1. It's A Wonderful Life
This Frank Capra film is an absolute classic. If you have never seen it, do yourself a favor and rent or DVR it and sit down and commit to it. Don't watch it "live" on TV, though, because the commercial interruptions make it almost unwatchable. The story is of George Bailey, portrayed expertly by James Stewart. He is a man who has lived his life by putting others' needs before his own until, suddenly, he believes he has wasted his life. This is, literally, a life-altering film. No matter how many times I have seen this, I tear up watching it every. single. time. (For those who speak Bedford Falls, the early scene with Mr. Gower and the final toast by George's brother are the two scenes that absolutely trigger, to quote my next choice, "Niagara Falls.")
This 1988 film was directed by Richard Donner and stars Bill Murray and Karen Allen. Murray plays the youngest network chief executive in television history. He got there by being ruthless, and he stays there by being the opposite of George Bailey, putting his own needs before the needs of others. He also has closed himself off from others, especially his younger brother and his former girlfriend. Per the title, you may have guessed that this film is based on the book A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. When Murray is brought back into the past and sees his dead mother again, The Ghost of Christmas Past teases him, "Niagara Falls!" Of course, when faced with the prospect of a lonely, meaningless death, Murray vows to change. Allen as his girl-friend is especially adorable. And as the story is set in the world of television, there are dozens of fun cameos by people like Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, and Mary-Lou Retton. It is a funny and stinging update of the story. When Murray yells at the camera, "It's NOT too late! It's not!!" it gets me every time.
Plus I love the song Put A Little Love In Your Heart by Annie Lennox and Al Green.
3. The Muppets' Christmas Carol
Speaking of Charles Dickens' classic story, I am trying to watch all of the different versions out there, but the one I keep going back to is, oddly enough, the Muppets' version. This 1992 film was directed by Jim's son Brian Henson and stars Michael Caine as Scrooge and The Great Gonzo as Dickens himself, the omniscient narrator of the story. If you love the Muppets' wacky humor *and* you love the sentimentality of this story, you will like this film. It does not have the emotional punch of some of the other all-human versions, but it does have plenty of charm.
4. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Speaking of charm, there isn't much more charming than a bunch of stop-action puppets singing about being mis-fits. Rudolph was produced by Rankin/Bass Production, first telecast in 1964. The light-weight story about reindeer treating Rudolph badly because his nose glows is given added weight by pulling together how Society treats mis-fits in general...Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist, the Abominable Snowman who just has a tooth-ache, and, of course, the island of misfit toys. Who wouldn't have wanted to play with one of those misfit toys? A cowboy who rides an ostrich....who wouldn't want that!?! Burl Ives nearly steals the show as Sam the Singing Snowman, but Rudolph and Hermey save the day, changing people's idea about what constitutes "normal."
5. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
Combine the wild imaginations of Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones with the wildly talented Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft and how can you *not* get a classic Christmas cartoon? This 1966 cartoon is probably the most classic tale about learning the true meaning of Christmas. The reason for the season is NOT the Who-presents or the Who-Roast Beef...for many it's about honoring Jesus Christ, but for other less religious people it's about trying to be as good a person as you could possibly be. "What Would Jesus Do," every day. Appreciate all you have, and spread the happiness and goodwill, and maybe *your* heart will expand a size a two, too.
6. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
I remember really loving this "secret origin of Santa Claus" special as a kid. I looked forward to it probably more than any of these others every year, because "origin stories" are just so cool. This 1970 production is another Rankin/Bass stop-action creation with great songs and great voice work. Awesome talents such as Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle, Keenan Wynn as The Winter Warlock, and Fred Astaire as the letter carrier narrator keep the quality level up. Do you have a question about Santa Claus? This story will give you an answer. It may not be completely "true," but it is true to its own mythology, and makes sense. I especially love the reason that Santa's reindeer can fly, and why Santa flies on Christmas Eve. This special was popular enough to warrant a "sequel" of sorts, The Year Without A Santa Claus. Shirley Booth starred as Mrs. Claus, with Mickey Rooney returning as Santa. You may remember this one for the Heat Miser and Cold Miser brothers.
7. Frosty the Snowman
Frosty is another Rankin/Bass production, but this one is an actual cartoon, not stop-action animation. The characters were modeled by Paul Coker, Jr, known for his work for MAD Magazine. Frosty is another story based on a Christmas carol made famous by Gene Autry. This version from 1969 is narrated by Jimmy Durante and stars Jackie Vernon and Billy DeWolfe as Frosty and the Magician, respectfully. These three actors slash comedians all had long careers in show business, but I have never seen anything with them as great as Frosty. Every time when Santa doesn't get to the poinsettia green house in time, it melts me the same way it melts Frosty.
There are, obviously, plenty of films that didn't make the cut. Some were painful to omit (Meet Me In St. Louis lost points because it's not just about Christmas, for example). Others were easy to leave off because they just are not my cup of tea (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story). And others just haven't been around long enough to include (Love Actually).
,,,and now a few words about A Charlie Brown Christmas. I know that this is many people's favorite Christmas cartoon, but I just can't stand to watch it any more. The way the kids bully and tease and ignore Charlie Brown is just too much for me. Then they have the gall at the end to all surround his sad little tree and sing with him. What a bunch of hypocrites! I love Linus and Charlie Brown, and the soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi is awesome, but I have enough "Peanuts" people in my life already, I don't need to watch more on them on television!