For a lot of people, Christmas is a season all about food, family, fun and gift-giving. It’s a time to reflect on the past year with those you love in the warmth of your own home with a well-stocked fridge. And what better to compliment all of that than a nice, family-friendly holiday special on your TV? Well, if you’re looking for heartwarming messages, age-appropriate visuals and stories that actually make sense in your festive entertainment line-up, then maybe give these best-forgotten “classics” a miss. But, if ringing in the festive period with scenes of child abduction, Victorian ghosts, fiery Satanic rituals and the integrity of beloved franchises being dragged through the snow-caked mud sounds like your thing, then this is a list for you.
For all of the many, many Christmas specials that have been made, relatively few manage to ascend to the hallowed position of being widely accepted Holiday “staples.” It’s certainly a hard balancing act to achieve just the right level of schmultz, humor, depth and festive cheer to appeal to everyone. A Christmas Carol, the Germanic Krumpus legend and The Nightmare Before Christmas also prove there’s definitely room for frights amongst the frivolity. But, the supposedly innocuous and cheesy specials on this list are filled with bizarre content that comes off as contextually tone-deaf at best, and horrifyingly bleak at worst.
15. THE SMURFS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
The smurfs are a troupe of little blue men (and one girl) who live in a similarly little rural village. Aside from some retrospectively dodgy things in the source material, adaptations of their smurfy adventures are always uniformly cutesy and kid-orientated. This is all uniformly true… with the notable exception of the 1982 Christmas Special, which, looking back, seems wildly ill-judged.
The story sees a purple-cloaked villain known menacingly as “The Christmas Stranger” (who is also strongly implied to be the Devil) kidnap two children from their kindly grandparents at wolf-point, hold them hostage, and later try to force them to cross over into their “final journey” through a fiery portal. Don’t worry though, the kids are saved when the Smurfs arrive to, uh, sing the Stranger to death.
14. POWER RANGERS: ALPHA’S MAGICAL CHRISTMAS
Power Rangers was at the height of its popularity in the early ’90s so capitalizing on this success with a direct-to-video, standalone Christmas special in 1994 was a great idea for a stocking filler. The first problem, however, was Saban’s strange decision to make everyone’s least favorite character the star. The second problem was that it inexplicably turned that character into a magical child trapper.
Given that it all took place out of universe, we can forgive a few continuity slip-ups here and there. But, Alpha suddenly having the power to break the fourth wall and materializing objects out of thin air are pretty big continuity breaks. What’s worse, he emotionally blackmails Zordon into abducting a bunch of kids from around the world, who are then forced to do Christmas activities in an alien fortress by a whining robot having a mental breakdown.
13. TMNT: WE WISH YOU A TURTLE CHRISTMAS
As well as the bizarre Power Rangers Christmas special, 1994 also gave us the absolute lunacy that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles special. No, not the beloved animated series — the live-action one with the dead-eyed suits. In this 25-minute VHS fever dream, the Turtles sing festive songs about… themselves. This included ditties like the “Wrap Rap,” a title that loses an awful lot in translation when sung.
As well as puzzling over whether or not they should buy their sewer-dwelling master golf clubs for Christmas, the brothers engage in some light child-napping (because, according to all of our entries so far, child abduction was traditional during the Holidays in the ’80s and ’90s.) Luckily the kids of New York seemed to be raised with very little parental guidance and were happy to have a pizza party with 5-foot sewer monsters.
12. HE-MAN AND SHE-RA CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
He-Man and She-Ra are two of the most recognizable and nostalgia-baiting fictional figures of the ’80s, so — despite the notable absence of anything resembling theologically-based celebrations from their worlds — it was only natural, from a marketing perspective, that they got their own Christmas special in 1985. Because of the aforementioned problem, Christmas was shoe-horned in by virtue of Orka crash-landing on Earth.
There, he lures two children into his ship, who tell him all about the holiday, before accidentally bringing them back to Eternia with him. From there, the poor kids are deliberately abducted by killer robots (“Mandroids”) while She-Ra battles a phallic-looking dragon, and are then kidnapped again by Skeletor. While they worry about getting home in time for the holidays, Skeletor seems to literally become possessed by the spirit of Christmas when a slobbering puppy melts his bony heart.
11. THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS: XMAS MARKS THE SPOT
The Real Ghostbusters holiday special in 1986 was the perfect opportunity for our favorite supernatural hunters outside of the Winchester brothers to tackle the most famous Christmas ghost story of them all: A Christmas Carol. The set up is ridiculously implausible but great fun. The boys travel back in time to Victorian London and unwittingly ‘bust the ghosts of Dickens’ classic story.
Without these paranormal conscience correctors, Scrooge never changes his ways, and when the Ghostbusters make it back to their own time they find that Ebeneezer’s war on Christmas has eradicated the festive season altogether. While their attempt to fix this problem of their own making is not without typical Ghostbusters humor, the animators definitely put too much effort into making the Christmas ghosts hideously terrifying.
10. BUGS BUNNY’S LOONEY TALES: FRIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
This 23-minute special aired originally in 1979 and consisted of three brand new holiday-themed shorts: “Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol,” “Freeze Frame” and “Fright Before Christmas.” Looney Tunes’ brand is pretty much hyper-cartoonish, zany violence with no permanent repercussions, so it’s probably unsurprising that the final instalment in this mini-trilogy is so destructive.
This is unsurprising, but still amazingly anarchic for something created to mark Christmas. In “Fright Before Christmas,” a weird mix-up at the North Pole means that Bugs Bunny and his nephew Clyde are visited by Taz dressed as Santa. Somehow unable to spot the difference, they let him into their home. Taz promptly wraps his jaws around everything in sight and leaves them with no presents or furniture. Worst Christmas ever?
9. ASTRO BOY: THE LIGHT RAY ROBOT
Astro Boy is an adorable young robot searching for his place in a human world that doesn’t always accept him. His 1980 anime holiday special, however, is about as far from adorable as you can get. In “The Light Ray Robot,” Astro tries to reach out to a fellow boy ‘bot who has gone rogue — the titular Light Ray, who has the power of invisibility.
After being corrupted by a gang of thieves, Astro takes Light Ray on a heroism spree. Things take an inappropriately dark turn, however, when Light Ray rescues a woman from being sexually assaulted by a drunken man. The special only gets darker from there, too, as Light Ray ends up a fugitive from the police who decide they have no choice but to blow up the robot right in front of Astro, who’s left weeping in the snow as the upbeat end credits roll.
8. CHRISTMAS WITH THE ADDAMS FAMILY
To be honest, anything less than a spooky Christmas special from America’s spookiest family would be a disappointment. The 1960 holiday-themed episode from the classic black and white series certainly doesn’t do that. In “Christmas with the Addams Family,” Pugsley and Wednesday Addams are concerned that Santa might not visit the Addams family home after a neighbor tells Pugsley Santa isn’t real.
To cheer the kids up, Morticia and Gomez persuade Uncle Fester to dress up as Father Christmas. Fester, being Fester, gets himself wedged in the chimney. This leaves the rest of the adults of the household to secretly don Santa costumes instead and the resulting scene of the Addams family — bar the kids — in Santa suits is funny enough, but Cousin Itt’s black-eyed stare is a version of Saint Nick that will haunt you forever.
7. PAC-MAN: CHRISTMAS COMES TO PAC-LAND
This 25-minute special, which first aired in 1982, seems innocent enough today, but considering when it was made, it’s amazing that it slipped through the censorship net. The episode — from the very short-lived animated adaptation of the arcade sensation — begins with Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man and their friends having some seasonal fun: making snow-ghosts and throwing snowballs.
Unfortunately, some of these snowballs just happen to hit a jolly man in red and white zooming through the sky on his enchanted sleigh, which comes crashing down to Earth. Pac-Man tries to help redeem himself from nearly wrecking Christmas by dealing “Power Pellets” to Santa’s reindeer, giving them a burst of energy. During the “War on Drugs” era, this must have been a suspect message to be dosing kids with.
6. SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN
Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are undisputed classics. But, there are plenty of other Rankin and Bass festive TV specials that are much less fondly remembered — and perhaps for good reason. Clocking in at 50 minutes, this lesser-known special featured everything you’d expect from a heartwarming Rankin and Bass production. There’s also a fair amount of fairy tale darkness too.
The story is set in “Sombertown,” which is ruled by the ludicrously-named mayor “Burgermeister Meisterburger,” whose hobbies include gorging on animal carcasses and throwing unwanted babies into the “Orphan Asylum.” As well as these sinister overtones, one of the disturbingly titled songs, “If You Sit On My Lap Today,” features the lyric, “a kiss a toy is the price you’ll pay,” confirming every parent’s worst fears about the true nature of mall Santas.
5. INVADER ZIM: THE MOST HORRIBLE X-MAS EVER
Invader Zim was one of the most gleefully unconventional cartoons of the ’00s and when it came to cranking out a Christmas special, it didn’t scale anything back for the sake of the season. Suitably titled “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever,” this 2002 episode saw Zim waging a war on Christmas after learning of the existence of Father Christmas via a mall Santa.
We’re then treated to grim scenes of Zim kidnapping, torturing and labotomizing the poor guy so he can usurp him. Things, of course, don’t work out for the alien imperialist. Zim creates a giant, robotic Santa suit for himself, which inevitably develops a mind of its own and becomes a sentient festive monster. The story ends with our narrator telling us that, 2 million years into the future, humanity has been forced under a dome to protect against the Santa-bot’s annual attacks.
4. DOCTOR WHO: THE SNOWMEN & LAST CHRISTMAS
This British sci-fi staple has been both delighting and frightening children and adults alike for over 50 years now. The years of Christmas specials usually haven’t been any different. But, while some lean a little too heavily into candy cane saccharine (we’re looking at you, Kylie Minogue on the Titanic…), others have over-delivered sackfuls of nightmarish monsters and chilling stories.
The offering from 2012, “The Snowmen,” saw the Doctor face off against possibly the most terrifying incarnation of the oddly prevalent snow-monster archetype. These alien “snowmen” had enough teeth to make the shark from Jaws cower. “Last Christmas” from 2014 upped the fear factor again with the disgusting “Dream Crabs,” who, with their mind-sucking powers and disturbingly fleshy appearance look like a cross between Alien‘s face-huggers and TMNT‘s Krang.
3. THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS
Of all the Rankin and Bass Christmas productions, nothing is probably more obscure than this bizarre 1985 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s (of The Wizard of Oz fame) high fantasy Santa Claus origin story. The animated adaptation thankfully doesn’t water too much of the weirdness down, the result being a Christmas story by way of Middle Earth.
In the story, Santa Claus is something of a Pagan deity: born in another realm and sent to our world as a child — by a council of Elves, Nymphs and “Wind Demons” — to experience life in the human world. After witnessing the horrors of war, poverty and child abuse, Santa somehow still manages to grow into the present-giving, bearded old man we know him as. Oh, except he also has to do battle against an evil army of dragons, ogres and giants. Christmas has never been so metal.
2. ALF CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
While the festive season is supposed to be a joyful and celebratory time, for some, it can be bleak and miserable. It’s a good thing for those people, then, that the 1987 ALF Christmas Special doesn’t air anymore, because it might just be enough to send them over the edge. In this holiday episode, ALF — the lovable, furry alien — literally drives a recently widowed man named Willie to the brink of suicide.
No, really. After being forced to talk about his dead wife to ALF’s adoptive human family and becoming further embittered by the space critter destroying his truck of presents intended for sick kids, Willie tries to jump off a bridge. ALF, not content with ruining one person’s Christmas, then visits one of the dying kids, accidentally tells her Santa isn’t real, and the two of them cry about the fear of death. Cue laugh track!
1. THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL
In the entire history of Christmas, nothing has — or will ever be — as bizarre as the Star Wars Holiday Special. The CBS 1978 TV event aired in between the release of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and though everyone involved (especially George Lucas) would rather you forgot its existence, it is 100% canonical in the Star Wars franchise… as Boba Fett’s first appearance.
The “plot” involves Han helping Chewie evade the Empire in order to sneak back home to celebrate
Christmas “Life Day” with his family. Virtually everything that happens in it is almost indescribably cringe-worthy, from the cameos from celebrities that no child would recognize, to Luke’s make-up-caked face, to the trippy music video from Jefferson Starship, to — and this is real — Chewie’s grandfather(?) pleasuring himself to holo-porn in the living room. Happy Life Day, everyone!
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