Ranking All the Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment

It honestly wouldn’t be the holidays without Rankin/Bass. They have become synonymous with this time of year and have provided many of us with countless memories. When it comes to ranking all the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, there are technically eighteen main ones to consider. Some I’ve included in the same slot as they are sequels to the original.

Some of these are a critical part of the holidays, and some you might not want to ever watch again. This list is obviously from my perspective, but hopefully, I’ve done a good job of ordering them. 

Here we go…

17. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year

This might be a Rankin/Bass special you’re unaware of. It’s stop-motion, came out in 1976, and is considered a sequel to the 1964 classic–but it gets a little weird…

It takes place after the original, where Santa gets a letter from Father Time. They need to find the Baby New Year before midnight. If they don’t, it will be December 31st, forever!

There is a vulture that tries to kidnap the baby because it will keep him alive forever. This involves Rudolph traveling to the Archipelagos, meeting a caveman, dinosaurs, and visiting the island during different periods in history.

One island takes place in the year 1776, and there’s a Benjamin Franklin replica. Rudolph finds the baby New Year and shares his own tale of challenges he faced in his life. Santa shows up, and they get the baby back to Father Time.

I don’t want to make too much of a bold presumption, but you may prefer the original over this…

16. The Cricket on the Hearth

This story is based on a Charles Dickens novel of the same name. It was also made into an early silent film back in 1909. The Cricket on the Hearth is the companies oldest animated Christmas special and came out in 1967.

This special is narrated by a cricket, features a lot of music that may not stick with you, and has a bunch of weird content that is as much related to Dickens’ original content as it does with Rankin/Bass.

Like most Rankin/Bass productions, this was written by Romeo Muller and was during the time when the company was finding its footing.

15. Pinocchio’s Christmas

This is one of the later Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. It’s also a bit of an odd one as they are taking a character we already know, then just plugging him into a Christmas story.

They had already told multiple stories involving Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty, and I guess they wanted to give Pinocchio a shot. This special came out in 1980 and is stop-motion. We get some more on Pinocchio’s backstory including that he was born in an enchanted Forest.

Pinocchio’s Christmas feels like the smashing together of two entities that may not ideally fit. But, if you are a fan of Rankin/Bass, you may want to check this out as it’s one of the last Christmas specials they ever made.

14. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Speaking of last Christmas specials: this is the actual last one. This one is straight-up weird, so be warned. This is more like a Lord of the Rings Christmas. And it’s based on a book by Wizard of Oz creator, L. Frank Baum.

The one big problem is this special doesn’t connect with any of the other previous specials. There was a continuity between all the others and this one kind of ignores all that. You can call Rankin/Bass the first cinematic universe.

This is the story of Santa and how he was raised by creatures of the woods and how he was granted immortality. What’s significant about this special is that it was the last Christmas special Rankin/Bass would ever make.

It came out in 1985, and even though they had one other cartoon release, this really was the end of the line for the iconic production company. 

13. The Leprechauns Christmas Gold

This Rankin/Bass Christmas special came out in 1981 is about a young Irish sailor sailing on an Irish Ship. It’s Christmas Eve, and he’s instructed to sail to an island to dig up a pine tree. He accidentally releases Old Mag the Hag who seeks gold and wants to take it away from everyone. 

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of this special. It was animated and was first made available on VHS. It does feature the voice of the great Art Carney, so that’s something…

12. The Stingiest Man in Town

If you have heard of this one, you may not have known it was a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. Released in 1978, this animated special at least features some voices you may recognize from early Rankin/Bass creations.

This is obviously based on a Christmas Carol but is more of a musical version. It also follows the formulas of those old black and white editions you may have seen on TV.

As mentioned, the music is really good, and the animation is solid. A Christmas Carol has been re-done so many times, but you may enjoy Rankin/Bass’ spin on it.

11. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July

Do you remember that joke on the Simpsons about the movie “Christmas Ape,” and “Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp?” That joke was based on this special 

What better way to take two iconic Christmas characters but to smush them together in a special set in the summer! 

This one came out in 1979 and is stop-motion. This is still significant, as it’s the last time we would hear fellow Canadian Billie Mae Richards as the voice of Rudolph, and Jackie Vernon as the voice of Frosty.

This was also the last official Rankin/Bass special to feature both characters. The plot of this special is the pair having to deal with the wicked Winterbolt. It also features Lady Boreal: Queen of the Northern Lights, Ice Dragons, the Cave of Lost Rejections, and Big Ben the Clockwork whale.

I wouldn’t call this special a highlight in the Rankin/Bass Christmas collection–but you may love hearing the original characters again.

10. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow

Another one that you may have never heard of, this special came out in 1975 and stars Angela Lansbury. It’s a bit of a weird one but is a simple story, and still has some heart to it. It’s about a shepherd boy who goes blind after he is struck by lighting. I don’t think I remember that one in any Christmas carols…

The kid has never seen snow and gets chosen to play an angel in the annual Christmas pageant.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but this show features the song “White Christmas.” It’s a departure from the typical Christmas characters, but something that you may want to add into the mix if you’re looking for something new from the stop-motion world of Rankin/Bass.

9. Frosty’s Winter Wonderland

Did you know there was another animated Frosty special? Well, this is it, and it came out in 1976 on ABC.

It’s considered a sequel to the 1969 classic. The plot is about Frosty coming back to the kids he met right after the first snowfall. Everyone is glad to see him, but we get an appearance by Jack Frost (who we’ll see again soon). 

Jack Frost learns about Frosty’s magic hat and steals it. Basically, he ends up stealing the wrong hat. The kids build Frosty a snow wife, but Jack Frost blows the hat off Frosty, turning him back to a regular snowman. The rest of this is about the snow couple trying to get married, but Parson Brown will only marry real people. 

They end up creating a “Snow Parson,” they get married, and the new couple, plus Jack, move to the North Pole. You may want to stick to the original, but you might get a kick out of this. 

8. Nester, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

Many people love this one. It’s stop-motion and came out in 1977. It turns out Santa had a donkey, and it tells us the tale of Nester, who lived during the Roman Empire. Similar to Rudolph, they mock Nester for having long ears.

It gets pretty intense when Nestor is thrown out in the cold and his mother sacrifices herself to keep him warm. And this is where it gets biblical. Nester ends up meeting Mary and Joseph and guides them through a sandstorm by wrapping Mary in his ears, and gets to see the birth of Jesus.

Rankin/Bass only had a few religious-specific specials, and this is one of them. I have to be honest, but I did not know that Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, was an actual song from 1975 written by Gene Autry. 

This one is more of a simple heartfelt story and has been beloved for years. 

7. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

One of the few animated Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas came out in 1974. It’s based on the famous poem and is the story of a fictional New York town at the turn of the 1900s. Santa is upset because he finds out most people don’t believe in him via an anonymous letter in the newspaper.

It turns out it’s the son of Father Mouse who wrote it. They try to build a clock tower to make Santa happy, but it again gets screwed up by the kid. They are able to get it fixed just before midnight and it plays a song that encourages Santa not to bypass their town. 

This one is interesting because it gives us the viewpoint of the mouse from the poem (not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…). 

This special is simple and heartfelt, and that is usually what makes for a great Christmas story. 

6. The Year Without a Santa Claus

Some people aren’t crazy about this one, but I think it’s pretty good. It’s got some great music, and voice performances including Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus.

This special is about the time Santa took a year off. Mrs. Claus then considers taking over the role. Santa disguises himself and goes to the south of the US to a country called Southtown. He’s looking for two elves and Vixen, the reindeer.

We also meet the Miser Brothers: Snow Miser and Heat Miser. They control the weather and Mrs. Claus wants snow in Southtown. They won’t do it, and Mrs. Claus goes over to their head to their mother–who is actually Mother Nature…

All the kids of the world gather together to show Santa how much they love him, and he comes out of retirement. 

This Rankin/Bass Christmas special came out in 1974, features many great voice actors, and some memorable songs. It’s also based on a book of the same name. 

5. Jack Frost

Another underrated Rankin/Bass Christmas special, but one that’s worth checking out. We’ve seen Jack Frost in other specials and the look and continuity of the character have been pretty consistent.

This is the story of Jack Frost becoming human for a girl he loves–it’s kind of like when Superman gives up his powers for Lois Lane.

He becomes Jack Snip and lives a human existence. There is an evil ruler that tries to suppress the people and also has his eye on Jack’s girl, Elisa. Elisa also has a childhood sweetheart, and Jack has to decide to stay human or use his powers as a supernatural winter being.

This special came out in 1979, making it one of the later Rankin/Bass productions. It also features the voice of Buddy Hackett, and something I did not know: Robert Morse, aka Bert Cooper, from Mad Men, as the voice of Jack. Consider my mind blown…

4. The Little Drummer Boy

One of the most simple, pure, and heartfelt Christmas specials Rankin/Bass ever created. The Little Drummer Boy is also one of the oldest. It was first released in 1968 and actually came out four days earlier in Canada before it debuted on NBC.

This story has direct connections to the biblical tale and also the song. It introduces new characters such as Samson the Donkey Baba the Lamb, and Joshua the Camel–no relation to Joe…

This is one of the more “serious” Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, even though it has its share of comedic sidekicks. But it’s a rare departure from stories based on Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, and other holiday characters. 

There was a sequel to this called The Little Drummer Boy, Book II: Electric Boogaloo. OK, I may have added that last part in, but this was interesting because it was written by Jules Bass under an alias. I’m not sure if they didn’t want to be associated with it? But the original remains an all-time holiday classic. 

3. Santa Claus is Coming to Town

As the years go by, I love this special more and more. It often gets pushed to the side by the top two choices on this list, but it deserves to be right in the mix.

This Rankin/Bass Christmas special is all about the origin of Santa Claus. It has some great songs including “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.” It explains all the Christmas lore such as how Santa started delivering presents, why he’s called Claus, and why he wore his red and white suit.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town also features great voice work, including Mickey Rooney as Claus and the great Fred Astaire as the narrator.

This special came out in 1970 and is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials that continue to air every year. 

2. Frosty the Snowman

Frosty has cemented itself as required holiday viewing. The iconic cartoon special came out in 1969 and aired on CBS. I don’t need to cover the plot of this thing, as you’ve no doubt seen it countless times.

What’s interesting is that it’s a half-hour show compared to the usual hour-long specials they put out. It has also aired every year since it was first released.

Rankin/Bass animated this special as they wanted to give it a Christmas card look; specifically, the look created by Paul Coker Jr. This was something that wouldn’t be achievable with stop-motion. 

Similar to the number one choice on this list, writer Romeo Muller had to expand the simple song into a full plot. This is also the very last performance by the great Jimmy Durante. 

1. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

Could there be any other? This is possibly the definitive Christmas special and has become synonymous with the holiday itself. There’s not much more that can be said about this iconic classic.

It’s the movie that put them on the map and allowed them to create many more specials. This show is a testament to writer Romeo Muller who had to make an hour-long show out of just a few verses of a song. 

It features some truly iconic Christmas songs including “Silver and Gold,” “There’s Always Tomorrow,” and “Couple of Misfits.”

Simply put: it’s not the holidays without Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and is the deserving spot at number one on this list. I’ve got a full blog all about the making of this classic if you want to check it out here.

Wrapping it Up

As mentioned, it’s not the holidays without Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. It’s easy to just associate them with Frosty and Rudolph, but you can see how much Christmas content they created.

Many of these classics can still be found on YouTube, DVD/Blu-ray, and AMC often runs a bunch of them each year. Most of them are also available to rent/buy on YouTube.

Rankin/Bass have helped give us music and images that are ingrained into our holiday memories. Some of their specials may have missed the mark, but their creativity and storytelling make them as much a part of the holiday season as eggnog and candy canes.