There are so many Christmas classics we grew up with. Rudolph, Frosty, Home Alone, White Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas are just a few that instantly come to mind. But these are all from different decades that got adopted by kids of the 80s. But what about the best 80s Christmas specials you may have forgotten about?
The classics rightly deserve their place as holiday staples, but this will be a look back on a few that you may or may not know of, and that comes from the 1980s.
It’s tough to stand out as a Christmas special. With all the competition out there, how do you make a dent? And how do you go up against the juggernauts that already exist? This will be in no particular order, but hopefully, give you some new offerings to include each Christmas.
A Garfield Christmas
I don’t know about you, but this was an absolute go-to 80s Christmas special in my house. I don’t think it had the impact of Frosty or a Charlie Brown Christmas, but I think it should be in the mix.
The year was 1987, and Garfield was in his prime. As a young kid, I was obsessed with all things Garfield. I would even spend time in class trying to draw him. Spoiler alert: they—like my grades—were not good.
This special takes all the things we loved about the comic strip but also gives it some heart. Here’s the quick synopsis: Jon, Garfield, and Odie are going to head out to his family’s farm to celebrate Christmas. We meet Jon’s cynical Grandma, and she and Garfield strike up a quick bond.
Fun fact: Pat Carroll performed The voice of Grandma, and you may know her better as the voice of Ursula in The Little Mermaid.
We hear stories about Jon’s grandpa, who is no longer with us. One night, Garfield makes a discovery of old letters from Jon’s grandpa. They were love letters written to Jon’s grandma and Garfield gives them to her as a gift on Christmas morning. Garfield also gets a thoughtful gift from Odie: a backscratcher he made himself.
As mentioned, this special has some heart to it, and Garfield steps outside his usual cynical comfort zone to talk about the importance of loving each other.
This special is interesting because it’s semi-autobiographical and based on Jim Davis’ own childhood memories. He even had a brother they called Doc-Boy.
The special came out on December 21st, 1987. They often played it alongside the Charlie Brown Special and would be in rotation for 13 straight years. And it was a big hit. The special was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program and showed up in TV Guide’s list of the 10 best holiday specials for families.
A Muppets Family Christmas
I’m trying to go in no particular order, but this is number one on my list. The Muppets Family Christmas was also required holiday viewing in my house. As adults, we still watch it to this day and have introduced it to a new generation of my nieces and nephews.
This was the Muppets firing on all cylinders and was one of the last things Jim Henson was involved with. I sincerely hope you have seen this thing as it takes all the great things about the Muppets; family, singing, comedy, warmth, and love, and puts it into a Christmas special.
It starts with a bunch of the Muppets going to surprise Fozzie’s mother. It turns out she was planning a trip to go surfing in California and now has to cancel. She was renting her house out to Doc and Sprocket from Fraggle Rock.
This causes chaos, especially when a lot of the members of Sesame Street show up. We get a running bit about Piggy trying to get out to the farmhouse, and there’s even a voyage underground where we see the Fraggles.
Fun Fact: this is the first, and only time, we see the entire Muppet Universe—The Muppets, Sesame Street, The Muppet Babies, and Fraggle Rock—all together in one show.
A snowstorm traps everyone in the farmhouse. Piggy finally makes it, and we get the perfect Muppet family Christmas celebration.
This special also came out in 1987. I remember first watching it on TV, then on the VHS tape, we recorded it on. There was also a VHS release we got that, oddly, had several parts cut from it. Luckily, we always had that original broadcast on VHS to re-watch.
The show first aired on December 16th, 1987, and was then rebroadcast in 1988 on December 2nd. That’s when it got re-edited in 1989 to air on the Disney Channel and the home video release, so if you didn’t see those first two airings: you never got to see the full original special. There are some great versions up on YouTube.
If you can’t tell—I love this thing. I also have a full blog that goes way more in-depth about this perfect Holiday special here.6 Reasons Why A Muppet Family Christmas is the Best Christmas Special Ever
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special
Every TV series has a Christmas Special. And they’re often quite good. But they seem like a dime-a-dozen and don’t stray too much from their regular premise. The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is one that stands out.
As a kid, I loved everything to do with Pee-Wee Herman. And my mom HATED him. This led to the banning of his show in my house. And you can imagine how much more that made me want to watch.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was so wonderfully bizarre. It was somehow ahead of its time, and also a throwback. This special came out in 1988 and is as over the top as the regular show was. Here’s a rundown of some of the guest appearances:
- Grace Jones
- Little Richard
- Charo (the 80s was the age of the single-named performer…)
- KD Lang
- Annette Funicello
- Frankie Avalon
- Dinah Shore
How’s that for the most random bunch of celebrities stuffed into a Christmas Special? It gives the Paul Lynde Halloween Special a run for its money. The Beautiful Absurdity of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special
The premise of the show is simple, but still kind of sweet. Pee-Wee has a Christmas wish list that is so long that there won’t be enough presents left for all the other kids on Earth. Santa comes to him and tries to point this out, and ultimately, Pee-Wee learns the true meaning of Christmas.
You may vaguely remember this thing, but people LOVE it. Many cite it as one of their top favorite Christmas specials and they watch it every year.
This special has been pretty available and has aired on Netflix, but may not still be up. I searched for it on Prime Video—and Mad Men came up, so make of that what you will. In the meantime, here’s a clip from YouTube to hold you over. Oh yeah; Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are also in this.
The Christmas Tree Train
This animated 80s Christmas special from 1983 is a bit of a deep cut, but worth checking out in this list of the best 80s Christmas specials you may have forgotten.
I vaguely remember this, but you can relive it here on YouTube. It has a bit of a Frosty feel to it. The story is about a bear cub named Buttons and his friend Rusty, who is a fox. They hop aboard a freight train to head to the big city but end up getting lost. Now, they have to get home in time for Christmas and avoid all the obstacles preventing them.
There’s not a ton of info out there as it is a pretty obscure special. It would only live on through kids who taped it off the TV when it aired on December 2nd, 1983.
It will definitely still work for younger kids today as it is pretty timeless. Or, if it’s one of those things that slipped your mind, you may love a revisit.
The Night They Saved Christmas
This live-action, made-for-TV movie came out on ABC on December 13th, 1984. This is another one I vaguely remember, mainly because it had Art Carney as Santa Claus in it and I was a Honeymooners fan.
The Night They Saved Christmas is about an oil company exploring the North Pole. The guy running this project is named Michael Baldwin and all their blasting through the ice isn’t producing any results.
In the meantime, he’s having issues with his family and his kids are debating about the existence of Santa Claus. Micheal is threatened to be fired, and he ends up meeting Ed—Santa’s head elf. Ed tells him that all his work in the North Pole could destroy North Pole City.
Micheal now knows Santa is real and takes his family to the North Pole to meet him. Michael tries to protect North Pole City from an evil business owner, as one more blast for oil could ruin Christmas as we know it.
Michael fails, and Santa and North Pole City are destroyed. OK, they obviously aren’t, but Michael is able to prevent the damage and the evil business owner sees Santa and his reindeer and becomes a believer.
Since this is a TV movie, and from 1984, it looks kind of cheap but is still filled with a ton of 80s Christmas charm. Luckily, the gods of YouTube have it up and you can watch the entire thing here.
This special was a big hit at the time and was actually nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Programming. And check out the other nominees from that year: Punky Brewster, Reading Rainbow, and an Ewok Adventure.
If you’re looking for a new Christmas special to embrace—with a real 80s connection—you’ll want to give The Night They Saved Christmas a shot.
Also, a young Scott Grimes is in this. You may know him from ER, Band of Brothers, and the voice of Steve Smith on American Dad. Oh, and there’s an appearance by a Tomy Omnibot at the end.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
Do we have time for one more on this list of the best 80s Christmas specials you may have forgotten?
I think this is worth looking at, as most people don’t know it, but it’s quite significant. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a stop motion special by Rankin/Bass, and it was the last Christmas production they would ever do.
Rankin/Bass and Christmas go hand-in-hand. This production company shaped the childhoods of millions of kids at Christmas and it wouldn’t be the holidays without their specials.
But there’s so much other work they did. There are entire blogs devoted just to Rankin/Bass and all the other incredible specials they created, including a pretty unknown Halloween special.
As I mentioned, this was the last Christmas special they would produce before the company shut down in 1987. I’ll admit, this one gets a bit bizarre. It’s like a Lord of the Rings Christmas special. Here’s the rundown of the plot:
The Council of the Immortals is where the story of Santa Claus is told. Ak, one of the council, shares how he found Santa abandoned in a snowy woods. (This would conflict with their origin story of Santa told in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I guess there isn’t any continuity in the RBU: Rankin/Bass Universe.)
Ak, and a lioness named Shiegra, both raise the baby. Baby Santa is then stolen by Necile, a fairy, but she ends up getting to raise him. When Claus grows up, he has to live with the mortals. So, to fit in, he sets up a workshop with an elf named Tingler. Claus ends up making toys because all the kids love them. He then delivers the toys in a sack until a bunch of thugs jumps him. Ak sees how important Claus is and gives him immortality to keep delivering his presents every year.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is based on a book of the same name from 1902 and was written by Wizard of Oz creator, L. Frank Baum. This may explain the fantastical elements of it.
Fun fact: the story is pretty dark, so Rankin/Bass created the character of Tingler—who was not in the book—to bring a bit of comic relief to the show.
You may or may not remember this special when it came out, but there was a lot of hype to it—it was a Rankin/Bass Christmas special, after all.
The show first aired on December 17th, 1985 on CBS, and had a pretty huge 12.5 rating and 19% audience share. That means that 1 in 5 TVs turned on that night were watching it. The best fact of this whole thing is that a young J.D. Roth did the voice of young Claus. Yes, the same J.D. Roth from Fun House.
So, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus didn’t end up being a Christmas classic but is still a significant special from the 80s.
Wrapping it Up
There are just so many Christmas classics. And there are so many great ones from the 80s. But, today, I just wanted to look at some of the best 80s Christmas specials you may have forgotten about.
The thing I love about the holidays is our own little traditions. There are some movies and specials you may think are ridiculous, but they are a cherished part of another’s holiday viewing. I also have a few ones people may think are ridiculous—like the Muppets Family Christmas, or the Star Wars Holiday Special—but it wouldn’t be Christmas without them.