Eric’s Top 3 Emotional Christmas Specials
We all know the Chuck Jones’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or “The Charlie Brown Christmas,” or any of the million versions of “A Christmas Carol” specials that are loved by all for how they get us right in the feels, but what about the ones no one talks about? It’s staggering to think about how many specials have been made for this holiday. Some are terrible and we rightly forget about them but then there are those that deserve some love but fell through the cracks. I had more to talk about but, couldn’t unify them under a good theme that made sense for all of them so I took the ones I most wanted to talk about and figured out the common link of them. I’m fine with going for quality over quantity. Oh and SPOILERS, lot’s of SPOILERS.
3. A Ziggy’s Gift
My step-dad used to work at a blockbuster and as a result there were occasionally VHS’s that just seemed to appear at our house but never left. I’m not sure what the deal was since we rented movies all the time with no issues. One year I noticed one VHS that didn’t look familiar. I popped it in the VCR and watched it. I was aware of Ziggy from the comic strips but I didn’t know much about him or the gimmick. It’s hard to decide what exactly to classify “Ziggy’s Gift” as, but I’ll say if you like a lot of the more old school classic specials like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” then this would probably be up your alley.
The plot is that Ziggy sees a news story about the need for more street corner Santas and being the decent guy that he is, he immediately goes out and gets a job as one. Unfortunately the company that he applies for is a scam, stealing the collected charity funds received. Ziggy finds that his coin collection pot is magical (no I didn’t leave anything out) and it’s about as random as that. Whatever Ziggy needs (like a wad of cash) he can just pull it out of the pot. A thief sees him doing this and spends a majority of the special trying to steal it. They attract the attention of an Irish cop who tries to take them both in until they realize they’re fighting in front of the orphanage with all the orphans watching. Thinking quickly, they work together to entertain the kids and give them a nice evening. The thief somehow becomes magical and is able to pull out toys for the orphans from his sack, not the pot which is being used to hold a Christmas tree (magic of the season?). Ziggy then goes home for Christmas.
So typing it all out makes it sound weird and non-sensical, but plot is not what makes this special work. The star of this special is the animation. This was made by Richard Williams, one of the masters of hand-drawn animation. He did the animation for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” finalized the design of “The Pink Panther” into the iconic version that’s still around today, the Chuck Jones “Christmas Carol,” and “The Thief and the Cobbler” (another film not strong on plot but INCREDIBLY strong on the detail of the animation). In many ways the simpler designs of Ziggy allows him to really bring their characters out. Ziggy and the thief are silent but with how they move you’ll never miss hearing any dialog. The timing of some of these visual jokes is amazing. However in the end what I come away with from watching this is the real quiet dignity of the special. From the scene of Ziggy giving away his Santa coat to a homeless man to the end song which is like “goodness” in musical form.
2. The Town That Santa Forgot (Hanna-Barbera)
I only recently became aware of this special but it really does have an emotional kick to it. I love the animation style of 90’s Hanna-Barbera. I guess they spent so much time in the 60s and 70s being cheap (and creating the techniques that would allow for TV cartoons to even become a thing that exists) and saving whatever they could so when the 90s rolled around they could put a lot more into the visuals of the animation.
The story is about a greedy little boy named Jeremy Creek who has tons and tons of toys he holds on to. When his parents finally lay down the law, the boy writes Santa a huge Christmas list. Santa and the Elves assume from the list being so long that it must be a special order for an entire town. He and the Elves search a map of the world and find a town miraculously also called Jeremy Creek. Apparently it was such a small, poor town that Santa never noticed it before. So that Christmas Jeremy receives nothing and is enraged, then he sees a news story about a town that got a ton of toys from Santa and this enrages him even more. However that changes when the reporter asks the children how they feel about this. They are grateful and incredibly thankful to whoever wrote to Santa. This act of unintentional kindness has a profound effect on Jeremy as he realized how much of a greedy jerk he’s been and how nice it feels to give.
This makes the list because of the interview scene. It’s just a genuinely sincere moment performed well by the child actors. Plus the score at that scene just does a fantastic job at capturing the moment. It’s hard for me not to get a little teary eyed while watching. The story of someone learning how nice it feels to give is one that’s been told many times, but here it feels like a nice spin as it comes out of an act of greed. It’s also a special told entirely in rhyme. That may seem so-so to some but for the un-poetic like myself, it’s always a cool little trick. Also getting Dick Van Dyke to narrate can’t hurt you.
1. Arnold’s Christmas (Hey Arnold)
You know what Christmas always needed, Vietnam flashbacks! There seems to be two kinds of people in this world, those who didn’t watch “Hey Arnold” and assumed it was just a dumb kids show and the rest of us who ACTUALLY watched it. “Hey Arnold” dealt with some pretty heavy issues in its episodes. Subjects include, emotionally neglectful parents, abandonment issues, substance abuse, obsession, over-eating, or having to live with the existential concept that you’re an angry person who’s never going to get any better as long as you hold onto that anger. And then there’s the Christmas episode.
Arnold’s household (a boarding house) is doing one of those gift exchange things and Arnold happens to draw Mr. Hyunh’s name. This is difficult because nobody knows what he wants for a present because he’s depressed around the holidays and claims that he doesn’t want anything. Arnold gets him to explain and I’d just like to remind you that this was a children’s show on Nickelodeon. Mr Hyunh came from a foreign country (it’s implied to be Vietnam but it’s never definitively said) that was being torn apart by war. When the American soldiers were trying to evacuate the people, they only had room for one more person on the helicopter so Mr. Hyunh begs for them to take his infant daughter to make sure she gets out alive and can have a better life. After he arrived in America (and in the unidentified city that the show takes place in) he couldn’t find her and has basically given up hope.
Arnold sets off to find his daughter but the one guy who can help him go through the computer systems to find her is a grouch. Arnold offers a trade so he’ll help them find Hyunh’s daughter if they agree to do all of his shopping. It’s difficult but they eventually find them all except for the new Nancy Spumoni boots. Dejected, they don’t even realize that Helga’s been following them. When she returns home she’s allowed to open one of her gifts early and it turns out to be Nancy Spumoni boots which she loves but then has to make the tough decision whether or not to give them away to help Arnold or not. She of course makes the right decision in the end and Mr. Hyunh’s daughter arrives at the boarding house for Christmas to be reunited with her father… and then never to be seen again in the series after that but that’s beside the point.
Dude, seriously! Just writing that description of the flashback made me teary-eyed. If I had any criticism of this episode it would be that it never gets as emotionally investing as the flashback scene. I’m still amazed that we live in a world where networks told the producers to change Janine’s glasses from pointy to round because it would frighten kids IN A CARTOON SHOW CALLED REAL GHOSTBUSTERS but this was able to air just fine. Still I’m glad it did and it was one of the shows I especially remember that treated me more like an adult. Sure not all episodes were like this. There were plenty of kids cartoon stuff but it wasn’t afraid to show us darker things, and I appreciate it even more now that I am all grown up.
Hope you enjoyed this list, Merry Christmas!