Dr. Phil!

  4. Okay, “The Thin Man” isn’t a Christmas movie per se, but this is STILL one of my favorite Christmas morning movie scenes:

  5. “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere NEAR my tabloids!”

    • Mark Johnson says:

      I watched “The Thin Man” link. It’s funny — that guy is nuts — but I don’t get the tabloids comment. Maybe you need to know the story. I don’t think I’ve seen it.

  6. Nooooo, you don’t have to know the story. Just go back and watch the clip again, silly.

  7. Mark Bagby says:

    What? No ‘Die Hard’? No ‘Gremlins’? Clearly a defective list.

  8. Mark says:

    Okay, in all seriousness, you should add ‘Arthur Christmas’ to the list. Also, the George C. Scott ‘Christmas Carol,’ which is hands down the best version imho. And ‘Jingle All the Way,’ which despite its being an Arthur Schwarzenegger comedy (!), is actually a pretty good take on what modern-day commercialism has led us to…

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Mr. Twain, I can honestly say I’ve never seen ‘Arthur Christmas’ or ‘Jingle All the Way,’ so I can’t comment on those. I can’t stand George C. Scott in ‘Christmas Carol,’ though! Patton, yes. Scrooge? Yuk. Gimme Albert Finney!

  9. Jim Buck says:

    Well Mark, I thought I was probably the only person alive that had “The Cahrlie Brown Christmas” ranked as the all-time-favorite. The story is truly of Christmas and Linus’ quote is a masterpiece. The music, whenever heard, just beckons yoou to do the “Snoopy” dance! I can’t listen to it without smiling and having that “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside. It’s what Christmas is all about, Mark!

    I will pose another question to you, “What song do you HAVE to hear before you feel like it is truly Christmas?” My song list would be long, however #1 would be “Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives…It just wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing it! What is yours?

  10. heatherlynn says:

    Sounds to me like you are a Christian? Awesome!

  11. john foster says:

    I actually love Scrooged. As per George Bailey…I get all ballered up at that part too MJ. I also get emotional after Clarence has shown George what life would have been without him; and Clarence says, “You see George….you had a Wonderful Life”. Such a lesson for us all.

  12. julie says:

    The Little Drummer Boy was always one of my favorites but of course they don’t show it anymore. I agree with Number 1 that is one I never miss and Hark the Heard Angels Sing at the end always chokes me up.

  13. Kathy Helmers says:

    Okay, I’m bringing on the Scrooge debate. The 1951 version with Alaister Sim is THE version to watch. If you haven’t seen it, man up and then tell me you still vote for the 1973 release. Not. Even. Close.

    And where is “March of the Wooden Soldiers” with Laurel and Hardy??? My all-time favorite. A MUST see. Tears and laughs and screams all in the same film. Full disclosure: I had a crush on Tom-Tom, especially when he sings “Go to sleep” to Bo Peep in his dreamy tenor.

    And not to be an editor or anything, but I think it’s “Miracle ON 34th Street” . . .

    Thanks Tallman!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Yes, Miracle ON!! Not OF! (What?? Who proofread that, anyway??)

      Oh, I’ll bring the Scrooge debate any time, buster! I’ve seen ’em all many times, including the Alaister Sim version, and I don’t think anybody can tough Albert Finney! Sure, the first one is classic, black-and-white, blah, blah, blah, but Finney is THE version to watch! Not. Even. REMOTELY. Close.

      (BTW, I’m being MOCK-mean, not real-mean. She’s my neighbor! 😀 )

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