Christmas specials and episodes have long been a part of television series. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the first special to become a cultural phenomenon, it was definitely not the first animated Christmas special to be made. Here are a selection of seven episodes and specials that were made before Rudolph, of all varieties of animation.
"The Spirit of Christmas" (1953)
In 1953, Springtime Productions and the Bell Telephone company (now known as AT&T) created one of the earliest Christmas specials for television. Titled “The Spirit of Christmas”, it is in fact two different stories, one being a dramatization of the Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, and the other being the Nativity story. However, rather than being animated or normal live-action, both were told entirely with marionettes created by puppeteer Mabel Beaton.
Primarily airing in the Philadelphia area, it was unique in also being one of the first TV productions made in color, despite the fact that the first NTSC color sets would not go on sale until the following year. Introducing the special and doing some of the voices was actor Alexander Scourby, best known for his distinctive voice and the audio recordings he did of the entire King James Bible during the early 50’s.
This special is a very bizarre oddity that was a staple for local syndication around the holidays during the 50’s and part of the 60’s, with a few airings in the late 90’s on at least one PBS station. It was also available for purchase to schools in 16mm form.
Popeye - "Spinach Greetings" (1960)
King Features Syndicate
On Christmas Eve, Popeye is telling Sweet Pea “The Night Before Christmas”. After, he takes Sweet Pea to bed, then sits down by the fireplace with Olive Oyl and Wimpy to wait for Santa. The Sea Hag, who has been watching from the window, is disgusted by how happy everyone is, and so hatches a plan to ruin Christmas.
Before he can make his first delivery, her vulture snatches Santa Claus up from his reindeer airplane and kidnaps him. She brings him back to her castle and ties him to a chair, making him watch as she smashes each toy in his sack one by one with a hammer, while shoveling others into her fireplace.
Popeye, Olive, and Wimpy hear the roar of Santa’s plane and hide in eager anticipation, until hearing the unmanned plane crash outside. They go out to investigate, and Popeye finds a bird feather in the wreckage, immediately deducing that the Sea Hag is behind this. He quickly goes to the castle and gets into a fight with the Sea Hag, her vulture, and her crocodiles.
After turning her vulture into a meal and the crocodiles into luggage, the Sea Hag gives up. Popeye rescues Santa and Christmas is saved.
Rocky & Bullwinkle - "Topsy Turvy World" (1961)
Jay Ward Productions
“Topsy Turvy World” is a 14 part serial adventure from the end of the Bullwinkle Show’s third season. It starts off with Professor Werner Von Beige discovering that the North Pole has become so top-heavy with ice that the world is about to dramatically tilt, putting the new North Pole somewhere in the equator. Boris hatches a plot to take the island of Riki Tiki, which set to become the Earth’s New North Pole, and make himself the new Santa Claus, stealing rather than giving.
However, after saving the Professor, as well as Captain Peachfuzz, from the natives of Riki Tiki, Rocky and Bullwinkle come up with an idea to fix the situation. Rocky and Bullwinkle do a telethon from the island, asking everyone in the world to send their ice. They succeed and the world is tilted back into place, putting the North Pole at the north again (and ending the real Santa’s tropical vacation).
"Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol" (1962)
December 18, 1962
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol hold the distinction of being the first proper animated Christmas special made for television, two years before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Produced by UPA and sponsored by Timex, the special stars Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), recast in the role of a Broadway actor performing in an adaptation of the Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol”. Another well-known UPA character, Gerald McBoing-Boing, was placed in the role of Tiny Tim.
In contrast to the normal Magoo shenanigans about an extremely near-sighted man bumbling around (though there is some of that during the backstage scenes), it is one of the more faithful adaptations that have been produced of the original story, all the characters speak their dialogue just as Charles Dickens wrote them with very little alterations for modern audiences. The special did have a few changes, such as the Ghost of Christmas Present appearing before the Ghost of Christmas Past. It also added musical numbers, with lyrics written by Bob Merrill and music by Jule Styne and Walter Scharf.
This special is also notable in that it would later inspire “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”, a prime time cartoon in 1964 which featured a similar premise of Mr. Magoo being an actor performing in adaptations of well-known stories. This series also featured a crossover with comic strip character Dick Tracy, who also had a cartoon produced by UPA.
Gumby - "Santa-Witch" (1963)
Hiding from holiday shoppers in the toy store they reside within, Pokey enters the storybook of “Unusual Stories”, which puts him at the North Pole. As it turns out, Santa Claus is sick in the hospital, and may have to cancel his Christmas ride if he can’t find someone to take his place.
Pokey rushes to a phone and calls up the Witch (from an earlier episode, “The Witty Witch”) to help. As Santa’s reindeer only obey Santa, the Witch conjures up a fleet of broomsticks to pull the sleigh.
At the first house, they enter by magic as there is no chimney. Looking on as they put the presents away are two children (who look strikingly similar to Davey and Sally from Davey & Goliath), who have stayed up to meet Santa. When they approach, the Witch turns around, making the sister faint and the brother run away at the shock of her appearance.
On the sleigh ride to the next house, Pokey gives the Witch a Santa mask, to hopefully prevent any future incidents.
Gumby - "Scrooge Loose" (1963)
Playing Sherlock and Watson with Pokey, Gumby looks through a telescope to a copy of “A Christmas Carol”. At that moment, he sees the book moving, and out pops Ebenezer Scrooge, escaping his book.
Using a tractor, Scrooge goes on a tirade against anything he deems “humbug”, pushing large amounts of toys and board games off the side of the counter onto the floor below, including Gumby and Pokey. Then, he spots another book, titled “Stories of Santa Claus”, and decides to head inside to stop Christmas.
Making his way to Santa’s workshop, Scrooge begins replacing the presents with rocks. Meanwhile, Gumby and Pokey recover from their fall and track Scrooge into the book thanks to the cane he left outside the book. They tie up Scrooge and toss him in the toy sack, then run off to find Santa and tell him why there are toys missing.
However, while they look for Santa in his workshop, Santa is already at his sleigh. He grabs the bag Scrooge is in, thinking it’s filled with presents, and takes off on his flight. The episode ends with Gumby and Pokey shrugging their shoulders, hoping everything’ll work out regardless.
Beetle Bailey - "A Christmas Tale" (1963)
King Features Syndicate
At Camp Swampy, it’s Christmas Eve and all the soldiers have gone home for the holidays. Sergeant Snorkel and his dog Otto, who have no one but each other, are invited by Brigadier General Halftrack to spend Christmas at his home. They have dinner and Snorkle listens to Halftrack briefly reminisce about his younger days. Snorkle takes interest in particular to a shiny whistle, which Halftrack’s commanding officer had given him at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Then, the strict Mrs. Halftrack orders them both to bed.
Sergeant Snorkle starts to read “A Christmas Story” to Otto, but falls asleep halfway through. In his dream, he imagines awaking to see Santa Claus, who looks like Brigadier General Halftrack, along with a helper who resembles Private Bailey. Typical to Beetle Bailey’s nature, the helper comedically goofs up, leaving stockings torn and the tree broken before they leave.
The next morning, Snorkle wakes up and Halftrack gives him the whistle as a gift.
Kevin Measimer on December 23, 2015:
Of course I saw the ones aired the most often but I also think I saw one (both?) of the marrionette ones at some point. Maybe a 16mm copy from the library when I was a kid and/or one of those vhs or dvd compilations of public domain films.