4 Lesser-Known Holiday Films and Specials to Fill Your Stockings


James Daly

A Froebel star adorning a Christmas tree with different color lights

James Daly

The holiday season hardly has a dearth of content to get the Christmas spirit going. Each year, at least one or two holiday films are thrown onto screens by major studios like more wood to the Yule log, and this isn’t to mention the countless TV specials or movies, especially by Hallmark or Lifetime, that are cranked out en masse. And of course, most who celebrate the season no doubt have a personal roster of holiday films and specials they re-watch each year. It could be “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or even that most classic of holiday flicks, “Die Hard.” For the most part, even with a splurge of holiday content that gets released each year, many will still love to re-experience their own Holiday Canon each Christmastime, no matter how often they’ve seen it before.

But within the hundreds of “Christmas Carol” retellings and thousands of other yearly works made for the season, there are some which are overlooked or even outright forgotten, that are good or even excellent. Of course, attempting to look through it all would might cause even the most ardent lover of Christmas to change their attitude towards the holidays to that of an underpaid retail worker hearing “Wonderful Christmastime” for the fifth time during their shift. Loving the holiday myself though, and having watched through a number of different Christmas films and shows over the years, I’ve caught a few gems, to varying degrees of fame, in the wider sea of Yuletide media. So, for the benefit of any readers craving holiday content beyond rewatching “A Christmas Story” for the thousandth time, or for those interested in adding a few new flicks to their usual December roster, I’ve compiled and discussed a few of these here. Check them out, whether right away or if you find them while flipping through cable or streaming services.

“Jack Frost” (Rankin-Bass)

Anyone who watches Christmas specials and media has likely seen at least one by Rankin/Bass, which produced many iconic animated specials throughout the ’60s and ’70s which are still watched to this day, with a distinctive stop-motion style. But between “Rudolph,” “Frosty” and even “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jack Frost,” which was broadcast in 1979, is rarely brought up when mentioning them.

The special, told by the groundhog Pardon-Me Pete (Buddy Hackett) (Related to the legend of Punxsutawney Phil and how a groundhog seeing its own shadow means there will be six more weeks of winter) tells a story of the titular folkloric figure. Long ago, Jack (Robert Morse), a harbinger of winter, brings it to the poor village of January Junction, when he overhears one resident, a beautiful young woman named Elisa (Debra Clinger), mentioning how she loves Jack Frost.

Jack, taking it at face value, falls in love and asks the overseer of the season, Father Winter (Paul Frees) to allow him to be human. Father Winter allows this, but only on the condition that Jack has found a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife before spring. At the same time, the cruel Kubla Kraus (also Paul Frees) who rules from a castle on Miserable Mountain with an army of machine, continues to terrorize the small town of January Junction and even threatens to destroy it. And so, Jack must find a way to achieve humanity and save the town before the frost thaws.

As described, it’s not quite a holiday special in the traditional sense. One might even confuse it for some kind of Groundhog Day special initially, based on the opening scene with Pardon-Me Pete. Rather than focus on the holidays or a holiday figure, the special instead focuses on the winter part of that Winter Wonderland. It’s rather refreshing, given how much that aspect is also celebrated. What’s more, it also distinguishes itself with a surprisingly more tragic, or at least bittersweet, tale for its protagonist. It’s not anything Shakespearean, of course, and the special is still filled with plenty of goofiness, as well as that distinctively cheap yet charming Rankin/Bass “Animagic” style and fairytale-esque storytelling. However, given the cold touch for the subject and ending, particularly as a holiday special, “Jack Frost” makes a mark for itself. It’s a worthy watch, especially if you find yourself having a White Christmas.

“Jack Frost” can usually be found broadcast during the holidays as well with other Rankin/Bass specials, though likely not to the same degree as them. At the moment, it’s also free to stream on Tubi, Fubo, and Amazon Prime Video—though I’d advise against the Prime Video version if possible, which seems to be taken straight from a VHS.

“Arthur Christmas” (2011)

“Arthur Christmas” is likely not unknown to most people, but it hasn’t reached the same “must-watch” status in the Holiday Canon as with other movies. Having revisited it recently however, it’s a shame it hasn’t.

Released in 2011, the film supposes that Santa Claus, rather than being an immortal figure, is instead a hereditary position, with a long line of Clauses dating back to the 2nd century. Now in the 21st century, rather than the typical images that come to mind of Santa alone riding a sleigh and hopping down chimneys to deliver gifts, the process has become a true tactical and logistics operation, as thousands of elves descend from the spaceship-like “S-1” to place presents at once. The titular Arthur (James McAvoy) is the son of the current Claus, reading and answering all the letters to Santa. Though clumsy and unlikely to become Santa, he remains extremely passionate for the holiday. The Claus family also consists of the current “Santa Claus XX,” personally known as Malcolm (Jim Broadbent), having become ineffective with all the new means of delivery; Steve (Hugh Laurie), the heir to the title and manager of most operations, being far more familiar with the technology; and Arthur’s 136-year-old “Grandsanta” (Bill Nighy), the previous “Santa Claus XIX” who laments the newfangled ways of delivering.

One Christmas, Arthur and the other Clauses discover that one child in Trelew in the U.K. didn’t receive her gift due to an accident. Malcolm and Steve wave it off, saying it would be impossible to deliver now and that they can bring it to her later. Yet Arthur feels that would ruin the magic of the holiday once she wakes up. Thus, with the help of Grandsanta and the eager packaging elf Bryony Shelfley (Ashley Jensen), he defies the other Clauses and sets out to deliver the package before the child wakes up on Christmas morning.

The film was produced by Aardman Animations, a British studio famed for their claymation shorts series and films like “Wallace & Gromit,” “Chicken Run” and “Shaun the Sheep.” It was a CG co-production with Sony Pictures Animation, which also produced the “Hotel Transylvania” films and later “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The former’s influence is heavily present in the film—partly in its distinct Britishness in the cast and culture, but also in its distinct and ever hilarious humor with its characters.

But more importantly, it’s just a plain brilliant film. The movie shines in its portrayal of the generational conflict within the Claus family, and in Arthur’s pure-hearted love for what Santa means to people. All of the Clauses are given great character traits and moments, from Malcolm’s insecurity over retiring from his role as Santa, to Grandsanta’s stubborness with the modern world he encounters on the journey to deliver the gift. Though the animation and designs can appear somewhat off at points, it’s more so a nitpick than anything, and more than made up for with its humor, characters and heart.

As of writing, “Arthur Christmas” is available to stream on both HBO Max and Hulu. Physical copies are also widely available to buy or more than likely simply check out from your local library.

“A Muppet Family Christmas”

The late great muppeteer Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, among other works, also oversaw many holiday specials and media for his creations—from various original specials made in the ’70s and ’80s up to most famously an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” which was released after his tragically sudden death in 1990. Yet among these, one stands out as not only a holiday special, but a crossover between all of them—except “The Dark Crystal.”

Aired in 1987, “A Muppet Family Christmas” features the Muppets all going to visit Fozzie Bear’s mother at her home—much to her chagrin, as she was intending to spend her Christmas on a tropical beach. Yet she—along with Doc (Gerry Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Both from Fraggle Rock), who rented the house in hopes of a peaceful Christmas in the country—ends up spending it with a whole gaggle of Muppets, with all the zaniness that entails. As the special goes along, they are also joined by the Sesame Street gang, coming as carolers only to crowd in too as a blizzard begins to brew. The Fraggles make an appearance through a convenient Fraggle Hole at the mother’s home, and even the Muppet Babies technically make a cameo, although only as an old family film the adult Muppets watch.

It’s a rather old-style holiday special. Rather than a genuine story that the characters go through, the plot acts as more framing for a revue with all of Jim Henson’s felt-skinned stars, as they entertain with gags, interactions between each other and plenty of musical numbers. Those expecting more of a grand “Avengers”-style crossover, perhaps with all of the characters uniting to save Christmas, may be rather disappointed, even if it’s still amazing to see all these characters in one place.

That’s also assuming you were even excited for such a crossover, which may be rather unlikely nowadays. Though there have been a few revivals and reruns, shows like the Muppets and Fraggle Rock haven’t been as relevant since this special first aired. So, while seeing Big Bird talk with the Swedish Chef was a stunning sight in 1987, in 2022, I wouldn’t imagine too many are likely to care, save a few Henson nerds like me.

With all that said though, I still think there are a lot of laughs to get out of it. The special is laden with jokes and puns and humor all distinctive of Henson’s goofy yet upbeat humor. There’s also a wonderful coziness that permeates it. It’s such a comfy watch, with its lighthearted plot and goofy yet friendly cast all hanging out in one place. One of my favorite moments is seeing them throw together a performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with Bert and Ernie being heckled by Waldorf and Statler. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching “A Muppet Family Christmas,” and while I would definitely not call it the greatest piece of Christmas media, even from Henson or the Muppets, the crossover appeal of all these characters and the Yule log-like coziness it emanates makes it an easy pick for this time of year.

Unfortunately, due to how Henson’s work has been divvied up over the years under different copyright owners, watching “A Muppet Family Christmas” can be difficult. The special is unavailable to stream anywhere and has rarely been re-aired or released on home video. Worse, what few times it has, certain scenes have been omitted due to music licensing. Still, there are DVDs available to watch, even if edited, and presumably those dedicated enough may be able to scrounge up tapes from the time to watch it themselves.

“A Christmas Carol” (aka “Scrooge”) (1951)

This last pick is admittedly a very sentimental one for me. Every Christmas Eve, when I go up to my grandma’s, I watch it with her as she did with my dad, so it’s a rather personal film to me. Yet I feel that even as a 71-year-old film, there’s something to it that shines during the season.

If you have ever seen or read any of the over 130 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol”, then you will know the plot of this film. If you somehow don’t, though, the film is set in the early 1800s and follows the wealthy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim). Rich in money but poor in good will, he is stingy and cruel, and on Christmas Eve, only begrudgingly allows his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Jones) a paid day off for Christmas, expecting him to return to work early the next day. That night, he is visited by the shackled ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), who tells him how his own greedy ways in life has left him suffering. He warns that Scrooge will experience much worse if he does not change his ways now. He then says that three more ghosts of past, present and future will visit the man, before vanishing. The story follows each visit as we learn more about Scrooge, and Scrooge himself begins to see the error of his ways.

This 1951 adaptation is as faithful to the original tale as one could be. No cartoon characters taking their roles, nor any modern setting or character tweaks, and no grandiose effects or dramatic retouches to the retelling. It takes almost all of the original dialogue, characters and plot points, and enacts them as they were with no frills or significant changes. When put in that way, it may sound rather dull or unremarkable. After all, there’s practically a version for every kind of person. So among all of them, what makes this stand out?

Quite simply, the film is a nigh perfect execution of its source material. It’s the original, classic story of a man being redeemed, made with heaps of charm and brilliantly performed by its cast. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge is especially fantastic and one of the best incarnations and performances of the character. Whether grumpily sending off the waitress serving him upon learning that he’d need to pay a few pence more for it, or having his eyes nearly pop out of his skull upon encountering Jacob Marley’s Ghost for the first time, or just breaking down as he begins to realize all the mistakes he has made, there is so much to delight in his performance here. It’s a wonderful testament to its original novella, and why, even almost 180 years after Charles Dickens first put it down to paper, we can’t help but love to revisit it, in one form or another.

“A Christmas Carol” (1951) is free to stream on Amazon Prime video at the moment. As it is in the public domain though, it can also be easily found elsewhere, whether on DVD, to rent/buy on streaming services, somewhere on television or even on the Internet.

Of course, these are all my own picks. Everyone who celebrates this season has their own traditions and meaning for the holidays. Whether that’s in binging these films, indulging in the holiday feast, hanging with family, giving gifts, helping those in need or whatever else you do, hopefully you’re enjoying yourself. Enjoy the upcoming winter break, and, regardless of your faith, have a wonderful holiday season. See you next year, when The HCC Times returns from its winter slumber.

James Daly