1. A Merry, Merry Micklemas
Mickey Rooney comes from the vaudeville school of total entertainment. He can dance. He can sing. He can act. The man probably still knows how to do somersaults. In 1979, he decided that Christmas needed a little more Mickey Rooney in it and essentially self-released A Merry, Merry Micklemas, a holiday collection with standards and Rooney originals performed by Rooney himself. Not enough for you? He even posed on the cover in his underwear to amuse you. Like we said, total entertainment. But the old Mickster isn't perfect. On "Mickey's New Year," he pledges to be a better Mickey Rooney in 1980.
(This and countless other Christmas-music obscurities can be found online at the invaluable A Christmas Yuleblog.)
2. Christmas Comes To Pac-Land (1982)
In 1982, Pac-Mania had the world clasped between its toothless, yellow gums. The runaway success of the arcade game Pac-Man led to a merchandising bonanza, and the animation powers-that-be at Hanna-Barbera weren't shy about trying to cash in. Ignoring the fact that Pac-Man's mindless pellet-munching didn't make much sense as a narrative, the cartoon Pac-Man had Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (here called "Pepper"), their infant, and even their Pac-Dog regularly terrorized by bumbling ghosts, only to turn the table on their tormentors, thanks to the ever-present power-pellets. It was the thinnest excuse for a cartoon already, so why not bring Santa into the equation? Christmas Comes To Pac-Land found Santa stranded in Pac-Land. Yet, somehow, Christmas is saved in the end. Call it a Pac-Miracle.
(Saved, that is, except in this alternate, fan-made version of the special.)
3. Christmas With Shirley And Squirrely (And Melvin Too!) (1976)
This one requires some history: The success of Alvin And The Chipmunks "inspired" a group called The Nutty Squirrels, who in 1959 debuted a scat-singing, jazz-loving variation on the Chipmunks' signature speeded-up vocals. Created by Don Elliott and Alexander "Sascha" Burland (aided on the music end by no less than Cannonball Adderly), the Squirrels beat the 'Munks to television, but faded from popularity. But they enjoyed a brief renaissance in 1976 under the name Shirley And Squirrely, with the CB-themed "Hey Shirley (This Is Squirrely)." Christmas was made for novelty records, and the Christmas album Christmas With Shirley And Squirrely (And Melvin Too!) followed that same year.
4. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
The aired-once-and-never-again Star Wars Holiday Special has enjoyed such a healthy underground revival that it almost doesn't seem right to mention it in this context, but, well, we don't need much of an excuse to kick it around. An unsuccessful hybrid of Star Wars and a '70s variety show, its two punishing hours feature Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman in drag, a long sequence in the Wookie language, and Diahann Carroll as a sexy hologram who gets an old Wookie's blood pumping. The whole thing centers on Chewbacca's attempts to get home to his family in time for "Life Day," and it's punishing to watch all at once. But it's always fun to revisit the highlights, as in this scene, in which Carrie Fisher appears to be on wonderful, wonderful drugs that have taken her mind to a galaxy far, far away.
5. Christmas With Susie And Allie (1984)
The multi-talented Tammy Faye Messner (née Bakker) had gifts beyond crying on cue, bilking the elderly, and inspiring drag queens—she also created the characters of Susie and Allie, a pious little girl and her talking alligator friend, respectively. On the 1984 Christmas album Christmas With Susie And Allie (still available in the ever-desirable cassette format on the late Tammy Faye's online store), the multi-talented celebvangelist voices both parts.
6. The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)
One special December night in 1977, fans of Saturday-morning TV favorite Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids gathered around the set to watch their cartoon pals enact a weird combination of A Christmas Carol and the nativity story, in which a pregnant teen gives birth in a junkyard clubhouse, melting the heart of the local Scrooge. The show won an Emmy and is available on DVD, but it rarely makes it into the major cable networks' retro-Christmas rotation, presumably because the programmers there aren't sure how the America of 2007 would react to Mushmouth and Dumb Donald witnessing the virgin birth of Ghetto Jesus.
7. The Hanson Christmas Special
The Oklahoma teen brother act Hanson had the makings of a one-hit wonder when they debuted with the out-of-left-field hit "MMMBop." They've since enjoyed a second life as a hardworking, oft-touring independent act, but in their escape from the spotlight, they left some tacky artifacts behind, like an ABC special tied to the 1997 album Snowed In. In the opening segment, the boys riff on old, lame specials—the ones filmed on glittery sets with Bing Crosby—before offering a cutting-edge alternative. Filmed on a glittery set featuring Hanson.
8. Miracle On 34th Street (1973)
In the years before colorization returned the classic 1947 version of Miracle On 34th Street to television—in hues resembling a crumbling picture postcard—UHF channels across the country programmed the more modern-seeming 1973 made-for-TV version, starring a host of '70s C-listers. Sebastian Cabot as Kris Kringle! Roddy McDowall as the prissy lawyer who has him committed! Future Good Morning America host David Hartman as the lawyer who fights for Santa! Tom Bosley as the sitting judge at the trial! David Doyle as the owner of Macy's! (Wait a minute…is it prudent to have Tom Bosley and the guy who played Charlie's Angels' "Bosley" in the same movie?) Ever since the terrible 1994 Miracle On 34th Street entered the picture, TV stations have shown either that or the original, and the '73 take has fallen off the map. But a generation of '70s kids remembers "their" version just as fondly as the one that started it all. In which case, maybe it's best that no one shows it anymore. It'd be terrible to spoil a good holiday memory.
9. It Happened One Christmas (1977)
Miracle On 34th Street wasn't the only Christmas classic to get the TV-movie treatment in the '70s. Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life got a gender-reversed remake in the form of It Happened One Christmas, starring Marlo Thomas as Mary Bailey Hatch, a suicidal woman whose guardian angel Clara (Cloris Leachman) shows what her small town would be like without her. For one, the risible Mr. Potter (Orson Welles) would exert a lot more power. Wayne Rogers, Christopher Guest, Doris Roberts, and a young C. Thomas Howell round out a weirdly all-star cast.
10. A Christmas Without Snow (1980)
Another now-obscure TV movie that used to get a yearly airing, A Christmas Without Snow stars John Houseman as a San Francisco choir director trying to whip his hapless crew into shape for a performance of Handel's Messiah. Though it first aired in 1980, the film is one long wallow in '70s malaise, from the after-effects of divorce to the era's ambivalence toward religion. There is a happy ending of sorts, but only after an hour-plus of one calamity after another. Nowadays, schmaltz like this comes with a "Hallmark Hall Of Fame" logo on the front, but A Christmas Without Snow lacked the prestige label, and so has been consigned to the public-domain DVD bins of drugstores everywhere.
11. Jim Reeves, "An Old Christmas Card" (1963)
Nearly every aspect of the yuletide has been celebrated in song, but it took country singer Jim Reeves (and songwriter Vaughn Horton) to give old Christmas cards their due. And not just any cards. This is the card the singer's wife gave him on the first Christmas they spent together. "I thrill with every word, every line," Reeves sings, before adding, "Pardon me if a tear falls among my Christmas cheer." The song breaks in the middle for a spoken-word section in which Reeves supposes that his young bride "must have looked through thousands of cards, to find that wonderful poem that still brings a tear to my eye." Just imagine if she'd given him a fruitcake!
12. Santa Vs. The Snowman/The Online Adventures of Ozzie The Elf (1997)
Remember 1997? That blissful period of infinite possibilities but limited expertise between Toy Story and Toy Story 2? When all you had to do to draw millions of slack-jawed consumers was put "online" or "internet" or "web" in the name of your product? That's when ABC proudly rolled out two new animated holiday specials in an hourlong combo package. The Steve Oedekirk-produced, computer-animated Santa Vs. The Snowman had wit (a climatic battle in which hot gingerbread men defeated their snowy foes by hugging them) and staying power (a 3D version played in IMAX theaters in 2005). Not so for Ozzie, the unattractive protagonist of the bottom half of the double bill. Since nothing says "information age" like Will Vinton claymation, the show involved a proactive plasticine elf with a totally outrageous paradigm failing to improve Christmas by adding a bunch of computers to Santa's toyshop. Ozzie, who came into being as the mascot for Santa's homepage, hasn't been seen since the Clinton years—he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry, which just seems cruel—but maybe some dot.com whiz kid without a paradox detector could make him the spokes-elf for Cyber Monday.
13. Raggedy Ann And Andy In The Great Santa Claus Caper (1978)
And speaking of modernizations that don't improve Christmas, this chipper little half-hour TV special pitted classic dolls Raggedy Ann and Andy (and their little dog Raggedy Arthur, too) against a big bad wolf with a plot to encase all Santa's toys in an invulnerable transparent substance called "Gloopstick," to ensure they could never fade or be damaged. (Somehow this was also a scheme to turn Santa's workshop into a profitable business.) With cartoon stalwarts June Foray and Daws Butler voicing Raggedy Ann and Andy, and cartoon great Chuck Jones designing and directing, "Great Santa Claus Caper" had the talent base to become an animated-special perennial, like Jones' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, but somehow its anti-commercial message and unusually schmaltzy message didn't catch on. (Know what melts invulnerable plasticine? That's right. Love.)
14. The Gift Of Winter (1974)
One of the weirder holiday specials that reran throughout the '80s was Witch's Night Out, a 1978 John Leach oddity about blobby monochromatic people with names like Small, Tender, Malicious, and Rotten all discovering the true meaning of Halloween—basically, that it's a time for living out secret fantasies. A similar '70s self-awareness-and-empowerment message reigned in Leach's previous, much more ramshackle TV special featuring the same characters: 1974's The Gift Of Winter. Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner handled most of the character voices and sound effects in this barely animated cartoon—wind noises are clearly them going "Whoooshhhh," while the sound of a mob storming off for a confrontation sounds like several voices proclaiming "Tramp tramp tramp tramp!" (Until the crowd gets tired, whereupon it becomes a whiny "Trudge trudge trudge trudge.") The plot is an odd thing about how boring and dreary winter was before snow was invented, which leads the blobby monochromatic people to break off their Christmas preparations and travel to confront the embodiment of Winter. The whole thing looks so ragged and homemade that it's no wonder it didn't become an enduring hit, but it's fun to imagine Aykroyd, Radner, and Leach cobbling it together in a basement somewhere, like 14-year-old friends getting ready for their big YouTube debut.
15. Nautical-Themed Long John Silver's Mugs (1984)
Collectible drinkware used to be a fast-food staple, as anyone who grew up drinking soda out of R2D2's image can attest. But not even the Norman Rockwell images, the homey tones of the commercial's narrator, or the genial presence of an olde storytelling sailor can make this promotion seem like a good idea. What says Christmas like a tribute to our nautical past?