Christmas specials: They’ve survived unchanged for decades and still pull absolutely crazy TV viewership. ABC Family1 and the Hallmark Channel are wall-to-wall with this stuff right now, and the numbers explain why: ABC Family’s showing of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” on Sunday night pulled in 2.7 million viewers. ABC’s “25 Days of Christmas” programming was the most watched thing on cable among women last year in the three weeks leading up to Christmas. But in the abstract, it’s fascinating that there’s an entire chunk of culture that people have absolutely no interest in for 90 percent of the year but go nuts for in the remaining 10 percent.
And just like we see with music, the oeuvre is by and large dated: Anchoring the universe of holiday specials is a batch of claymation holdovers from the 1960s and 1970s by the Rankin-Bass studio.
I wanted to quasi-scientifically figure out what makes a good holiday special. So since it only comes around once a year: Welcome to The Christmas Thunderdome! Like we did with James Bonds and Matt Damon before, I pitted Santas, Rankin-Bass movies and Christmas special characters against one another in a series of head-to-head matchups and invited America, or really just my Twitter followers,2 to weigh in and crown some winners.
First up, the Santa Clauses:
|1||Edmund Gwenn||Miracle on 34th Street (1947)||79%|
|2||Stan Francis||Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer||76|
|3||Richard Attenborough||Miracle on 34th Street (1994)||71|
|5||Tim Allen||The Santa Clause series||68|
|6||Tom Hanks||The Polar Express||58|
|7||Paul Giamatti||Fred Claus||48|
|8||Jeff Gillen||A Christmas Story||44|
|9||Edward Ivory||The Nightmare Before Christmas||44|
|10||David Huddleston||Santa Claus||43|
|11||James Cosmo||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe||42|
|12||Al ‘Red Dog’ Weber||Scrooged||40|
|13||Ken Hudson Campbell||Home Alone||31|
|14||Billy Bob Thornton||Bad Santa||40|
|15||Alec Baldwin||Rise of the Guardians||30|
|16||John Call||Santa Claus Conquers the Martians||25|
|17||Jim Broadbent||Arthur Christmas||22|
The top five is fascinating. Two of them are the Santas from “Miracle on 34th Street” — the original film (No. 1) won 79 percent of its matchups, while the remake (No. 3) won 71 percent. Rounding out the top 3 is the claymation Claus from the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” No. 4 is Ed Asner’s Santa in “Elf,” a movie that did for holiday films what “All I Want for Christmas Is You” did for holiday music. And, finally, there’s Tim Allen’s turn in “The Santa Clause” movie franchise — the first of which is iconic for the younger crowd for any number of reasons (it also might be the only quality film made because of a legal pun).
But why is the claymation Santa from “Rudolph” so big? Well, it is the most popular Rankin-Bass special:
|RANK||COMPETITOR NAME||WIN PERCENTAGE|
|1||Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer||93%|
|2||Frosty the Snowman||83|
|3||Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town||84|
|4||The Year Without a Santa Claus||79|
|5||Frosty’s Winter Wonderland||57|
|6||The Little Drummer Boy||57|
|8||‘Twas the Night Before Christmas||55|
|9||Rudolph’s Shiny New Year||51|
|10||Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July||47|
|11||Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey||37|
|12||The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus||34|
|13||The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow||23|
|14||The Little Drummer Boy, Book II||22|
|16||The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold||18|
|17||The Stingiest Man in Town||18|
|18||Cricket on the Hearth||17|
I think my favorite part of these results is the massive drop in quality seen after the top four films. You have Rudolph and Frosty, sure. They’re followed by “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” the story of a monarchist subversive attempting to overthrow the elected leader of a small hamlet with the help of a wizard. And next comes “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” which is the one with Heat Miser, Snow Miser and the best damn soundtrack ever.
And after that, you have absolutely nothing. The Rankin-Bass crowd apparently ran out of ideas or new intellectual property sometime in the early 1970s. They tried going super biblical, they tried to build a Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer Cinematic Universe, they adapted a batshit L. Frank Baum book into an even more absurd claymation special. In 1981, they went the leprechaun route, making a film in which a stereotype releases a banshee and tries to get some gold. The big idea to promote the film, according to a very helpful wikia page, was that “prizes would be buried in random places throughout the United States for children to dig up.” However, “this was scrapped because of safety concerns.” I have a lot of concerns — sure, safety among them — about that plan.
While the Rankin-Bass specials absolutely have volume, they don’t feature the most popular holiday characters. I asked people to select which was the better character from a holiday special. Frosty didn’t even make the top 10:
|RANK||COMPETITOR NAME||WIN PERCENTAGE|
|2||Max, the Dog||79|
|3||The Abominable Snowmonster of the North||77|
|11||Cindy Lou Who||62|
Big wins for the Grinch (the 1966 version) and Max, his dog.3 The Abominable Snowmonster of the North from “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — who would go on to get his arm cut off by a Jedi — is in third place, followed by Snoopy from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and then Yukon Cornelius, also from “Rudolph.”
And to think, within three days, we’ll want absolutely nothing to do with them for 11 months.