Christmas TV Specials: Eight classic festive treats

25 mins read

Ever since the dawn of TV, the Christmas special has played an important role in our festive celebrations. With many of the biggest TV shows donning Santa hats and tinsel to ensure our evenings inside feel just that little bit more magical. And whether they have brought us comedy, drama or horror, the TV special has earned a place in our hearts over the years. So join us as we look back at eight unmissable festive treats from years gone by. Featuring; Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020); The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident (1996); The Wonder Years: Christmas (1988); Family Guy: Road to the North Pole (2010) The League of Gentlemen: Yule Never Leave (2000); Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010), The Signalman (1976) and Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas (2001).

Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

Director: Ken Cunningham

Let me take you back to Christmas 1978, where Star Wars had become the only topic on many a child’s lips. While at the same time Santa Claus found himself inundated with requests for shiny new Kenner toys from a galaxy far, far away. The passion of its loyal fans, young and old, screaming for more. Therefore, it seemed logical to develop a Star Wars TV special to quench this thirst. With CBS bumping Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk for one night of TV that wasn’t to be missed; The Star Wars Holiday Special. And to be fair, the show started pretty well, with Han and Chewie escaping Star Destroyers to reach the planet of Kashyyyk, for ‘Life Day’ celebrations; with Chewies family patiently awaiting their arrival.

However, ‘Life Day’ celebrations were soon to descend into what can only be described as a psychedelic mess; a Star Wars-inspired LSD trip lasting one and a half hours. While at the same time our cast of heroes and villains joined forces with Bee Arthur, Diahann Carroll, and a decidedly dodgy Wookiee family. However, on the plus side, The Holiday Special did introduce the world to Boba Fett, some two years before his appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, alongside opening up a far greater Star Wars Universe. But, ultimately the result was a much lampooned and berated special that would never be repeated nor released on video, DVD or digital platforms. Although, with the power of modern-day streaming, it’s not difficult to find recorded versions circulating YouTube.

Since then, there has never been another Star Wars Holiday Special, until now! With the new version care of the Lego Star Wars team at Disney. And while it may not reach the legendary heights of the original in terms of its mystique. Its tongue in cheek take on both the 1978 Christmas outing and the Skywalker legacy is nothing short of genius. While its humour reaches adults and kids alike as it places the Star Wars universe into a gigantic blender and revels in the smoothie that follows. But, even more, impressive is the treatment of the sequel characters so severely let down on the silver screen. The Lego adventure, ultimately giving them more life than The Rise of Skywalker ever could.

We also love: The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud (1995)

The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident (1996)

Director: Gareth Carrivick

Christmas comedies that last the relentless march of time are a rare commodity. With many of the biggest Christmas TV hits from years gone by, only serving to highlight how much humour has changed in the intervening years. The situation comedies that once made us spit out our mince pies with laughter, now somewhat lacking in spark. However, the first Vicar of Dibley Christmas special is one 90s comedy that bucks this trend. It’s devoutly silly humour still managing to catch us off guard in a timeless story of companionship and Christmas dinner.

Geraldine (Dawn French) gets far more than she bargained for on her first Christmas as Vicar of Dibley, receiving multiple dinner invitations. However, while most people would accept just one invite, she finds herself guilt-tripped into taking three; Jim and Frank, Alice and her family and the Hortons. And when each lunch proves to be even more decadent than the last, even including a sprout-eating contest. Geraldine’s stomach slowly expands; her ability to maintain a smile gradually decreasing with each mouthful.

One of the reasons The Vicar of Dibley remains so fresh is the closeted and untouched world it represents. A world where the Vicar remains at the centre of village life, with every other character built around a need for her approval. However, when this is combined with 90s gender politics, and a timeless British need for ‘niceness’. The result is an enduring comedy that still manages to raise more than a few big festive laughs.

We also love: Two Doors Down – Episode One (2013)

The Wonder Years: Christmas (1988)

Director: Steve Miner

It’s Christmas 1968, and the colour TV is just beginning its march across America. However, not so in the Arnold household, where black and white reigns supreme. But, that does not stop Kevin and his older brother Wayne from wishing for a colourful Christmas. The magic new TV’s in the local department store seducing both boys with the hum of innovation. However, there is one central sticking point, their dad, Jack, who seems deaf to their pleas no matter how grovelling in nature. At the same time, Kevin has split with Winnie but shockingly receives a gift from her never the less. The small, neatly wrapped box offering a spark of hope to young Kevin, that Winnie may still like him. But, can Kevin find a gift for Winnie at the last minute?

Over six seasons from 1988 – 1992 we walked with the Arnold family as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, and American society slowly changed. During this time The Wonder Years gave us five festive treats, each one exploring family, change and social progression. However, while each Christmas outing is unique in its own right, it’s the first festive episode that holds a place in my heart.

The December 1988 episode perfectly explores the transition from a Christmas wrapped in childhood wonder to a more nuanced view of the festivities for Kevin. In a screenplay layered with love, sincerity and the realities of family life. While at the same time, providing us with a quiet yet commanding commentary on the growing consumerism of Christmas during the late 1960s. The result of which is a subtle yet powerful 30-minute story that remains a Christmas TV special of the highest quality.

We also love: My So Called Life – So Called Angels (1994)

Family Guy: Road to the North Pole (2010)

Directors: Greg ColtonJames Purdum

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an Elf or two, whether they are sitting on your shelf causing trouble. Or struggling to survive killer reindeers in a smog drenched North Pole. Back in 2010 Family Guy offered us the latter, with their finest Christmas TV special to date. In an incredibly dark, and sublimely silly adventure that places Stewie and Brian centre stage. And at just 44 minutes, you won’t find a better antidote to all the merriment; Its intelligent adult humour joyfully skirting the boundaries of good taste. While at the same time, ensuring more than a few members of your family spit out their sherry in sheer disgust.

Opening with the musical number ‘All I Really Want for Christmas,” each of our favourite members of the Griffin family joyously list their desires. While at the same time, a menagerie of Quahog residents joins in the song and dance. However, things take a turn for the worst when Stewie and Brian head to the mall to see Santa Claus. With the fake Santa deciding to end his shift just as Stewie gets ready to jump on his lap. Of course, the fake Santa is unaware of Stewie’s deadly need for vengeance; one that will ultimately lead him to hunt down the real Santa.

However, on arrival in the North Pole, both Stewie and Brian find a nightmare of epic proportions. Santa’s workshop is nothing more than a toxic factory, spewing out ozone killing chemicals, while the sickly toymaker dreams of dying. The commercialism of Christmas having turned the happiness of his toy factory into a horror show. While at the same time, his Elves have become inbred zombies, with his rabid reindeer, blood-hungry demons. Of course, this is not what either Brian or Stewie were expecting, and as Santa ends up in bed on a drip, its the dynamic duo who step in to save Christmas with mixed results.

Santa Claus the Movie it’s not, but this slice of animated Christmas darkness will have you giggling your way through your Christmas cake. And if you are wondering whether there is a positive message underneath the adult humour? Of course, there is, as the Family Guy team rip apart our love of commercialism with a razor-sharp satire.

We also love: Robot Chicken’s DP Christmas Special (2010)

The League of Gentlemen: Yule Never Leave (2000)

Director: Steve Bendelack

The League Of Gentlemen took gothic-inspired horror/comedy to new levels on its premiere in 1999. While at the same time giving birth to a set of characters who still shine with originality and darkly delicious humour. However, nobody sitting in front of their TV on the 27th of December 2000 could have anticipated just how dark the shows, one, and only festive outing would be. With the village of Royston Vasey expanding into the world surrounding it as four dark tales of festive horror lace into one outstanding slice of TV that plays with a range of Dickensian tropes. Its gothic horror shining with originality, in a 56-minute special that knocks many other horror/comedy specials off the playing field.

Here, the genius of Pemberton, Gatiss, Shearsmith and Dyson in both performance and writing is let off the leash. With the vindictive vicar of Royston Vasey finding her Christmas Eve invaded by three locals; each wishing to disclose a story of Yuletide terror. There’s Charlie’s recurring nightmare about his wife Stella’s plans to join a witchcraft worshipping version of the Women’s Institute. Plus an elderly man’s recollection of a teenage trip to Germany where he discovers a possible gay vampire in the guise of Choir Master Herr Lipp. Meanwhile, we hear of the ancient curse that surrounds the village Vet, Matthew Chinnery, and meet the deadly Papa Lazarou and his elves.

So, if you fancy delving into one of the darkest Christmas specials ever made, then look no further than Yule Never Leave. Its story a veritable feast of gothic-inspired horror that will have you laughing harder than you really should. While at the same time pondering the bravery of the BBC comedy team who brought this classic to our screens.

We also love: The Twilight Zone – Night of the Meek (1960)

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010)

Director: Toby Haynes

Ever since its rebirth in 2005, the Doctor Who Christmas day special has formed a central part of the BBC festive schedule. The only exception to this rule is the most recent custodian of the Tardis keys, Jodie Whittaker. Her Christmas outings moved to New Year rather than the prestigious Christmas Day slot. And it would be fair to say that Doctor Who has offered a mixed bag of Christmas adventures since 2005. Some glowing with a unique science fiction spirit, while others quickly melted on closer inspection. However, in my opinion, it was Christmas Day 2010 that saw the best of these festive Doctor Who outings.

Following the widely acclaimed David Tennent was never going to be an easy task, but on entering the Tardis in early 2010, Matt Smith made the role his own. His energetic, child-like Doctor oozing eccentricity, humour and wonder. While at the same time single handily bringing back the bow tie from the brink of obscurity. However, possibly his most important characteristic came through his connection to young audiences and children. His interpretation of the Doctor is without doubt, the most child friendly and accessible of all the incarnations to that point. His first season in the role, sparking new interest in the show, while in turn cementing his place as an outstanding Doctor Who.

But, how do you follow a first season where your Doctor has instantly become a TV legend? Well for the showrunner Steven Moffat, the answer was to turn to Dickens. But, unlike the Christopher Eccleston adventure The Unquiet Dead, where Dickens appeared as a character. Moffat would instead turn to his writing, in adapting the classic A Christmas Carol with a science fiction twist. With the Doctor sitting in the roles of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, as he attempts to save a stricken spaceship from impending disaster. While at the same time healing the soul of a man who hates Christmas.

Unlike many of the Christmas specials that came before it, A Christmas Carol is bathed in Dickensian spirit, from sets to colour design. But, even more, than that, Moffat’s story beautifully reflects the character of the time-travelling Doctor born in 1963. His hopes, dreams and wishes coupled with the reality that time travel cannot halt the spinning wheel of mortality. But it can attempt to set right the life lived on the journey. The result of which is not only an episode bathed in hope, peace and inner discovery but also the very building blocks of the 50-year-old TV show. Meanwhile, Matt Smith’s Doctor only further embeds himself into our hearts with a performance of pure magic. And this makes Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, one of the best sci-fi Christmas treats to have ever graced our screens.

We also love: Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012)

The Signalman: A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976)

Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark

Ghost stories at Christmas have long formed a part of the festive celebrations, in fact, it could be argued that spirits are as much a part of Christmas as Halloween. The festivities of mid-winter wrapped in stories ranging from Shelley’s Frankenstein to Shakespeares Hamlet and Henry James Turn of the Screw. However, two authors, in particular, have become synonymous with Christmas ghosts; Charles Dickens and M.R. James. Both authors managing to lace the cold depths of winter with the joy of festivities and the fear of spiritual awakening and change. In fact, Christmas itself has become tied to many of these tales of ghostly encounters. With Dicken’s A Christmas Carol providing the template for many of our favourite Christmas films.

In 1968 the BBC aired Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of M.R. James Whistle and I’ll Come to You. The short 30-minute play gave rise to the annual 1970s Christmas ghost story. Each one, no more than 50 minutes in length, as the supernatural found a dedicated space in BBC’s festive schedule. However, after four years of sublime M.R. James stories, 1976 saw the BBC turn to Charles Dickens for their source material, with The Signalman. And while all of the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas were beautiful in production design and performances. It was The Signalman that would become the defining story of their 70s Christmas collection.

The Signalman was initially published in 1866 as part of the magazine All the Year Round. The story is one of eight based around the bustling railways of Great Britain. However, as years went by, it was The Signalman that captured the public’s imagination, eventually becoming part of Dicken’s ghost story collection, also featuring A Christmas Carol. Its tale of supernatural signals and forewarning on a lonely stretch of track becoming synonymous with ideas of pre-cognition and fate. With the BBC’s adaptation starring Denholm Elliot bathed in shadows, smoke and fireside conversations. Its skilful use of visual language, sound and paralysing fear continues to send a shiver down the spine to this day.

We also love: Lost Hearts (1973) and A Warning to the Curious (1972)

Malcolm in the Middle: Christmas (2001)

We don’t talk about the sheer brilliance of Malcolm in the Middle enough, or its revolutionary impact on the family sitcom. After all, with the exception of The Simpsons and Rosanne, the American episodic family comedy had hardly changed since the 1980s. Each one bathed in canned laughter, and the soft glow of Americana. The trials and tribulations of the on-screen family often held within a bubble of the American dream, where everything turned out alright, despite the trials and tribulations that ensued. But, that all changed when Malcolm in the Middle stormed onto our screens in 2000. Its chaotic, freewheeling story of family life unceremoniously tearing up the sitcom rulebook.

Here, there was no canned laughter, no soft glow of American perfection and no well behaved and perfect children. In a show that revelled in its difference and diversity in displaying the rollercoaster of family life, from the genius IQ of Malcolm to the delinquent Francis and struggling Reese. While at the same time, flipping the parental support roles so commonly displayed in a sitcom. With the boys mum, Lois, hot-headed, argumentative and stubborn as the disciplinarian of the home. While the boy’s dad, Hal, was dreamy, manic and soft.

Throughout its seven-season run, Malcolm in the Middle brought us three dedicated Christmas episodes. Each one, unpicking the Wilkerson family Christmas with glee. However, for me its the first Christmas outing that stands head and shoulders above the rest. In an episode that begins with Lois threatening to cancel Christmas due to the boy’s behaviour; and ends with her acceptance of the chaos surrounding her and the imperfections of the family unit. Meanwhile, Francis has the job of visiting his grandmother for Christmas. A woman who thrives on arguments, confrontation and chain-smoking. His attempts to reason with his gran and understand her hatred left hanging when he discovers just how vindictive she is.

What elevates each Malcolm in the Middle Christmas episode above the usual tinsel wrapped sitcom, is the shows refusal to take quick and easy moral stands, its only interest sitting within the reality that Christmas isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s often stressful, tense and disappointing, as families strive for a vision of perfection that never really existed. However, joy, belonging and love can come from us accepting the imperfections that surround us, rather than trying to paper over them.

We also love: Father Ted “A Christmassy Ted” (1996)

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