'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' and 'The Grinch': Will the great American trilogy of Christmas specials work on a newcomer?

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Image Credit: Classic Media; 1965 United Feature Syndicate; Everett Collection

In the pantheon of great Christmas specials — the yuletide-themed adventures trotted out by the networks each year, usually animated, typically with a theme song so iconic that children can sing the lyrics before they learn how to speak — three titles reign supreme. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! all debuted close to a half-century ago — in 1964, 1965, and 1966, respectively — and they still air each year to respectable ratings, to say nothing of the massive cultural footprint they’ve all left behind. However, one EW staffer has managed to avoid ever seeing these holiday classics…until now. In Part One of our chat, Darren Franich — Holiday Special Superfan and ugly Christmas sweater aficionado — prepares newbie Hillary Busis for the festival of yuletide cheer that awaits.

Darren Franich: Hillary, I’ve been watching these Christmas specials since before I was able to formulate any conscious thoughts. I could probably quote them verbatim. Actually, my family kept a massive VHS collection of tape-recorded Christmas specials, so if pressed, I could probably even quote the commercials that played during the 1986 airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (I definitely recall that Santa Claus really enjoyed Coca-Cola, which is why I’ve never liked Pepsi.) I remember these specials more vividly than most actual memories from my life — possibly because my life doesn’t have fun hyper-descriptive theme songs. So before we watch this trilogy of Yuletide cheer, I want to ask you: How much, exactly, do you know about them? Do you know why it’s important that Rudolph has a red nose? What kind of music do you think is on the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas? And what do you think is the plot of How The Grinch Stole Christmas?

Hillary Busis: Kyle Broflovski might feel like a lonely Jew on Christmas – but growing up, I never did. My neighborhood in Pittsburgh was home to at least four synagogues, and the music teacher at my liberal-minded elementary school was always careful to assign an equal number of Christmas songs, Hanukkah songs, and generic winter songs when December rolled around. (It never occurred to me that any Muslim or Hindu students were sh– out of luck.) So I never felt compelled to watch Christmas specials, especially since I already had to tolerate Christmas-themed episodes of every sitcom and cartoon on TV. (God bless you, Rugrats, for providing sanctuary in that storm.)

Even so, I’ve lived in America for 24 years — which means I’ve absorbed a good amount of Christmas-themed pop culture purely through osmosis. I know all the words to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” so I can guess the special’s plot — though the ad-libs kids insert into the song might throw me a little. (The other reindeer call him Pinocchio and won’t let him play Monopoly, right?) I’m not sure if his nose is just like, really red, or if it literally lights up like a light bulb, but I know it’s important because a) it’s our differences that make us special!! and b) it helps him save Christmas, the Princess Peach of holidays. (Christmas always needs saving. Nobody ever tries to mess with Hanukkah. I’m just saying.)

I’m pretty sure that this is what happens in A Charlie Brown Christmas: After perennial sad sack Charlie Brown buys a crappy tree, his friends transform it into something lush and beautiful using only Christmas magic and their waving arms. I know this primarily because of a mensch named Robert Smigel and his “Saturday TV Funhouse.” As for the music — it’s that low-key, dentist office jazzy stuff, right? I don’t think the characters sing. Unless their “AUUUGGHH!”s are set to tinkling bells.

Finally, The Grinch: This one’s sort of a cheat, because I’ve read the book and seen the awful Jim Carrey version. So I know the Grinch himself is a nasty green guy who lives in a cave and hates the perky Whos. When Christmas rolls around, he decides to don a Santa suit and steal all their presents. But the Whos aren’t as materialistic as the Grinch, so they end up  not even caring that he broke into their Who-houses, and then the Grinch learns the error of his wicked ways. Also, it involves roast beast, which I’m pretty sure is not an actual thing gentiles eat.

Close, or no cigar?

Darren: On the scale of “close” to “no cigar,” you definitely know the most about The Grinch, although the fact that you somehow watched the Jim Carrey film before the classic Chuck Jones cartoon makes me weep for humanity. That also means you’ve never heard the great song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — unless you watched the Christmas episode of Glee, in which case I’m once again weeping for humanity.

You do know the most famous plot point of A Charlie Brown Christmas, although that’s a little bit like knowing that Rosebud is a sled. I don’t think knowing that will affect your enjoyment of the special — especially since A Charlie Brown Christmas is basically a plotless proto-Richard Linklater talkfest. Also, I can tell it’s going to be fun to watch these with you, because your cavalier use of the phrase “low-key dentist office jazzy stuff” felt like a dagger through my heart. (Confession: I played “Linus and Lucy” at a grade-school piano recital. It’s actually the only thing I can still play on the piano. Separate confession: I wasn’t very good at piano.)

Now, Rudolph is a different story. You definitely have the rough elevator pitch down, but saying that Rudolph is about a reindeer with a red nose is kind of like saying that Les Miserables is about a guy who steals bread. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by that one. Actually, let’s talk a bit about your expectations for these Christmas specials. Do you think you’ll enjoy watching them now, as a genuine grown-up adult person? Do you think that people like me have been grade-inflating how good these specials are, since we watched them at a time when we still believed in Santa Claus, the great false idol of capitalism? Which one are you most excited about, and which one are you prepared to despise? And are you prepared to be called a Grinch if you do not like The Grinch?

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