We Ranked the Most Bizarre Christmas TV Specials Ever Made

in Television

Santa Claus in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Credit: CBS

We are currently right in the middle of the most wonderful of all the seasons: Christmas TV special season. For weeks around December 25, TV audiences are treated to some of the strangest, most garish, and, frequently, most inexplicably bleak and nihilistic Christmas entertainment ever created.

Although the Christmas TV special genre had its heyday in the 1950s through 1970s, these reminders of the eternal values of brotherhood, kindness, and corporate tie-in synergy persist to the current day. Often, these TV specials seem to have been created as promotional material for now-forgotten shows and potential spinoffs or as a good way to sell Christmas-themed toys and records.

 

Ebenezer Scrooge eating Christmas dinner with a bunch of Muppets
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures/Jim Henson Productions

And don’t get us wrong: there are many wonderful examples of the classic Christmas special out there, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), the various versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (except the creeptastic movie with Jim Carrey), and Frosty the Snowman (1969). But for every great or even decent special, there are a hundred more truly oddball ones.

Regardless of the motivations behind a Christmas TV special, one thing is certain: the entries below include some of the most bizarre moments ever broadcast on TV. We decided to celebrate the season by ranking them according to just how weird, off-putting, and/or upsetting they are, so join us, won’t you?

Also, we’re not including The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), because that’s just low-hanging fruit.

(L to R) C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in 'The Star Wars Holiday Special'
Credit: Lucasfilm

Related: ‘Harry Potter: Visions of Magic’ Arrives Just in Time for Christmas

14. ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus’ (2006)

Live-action Heatmiser and Coldmiser facing off in a boxing ring
Credit: NBC

The fact that we are beginning this list with the 2006 live-action adaptation of the beloved Christmas TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus should clue you into just how weird some of these will get.

Whereas the original Rankin/Bass Production special (based on the 1956 children’s book by Phyllis McGinley) was a marvel of stop-motion animation and voice acting, the live-action version takes everything whimsical about the special and clumsily transposes it onto flesh-and-blood humans. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t work.

Not even the inspired casting of John Goodman as Santa Claus and ringers like Michael McKean and Carol Kane could save this nightmare journey through Christmas merriment. Let’s move on.

13. ‘The Trolls and the Christmas Express’ (1981)

The Trolls and the Christmas Express Christmas TV special
Credit: HBO

This nearly forgotten Christmas TV special posits a question few dare ask: what if Christmas needed more trolling?

The HBO special The Trolls and the Christmas Express predated the Internet, but it did accurately predict the idea that “trolls” are people who cause chaos, sabotage good-faith actions, and are generally jerks. In this case, a group of actual trolls infiltrates Santa’s workshop because they hate “jolliness” and try to ruin Christmas, which is kind of the Grinch’s thing, but okay. There’s also a scene in which the trolls keep Santa’s reindeer up all night “dancing” and “partying” which seems to imply they’re too hungover to fly the next day, which is inappropriate all by itself.

12. ‘Santa vs. the Snowman’ (1997)

A snowman and Santa facing off
Credit: O Entertainment

The crux of Santa vs. the Snowman is basically that a lonely animated snowman (but not Frosty, presumably for legal reasons) becomes filled with jealous rage toward Santa because he was not allowed to keep a flute he found on the ground. Buckle up because it gets weirder.

The Snowman decides to take Santa’s spot, reasoning, “Why should Santa keep all that love, good tidings, and friendship for himself? That didn’t seem fair. Maybe, it’s time someone else got to be Santa?” In the course of trying to steal Santa’s identity, the Snowman unleashes a snow monster on the North Pole, Santa gets into a mech suit and fights it, Robotech-style, and everyone learns their lesson in the end.

Despite the utter insanity of this special, it somehow got an IMAX 3D theatrical release in 2002 as Santa vs. the Snowman 3D, which included new scenes specifically for that version. Someone at IMAX really loved that mech suit.

Related: Tim Burton Approves Spooky ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ Homage for Acclaimed Series

11. ‘X-Men: Have Yourself a Morlock Little Christmas’ (1995)

Wolverine scowling at a sad Christmas tree
Credit: Fox

The Fox Kids X-Men show had an entire episode centered around the idea that some people, like Wolverine, just straight up hate Christmas and that others live in abject poverty and can barely even celebrate. Cheery, right?

“X-Men: Have Yourself a Morlock Little Christmas” belongs to a specific subset of very, very depressing Christmas specials, even if it tries to have some fun by making Cyclops sing a Christmas carol poorly and Gambit wanting to put Cajun spices in everything. There’s nothing weirder than trying to find the holiday spirit in the story of a near-death mutant being refused service on a holiday and nearly dying in a sewer because of it.

10. ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special’ (1988)

Pee-Wee Herman holding cookies away from Santa
Credit: CBS

There’s no way that Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special could ever have been anything but peculiar on a near otherworldly level, because Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) exists in a strange and unusual world. Arguably, there has never been a show targeted toward children that is as strange as Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and its Christmas TV special doesn’t hold anything back.

The special opens with the UCLA Men’s Glee Club dressed as a Marine choir and just gets more and more unhinged from there. Pee-wee has a list of presents that is so long that, literally, no one else on the planet can get a Christmas gift. Whoopi Goldberg phones in, just for Pee-wee to shoot her down for a guest appearance the next year.

Magic Johnson, Cher, Charo, Little Richard, and 1960s beach movie stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello all show up for quick skits. So do Oprah Winfrey, K.D. Lang and Grace Jones, which is to say, all the favorite children’s stars of the 1980s. The special is overstuffed and as fourth-wall-breaking as Pee-wee always is, but unlike many on this list, at least has some genuine joy to it.

9. ‘Christmas Comes to Pac-Land’ (1982)

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land TV special with Santa
Credit: ABC

Did you know that in the early 1980s, the video game Pac-Man was so popular that it got its own Saturday morning cartoon, produced by Hanna-Barbera? And that cartoon show was so popular that it merited a Christmas TV special that involves Santa’s reindeer being so terrified by the floating, bodiless eyes of Ghost Monsters after Pac-Man has chomped them that they crash and cannot fly?

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land exists, in spite of all logic and reason, and it includes a scene in which the reindeer eat those power pellets that make Pac-Man go crazy and able to eat ghosts. Here, it just makes the reindeer able to fly again, and then, inexplicably, Pac-Man, Mrs. Pac-Man, Pac-Baby, and their mortal enemies, the Ghost Monsters, sit down and open presents together.

And don’t worry, there’s a Pac-Man Halloween special too.

Related: Neil Patrick Harris Jokes About EPCOT Drunkenness at Disney Christmas Event

8. ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’ (2000)

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, Grandma in the snow
Credit: WB

Unlike many entries on the list, this particular Christmas TV special is not based on a book, a video game, or a TV show. It’s based on a song. This song:

At least, that’s the version of the song that appears in the animated TV movie Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, in which a very nice old woman does indeed get run over by Santa Claus and his sleigh. There’s also a surprising amount of plot involving a crooked real estate deal, sabotaged fruitcakes, Santa Claus getting sued, and a case of amnesia.

Disturbingly, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer makes it clear that when Grandma gets hit by Santa Claus, she is severely injured and needs to recuperate at the North Pole for almost a year, during which her family has to assume she’s dead. That’s dark.

Also, she gets hit again at the end of the movie, just for fun.

7. ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’ (2014)

Grumpy Cat steering a car, inappropriately
Credit: Lifetime

First things first: RIP, Tardar Sauce, AKA Grumpy Cat. You were a good cat and brought millions of people joy. We miss you.

However, very few people probably miss the Lifetime Channel movie Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, a truly strange project that starred Aubrey Plaza as the voice of Grumpy Cat. We’re not even going to get into the plot of the movie and just reveal that the movie was completely shot before Plaza recorded her dialogue, and the actress reportedly just decided to wing it and say whatever she wanted.

Here’s what Aubrey Plaza herself says:

“Once I realized that the cat’s mouth wasn’t going to move, I just kind of went for it, and thought, ‘Well, if it’s just going to cut to the cat and I can say my line, then I can just comment on other things, too.’ The movie kind of has a Mystery Science Theater 3000 vibe to it, so it’s like you’re getting Grumpy’s commentary throughout the whole thing, but then Grumpy is also starring in the story.”

6. ‘Babes in Toyland’ (1986)

Keanu Reeves in Babes in Toyland Christmas TV special
Credit: NBC

If you were to tell us that a young Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore once starred in a TV special based on a 1903 operetta and that Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) from The Karate Kid appeared as a character named the Toymaster, we’d be at least a little bit intrigued.

That movie is called Babes in Toyland, and it features more sexual harassment, car crashes, and space travel than any Christmas TV special really should. It also has a song sung by the main characters titled “C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I” that not only goes on for a very long time but gets reprised. It’s…a whole lot.

5. ‘Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas’ (1977)

Bing Crosby and David Bowie in a Christmas TV special
Credit: CBS

Legendary singer Bing Crosby died during the making of Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, his final Christmas special, but not before he had a chance to participate in one of the most bewildering musical duets of all time.

Behold:

That’s art-rock icon David Bowie singing “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby, who described the famously enigmatic and chameleonic performer as a “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.”

The actual special involved multiple members of Crosby’s family as they try to figure out exactly how they’re related to a mysterious British aristocrat, a ghostly court jester who shows up to pull some jokes, and then a boy’s choir pops by. It’s fair to say that while the pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie may have been historic, the rest of the special did not have the same star quality.

4. ‘The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus’ (1985)

The Great Ak surrounded by Christmas figures
Credit: CBS

Rankin/Bass Productions is back, this time with an adaptation of one of Oz creator L. Frank Baum’s lesser-known works.

Even among the other entries on the list, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is puzzling. It’s a Christmas TV special that barely gives lip service to the holiday being related to Jesus, instead positing Santa Claus as a Christ-like figure raised by animals in a sacred forest protected by a council of immortal beings led by someone/something called The Great Ak.

Once the young Claus goes out in the world, it’s only a matter of time before he attracts the attention of a race of demon monsters called the Awgwas, who attempt to stop him from bringing happiness into the world. So, his attempts to give children presents kick off a war between inhuman forces which ends in the extinction of the Awgwas. Merry Christmas, the monsters have all been slaughtered!

3. ‘He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special’ (1985)

He-Man dressed as Santa Claus
Credit: Animation

Space-god twin siblings Adam and Adora, AKA He-Man and She-Ra, were born on Christmas Day, but it’s just a coincidence. That’s how He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special begins, and it just gets more confounding from there.

As one might expect, the actual plot conflict is launched by Orko literally launching himself into space and crashlanding on Earth, where two adorable children teach him about Christmas. More specifically, they teach him how awesome presents are, which he takes to heart.

In the meantime, She-Ra fights a “Beast Monster,” someone writes a song about Christmas, two different species of robot beings feature in the action, and Skeletor himself learns the true meaning of Christmas. He may be a bone-faced megalomaniac sorcerer, but even he can’t resist some yuletide spirit.

2. ‘The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas’ (1978)

The Pink Panther trying to sleep on a bench in the snow
Credit: ABC

There’s no other way to put this. The Pink Panther Christmas TV special is entirely about the titular character being homeless and constantly trying not to starve to death.

While many Christmas specials have some element of poverty or desperation in order to make a point about charity and generosity of spirit, few are as bleak as watching a wordless anthropomorphic cat shiver in the snow on a park bench and desperately shove away a dog in order to get a donut that a cop carelessly threw away.

Granted, the Pink Panther thinks twice about his actions, shares the donut with the dog, and is rewarded with a miraculous Christmas dinner by a passing Santa, but still. That is one shockingly grim TV special.

1. ‘Christmas in Tattertown’ (1988)

Christmas in Tattertown Christmas TV Special
Credit: Nickelodeon

We finally arrived at the most bizarre Christmas special of them all, a Ralph Bakshi production titled Christmas in Tattertown.

For some context, Ralph Bakshi is best known for films like the controversial Fritz the Cat (1972), the first animated movie to receive an X rating from the MPAA, and his unique visual flair, as seen in fantasy films like Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978). So, not exactly the person you’d expect to make a Christmas special.

However, Bakshi has attempted more commercial work on occasion, which led to Christmas in Tattertown at one point. Originally, the special was to be the pilot episode of an ongoing series about a parallel dimension named “Tattertown” in which all of mankind’s discarded items and junk become sentient, but upon not being picked up, was turned into…this.

The special begins in the Great Depression (already pretty dark) when a girl named Debbie gets transported into a parallel dimension of anthropomorphic trash (darker), and her doll Muffet decides to throw off the shackles of human bondage and become a warlord ruling over a world of broken refuse (okay, that’s maybe too dark).

Debbie attempts to teach the junk what Christmas is, while Muffet creates an army of goons with a giant spider entity to take over Tattertown. Eventually, Bing Crosby’s (see above) rendition of “White Christmas” saves the day, but Debbie remains stuck in Tattertown. The end. Merry Christmas, everyone!

What’s your favorite Christmas special? Let us know in the comments below!

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