A New Tradition: The Best Christmas Specials From Past & Present

It’s the holiday season, and that means TV specials! The celebrity led Christmas special has become something of a tradition of the last several decades, and like any good tradition, it has gone through a lot of changes.

What’s your fancy? A big production song and dance spectacular? Maybe you’d prefer a heartwarming fable? Maybe you yearn for a yearly retelling of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Or perhaps your idea of a great holiday special features Wookies and Bea Arthur. No matter what your taste, the holiday season has a special for you!

And even though this is a relatively new holiday tradition, it’s one that has taken a special place in pop culture, and in our hearts. The very best specials need to be re-watched on a yearly basis, and even the newer specials tend to throw back to a simpler time.

As our time feel like it gets shorter, and our television schedules fill up faster and faster, the holiday season and the specials it brings can be a welcome respite, giving us all a chance to slow down and enjoy the season.

To prepare for another holly, jolly holiday season, let’s look back at some of the best celebrity led Christmas specials, past and present!

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

What Christmas season is complete without that sad little Christmas tree?! Okay, so we’re starting off with one that only barely fits the definition; Charlie Brown is a celebrity, right? In any case, A Charlie Brown Christmas simply can’t be left off this list, thanks in no small part to its wonderful jazz score, by Vince Guarldi.

Lovable loser Charlie Brown is down due to the over commercialization of the Christmas season (pretty timeless, huh?), and spends the entire show trying to connect with someone, anyone, who shares his understanding of the season. He scolds his friends for making fun of his sad little tree and for prizing their presents over people. Like a little reverse-Scrooge, Charlie Brown is the perfect character for this apologetically traditional holiday special.

The Bob Hope Christmas Special (1962-94)

Legendary entertainer Bob Hope hosted his Christmas special dozens of times over his long and storied career. It all began in 1962 with The Bob Hope Christmas Show, and every year until 1994 Bob starred in a holiday themed song-and-dance show.

Bob was also amazingly committed to the soldiers, and never forgot that for the troops, and their families back home, Christmas and the holiday season could be especially difficult. So, he even brought his show to American soldiers around the world, including in Vietnam, Beirut, the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia.

If there is a single, definitive American Christmas Special, Bob Hope had his hand in it.

Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

In his last Christmas special, legendary crooner Bing Crosby decided to travled to England with his wife and three kids, working it into the storyline of the special. According to the story, they were vising a long-lost English relative, which gave them the perfect setup for a revolving door of English entertainers. The special featured appearances from wisecracking actor Ron Moody (who played the ghost of Charles Dickens), model-actress Twiggy, and one of televisions oddest, but most incredible and enduring pairings: a medley of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth” with UK rock icon David Bowie.

Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Although not even remotely the same as most of the celebrity led specials on this list, the Star Wars Holiday Special was led by Star Wars actors Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, along with everyone’s favourite droids, and a few stormtroopers to add suspense. While this special is well known for its terrible writing and worse acting, it also had some interesting celebrity guests: they comedy stylings of Art Carney, vocal performances by Diahann Carroll and actress Bea Arthur, and a somewhat fitting musical performance by Jefferson Starship.

The Star Wars Holiday Special tried to please everyone, and ended up something of a trainwreck. That being said, it’s become a cult classic. So even though it’s never been released for purchase, try finding some clips on YouTube for an unintentionally hilarious holiday season!

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008)

Skipping ahead a few years, funny man Stephen Colbert had his chance at a Christmas special in 2008. The plot thickens as Colbert gets trapped in a cabin in “bear country” with Elvis Costello. A number of his friends stop by the cabin to sing Christmas songs with him as he tries to find a way to escape to make his special. His guests include Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, John Legend, Feist, and George Wendt.

The cast take their turn singing original songs written for the special with Colbert. In the end, the “greatest gift of all” turns out to be the release of the special on DVD. The special’s album actually went on to win the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.

A Very Pentatonix Christmas (2016-2017)

And now for something a little more modern and contemporary. The Grammy Award-winning a capella group Pentatonix has started a new holiday tradition with their second hour-long holiday special airing just last week. This year’s show featured The Voice couch and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson, former Tonight Show host and comedian, Jay Jeno, and 13-year-old America’s Got Talent winner, ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer. If you missed it, you can still catch it on Hulu.

Still To Come

If you’re the kind of person who looks forward to the new Christmas specials every year, you’re in luck! There are still a lot of fun specials coming up this month!

Gwen Stefani’s You Make it Feel Like Christmas airs Tuesday, December 12th, and promises a veritable potpourri of guests, including Stefani’s husband Blake Shelton, Chelsea Handler, Ken Jeong, Seth McFarlane, and Ne-yo.

Taraji’s White Hot Holidays is perfect for those looking for an R&B infused Christmas. Returning for its third year on FOX, this special promises a lot of rap and R&B performances, with Taraji P. Henson MCing the whole affair. The list of musical guests is impressive, including Ciara, Chaka Khan, Faith Evans, Fergie, Leslie Odom Jr., Salt-N-Pepa, Jussie Smollett, and so much more! It airs December 14th, so don’t miss it!

Jingle Ball 2017 will be hosted by Taylor Swift, who will bring her new Reputation songs to L.A. for iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball Tour. This show features a lineup of 2017’s most explosive pop stars, including Ed Sheeran, Kesha, Sam Smith, Charlie Puth, Halsey, The Chainsmokers, Logic, and Niall Horan and Liam Payne, formerly of One Direction. Jingle Ball 2017 also airs December 14th on The CW.