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The Most TRAUMATIZING Classic Christmas Specials, Ranked

CBR 1/22/2023 Rita Dorsch
© Provided by CBR

For many families, long, dark December nights are the perfect time to curl up on the couch and watch holiday television specials they've seen countless times before.

Christmas classics -- many of them animated and inspired by oft-sung carols -- are supposed to fill hearts with joy. Upon second thought, however, they might just fill the head with uncomfortable questions and nightmares. From the demeaning to the drugged-out to the demonic. Here is a look at some of the most traumatic Christmas specials to ever air.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas Reinforces Negative Behaviors

It may be on top of most annual holiday watch lists, but that doesn’t mean the Apple and PBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas is necessarily heartwarming so much as it is an object of nostalgia. Peanuts cartoons are rife with mean-spiritedness, and this one’s no different. The gang appoints Chuck as the director of the Christmas play, then ignores his direction, ridicules his efforts and berates him for selecting a subpar tree. Despite the fact that everything always works out, Charlie Brown specials never force the other kids to confront or change their behaviors. Thus, it’s never quite clear if they’re espousing or just criticizing their capitalist allusions.

Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration Is a Wild Journey

For a moment in time, the California Raisins were part of an advertising campaign for Sunkist. They're only guest stars in this animated variety show, and it's telling that a bunch of raisins who sing R&B are the least weird part. There are also doo-wop crooning camels and walruses performing an ice ballet. The special is hosted by two dinosaurs who spend most of their time arguing about the definition and pronunciation of "wassail", from "Here We Go A-Wassailing" fame. The skits -- in all their creative flourish -- are bizarre enough to make viewers question their sobriety, none so much as the one that takes place in Notre Dame Cathedral. The latter sees an ensemble of sentient church bells play "Carol of the Bells" by repeatedly striking themselves in the head.

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town Can Be Cruel and Uncomfortable

Obviously, there's nothing more Christmas-y than fighting fascism. That’s the moral of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, in which Chris Kringle assumes the identity of Santa Claus to avoid capture by the Burgermeister Meisterburger. The latter rules over Sombertown with an iron first, burning children's playthings. In this version of his story, Baby Santa is abandoned at the Burgermeister's doorstep. When the cruel autocrat tries to stick him in an asylum, a gust of wind re-routes him to a hidden village where he learns the ways of the elves. A supposedly dastardly Winter Warlock is a lurking threat throughout, and the mere thought of a society in which play is outlawed is enough to terrify children. Still, the most uncomfortable thing about this Rankin/Bass holiday special might be how much time it spends on Mr. and Mrs. Kringle's romance.

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The Star Wars Holiday Special Has an Infamous Place in History

The Star Wars Holiday Special is an infamous example of what can go wrong when executives hastily capitalize on the popularity of new IP. George Lucas and Co. were approached about doing a Christmas special for CBS and came up with the idea of Chewbacca's family celebrating Life Day. Otherwise, production was largely out of his hands. The final product -- deeply trippy, curiously sexual and alternately offensive in its attempts at comedy -- was so disappointing, Lucas tried to erase its existence from the public record. For the most part, he succeeded, and the special never aired again, nor did it ever receive a home video release. However, its inaccessibility only added to its legend, and today, the Star Wars Holiday Special is its own kind of cult classic that could be read as a warning for the oppressive empire in Andor.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Doesn't Deliver a Positive Message

The Christmas standard upon which the 1964 Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer is based is controversial already. In animated form, however, it’s not just the other reindeer who laugh and call him names, and exclude him from games. In this story, Rudolph's emotionally abusive parents reject and demean him and Santa’s a real jerk. Combined with coded homophobia (Hermie) and ableism (the Misfit Toys), and the not-so-heartwarming lesson of Rudolph is that bigotry and bullying are completely socially acceptable -- at least until the tormented individual is of use.

The Snowman Reflects the Worst of Life

This wordless, hand-drawn adaptation was inspired by an award-winning picture book of the same name by Raymond Briggs. The Snowman is simply about a boy who builds, befriends and shares adventures with a snowman. Except, it’s really all a metaphor for coping with death. After a night of dancing and flying, the boy awakes to find his snow friend has melted. Unlike Frosty, this snowman can’t be revived with Christmas magic, which was exactly Brigg’s point. In response to criticism about the animated special’s unhappy ending, according to The Guardian, he author replied, “The snowman melted, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does.”

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The Little Drummer Boy Brings Down the Holiday Spirit

The lyrics and melody of “The Little Drummer Boy” are a bit somber, but the 1968 Rankin/Bass version spins the humble song into a tale of death, despair and greed. Aaron is a farm boy who entertains his cherished livestock with his skillful drumming. When bandits murder his parents and steal his flock, and he loses all faith in humanity. The orphaned nihilist takes off with the three animals he has left, and joins a traveling band of grifters, only to have his beloved lamb killed in a chariot crash. A quick trip to baby Jesus’ manger brings it back to life and restores Aaron’s faith, but this special’s overall vibe is unsettlingly cynical.

The Smurfs' Christmas Special Has an Even Scarier Enemy Than Scrooge

The Smurfs barely factor into their Christmas special from 1982, in which an old man and his two grandchildren wreck their sleigh. When the grandfather appears dead under its weight, the kids venture into the snowy, wolf-inhabited wilderness. They end up being tracked by a cloaked stranger who is, by all indications, the devil. The stranger enlists grinchy Gargamel’s help in apprehending them, presumably so he can deliver them all to hell. Fear not, though, the grandfather survived and the Smurfs defeat the devil with the power of song.

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