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Enter The Christmas Special Thunderdome

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:

The most popular 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
4 Ed Asner Elf 72
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

Source: Christmas Specials Wiki

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:

Rankin’ the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials
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
7 Jack Frost 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
15 Pinocchio’s Christmas 20
16 The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold 18
17 The Stingiest Man in Town 18
18 Cricket on the Hearth 17

Source: Christmas Specials Wiki

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:

The most popular Christmas characters
1 The Grinch 84%
2 Max, the Dog 79
3 The Abominable Snowmonster of the North 77
4 Snoopy 75
5 Yukon Cornelius 73
6 Rudolph 73
7 Charlie Brown 72
8 Linus 70
9 Sam Snowman 67
10 Hermey 63
11 Cindy Lou Who 62
12 Schroeder 61
13 Frosty 61
14 Lucy 54
15 Burgermeister Meisterburger 53

Source: Christmas Specials Wiki

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.


  1. FiveThirtyEight is owned by ESPN, which is owned by Disney, which also owns ABC.

  2. Actually, definitely only my Twitter followers and whoever else saw it; this is not a scientific study.

  3. It’s worth pointing out here that people are far too sympathetic to Max, the dog from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He’s pretty much the most insidious villain of the entire holiday canon and a character study of the banality of evil. Consider: The Grinch is an unambiguous baddie, heart several sizes too small and an altogether unsympathetic character — at least in the beginning. He’s Palpatine from “Star Wars,” Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings,” someone whose malice is so central to his being that he’s essentially a caricature of badness. There’s a song about that. But Max takes the predilection toward malice to another level. He’s portrayed as a good dog, the audience stand-in and a character worthy of our empathy. We can identify with Max — we all think we’re good people, conscientious workers, maybe not always totally in control but in our hearts good — even though it’s difficult to identify with the Grinch.

    But Max goes along with the Grinch’s crime spree even though he knows what he’s doing is wrong. Max is blindly obedient. On his own, the Grinch couldn’t possibly steal Christmas. He needed the aid of an unquestioning assistant. Evil only progresses when good people don’t try to stop it — as someone said — and emerges victorious when good people abet it out of self-preservation. And that should scare the hell out of you. Were it not for the Grinch’s change of heart, Max would have willingly gone along with the destruction of the haul. Good people can be convinced by bad people to do horrible things, and Max is an interrogation of that notion, and a very clever one at that. And I’m very sure this was wholly intentional. After all, it’s right there in the title: If you want to know “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the answer is Max.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.