8 Hidden Holiday Specials

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You better give!

The time of the obligatory holiday special is upon us once again. From the magical and classic to the depraved and unknown, we all have our favorite holiday TV treat. These performances keep us warm when the super shuts off the heat and comfort us when Aunt Sally drinks too much. Holiday-themed media abounds, and there is no shortage of new pieces being created, marketed and promptly forgotten by Valentine’s Day.

I went in search of holiday specials which due to their merit, or lack thereof, stand the test of time.

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May the farce be with you.
May the farce be with you.

The Star Wars Holiday Special
Disowned by George Lucas, lampooned by comics and fans alike, and still remembered today with agony, this special has no shortage of critics:

Carrie Fisher shows it at parties “mainly at the end of the night when I want people to leave.”
David Hofstede: “the worst two hours of television ever.”
George Lucas: “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
The always-delicate Shepard Smith: “a 70s train wreck, combining the worst of Star Wars with the utter worst of variety television.”
Ralph Garman of Family Guy: The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of the most infamous television programs in history. And it’s so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.”

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The first 15 minutes is just Chewbacca’s Wookie family engaged in domestic futzing-howling at each other while washing dishes. In all seriousness, it is a terrible program. I am surprised the celluloid it was shot on did not burst into flames.

However, I disagree with Garman-it is so horrendous that comes round to good, passes back to bad, and then comes around again to fantastic. Bea Arthur argues with aliens in an intergalactic pub! There’s an acrobatic floor show! Princess Leia sings the theme song! If you want an awesomely bad holiday special, this is the one. You can’t get any better or worse. Available to buy as a digital download or video on demand from RiffTrax. Also available free at Dailymotion.

Courtesy CBS/Desilu
Courtesy CBS/Desilu

The I Love Lucy Christmas Special
Newly colorized and set for broadcast on Dec. 20 on CBS, this I Love Lucy episode is a shining example of the classic holiday special. It features all the mainstays that make the holiday magical, in that reality-defying 1950s way. There is reminiscing over Lucy’s adventures and misadventures, a conflict about the thickness of the Christmas tree (which is unfortunately not an innuendo), and an appearance by not one, but five different Santa Clauses!

As a counterpoint to many horribly good holiday specials, The I Love Lucy Christmas Episode is simply “good.” Available from Target. Also available on Hulu (in black and white).

You better give!
You better give!

RuPaul’s Christmas Ball
Yes, Virginia, it’s real, it’s amazing and it happened in 1993 when it was shot by VH1 and aired in the UK! When the LGBTQ community was still struggling with simple accommodations, like not getting beaten, defamed, disowned or killed, a drag queen hosted, created and starred in a prime-time holiday special! Featuring Boy George and LaToya Jackson, not to mention a host of other ’90s superstars (Taylor Dayne! Fred Schneider! Belinda Carlisle!), this program is a shining example of that decade’s optimism in the face of adversity. As well as fashion choices in the face of better judgment.

What makes RuPaul’s Christmas Ball unique is not the drag queens, or the wonderful fake commercials, but its message. Which, unlike most holiday stories, is not hidden behind a plot or saved for the last five minutes to be wrapped up in an insincere monologue. RuPaul’s message of love and self acceptance is used as her opener: “Honey, if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?” Filled with celebrity musical appearances, including Nirvana and Elton John (who sings a duet with Ru!), for those feeling a tinge of nostalgia or seeking their queer roots, this special is sure to satisfy. Available free on YouTube.

There's no place like Christmas.
There’s no place like Christmas.

The Judy Garland Show Holiday Special
In stark contrast to our modern conception of Judy Garland, this episode shows her at the height of her glory. Unseen are her addictions, her sadness, or her downfalls yet to come. This is a classic holiday special with songs such as “Consider Yourself,” “Steam Heat,” “Little Drops of Rain,” “Where is Love?” and “Wouldn’t it be Lovely?” Featuring Judy’s children, including Liza, our favorite, this is the perfect program to watch with your relatives, family and friends. Immaculate, fun, entertaining and classic, watching this will satisfy your yearning for holiday glamour. Available on Amazon. Also free on Youtube.

 

Oh, Eleanor.
Oh, Eleanor.

The Lion in Winter
My personal favorite holiday movie, this 2003 made-for-TV remake of the 1968 film features Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close as feuding English monarchs. Presented as a romantic drama, I see it as a dark comedy. The royal family gathers for Christmas court, letting the treacherous Queen (Close) out of her tower cell for the occasion. The family members then plot to destroy each other and claim as much land, money and power as they can. It’s just like your family’s holiday gathering, right? A young Jonathan Rhys Meyers also makes an appearance as the King of France.

The Lion in Winter has wonderful reveals, hilarious interactions, and amazing lines such as…

Prince John: He has a knife, a knife!
Queen Eleanor: Of course he has a knife! I have a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re all barbarians!

and:

Prince Geoffrey: I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. (pause) We’re a knowledgeable family”

…it’s nearly impossible not to have a great time. This historical holiday romp is particularly suited to drinking games with your friends during a blizzard. Available on Amazon.

Strange Shorts
For those of us who simply don’t have time to snuggle in for a long haul holiday special, there are less lengthy options to enjoy:

  • On Saturday Night Live, Maya Rudolph has performed many sketches as Donatella Versace including, you guessed it, a Christmas special. It features Elijah Wood as Boy George and some gross stunts with eggnog. Hilarious, awful and mercifully brief, watch it if you want a terribly wonderful holiday moment but only have about 10 minutes to spare. Available on Hulu, Season 29, Episode 8, starts at ~21:10.
  • From the acclaimed cult classic Girls Will Be Girls comes Christmas Evie, the holiday special you won’t soon forget, even if you wish you could. Jack Plotnick returns as Evie Harris for seven wonderful minutes of holiday songs and inappropriate anecdotes. Perfect for a little drag queen pick-me-up between rounds of family meals. Available on YouTube.
Boo.
Boo.

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special
The full Halloween special is a gem on it’s own, but it actually opens with a short and accidental Christmas special. Featuring the hilarious Lynde himself as well as his housekeeper (played by Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz), this short will sate your thirst for a classic Christmas Hollywood moment. Intro available on YouTube.

Why do we cling to holiday specials, in particular those which clearly have no intrinsic merit? I believe we embrace them year after year because they never change. The Star Wars Holiday Special cannot possibly get any worse, so after watching it five Chanukahs in a row, it might actually get a little better. In the same way that we return to our families for our winter holiday traditions every year regardless of whether we actually enjoy them, we return to the same holiday specials. They are a tradition and as such represent a bit of stability. This time of year can make us doubt our ability to control anything in our lives, especially our gag reflex when Aunt Sally’s casserole comes around. (If Aunt Sally drank less, maybe the casserole would be better.) These programs are something that we can control, something that we can count on, something that can only get better as we delve deeper into them time and time again. They are an escape, they are a mirror and most of all they are magical. Depending on how much eggnog you imbibe, you might find a wonderful classic to add to your collection.