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Very Merry Memories — My Favorite Disney Christmas Specials: An Annual Tradition

One of my family’s most beloved Christmas traditions is viewing our favorite Christmas specials. In fact, I think it is safe to say that my parents own more Christmas-themed films and specials on VHS or DVD than they do Disney movies. This tradition has carried on in my own household, and my son is well on his way to becoming a Christmas special aficionado. One year, his Mickey’s Christmas Carol viewings began before Halloween, and I am certain he logged at least 30 screenings. With three generations of experience and a vast library, I would like to share with readers the Disney Christmas specials that have become a part of our yearly viewing list, as well as a couple of hard-to-find honorable mentions.


Mickey’s Christmas Carol

How to watch: Disney+, iTunes, DVD, VHS

Mickey’s Christmas Carol debuted in theaters in 1983 as the pre-film cartoon shown before a re-release of The Rescuers. In this cartoon re-telling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mickey Mouse takes on the role of Bob Cratchit and Uncle Scrooge McDuck plays the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, but the vast cast of supporting characters is what makes this special truly unique. Other beloved members of Disney cannon such as Willie the Giant, Jiminy Cricket, Mr. Toad, and many more make appearances throughout the 26-minute short. On a personal note, it is almost impossible to think of Mickey’s Christmas Carol without being reminded of Michael Eisner, clad in his annual Christmas sweater, wishing viewers a “Merry Christmas” prior to its annual television airing (which was paired with two other features on this list).


Pluto’s Christmas Tree

How to watch: Disney+, DVD

My introduction to this 1952 cartoon short came as part of that aforementioned Michael Eisner-introduced slate of programing. During the 1990s this holiday block featured Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (see below) and Mickey’s Christmas Carol with this 7-minute Mickey and Pluto cartoon sandwiched in the middle. Now, almost 70 years after its release, it is still delighting viewers on Disney+. While I am an annual defender of Pluto in the face of Chip and Dale’s mischief, I cannot help but be distracted by all of Mickey’s mid-century Christmas decorations. I think shopDisney.com needs to sell a set of those Santa Claus candles!


Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too!

How to watch: Disney+ (as part of Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year), DVD (as part of Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year), VHS

Released in 1991 after the final season of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh television series, Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too gives you all of the feels. After the 100 Acre Woods residents’ Christmas request letter does not make its way to Santa, Pooh endeavors to make sure his friends still receive Christmas gifts. With all the sincerity of a young child giving their parents a homemade gift, it is impossible not to love the silly old bear as he tries his best to dress as Santa and deliver his makeshift presents.


The Small One

How to watch: Disney+, iTunes, DVD, VHS

Those who have followed my writings for the WDW Radio Blog may remember that I shared my love of this short several years ago. Accompanying the re-release of Pinocchio in 1978, The Small One was also a theatrically released short. It tells the story of a boy who lives a modest life outside of Nazareth with his father and their four donkeys. The oldest of the donkeys is named Small One, and is the boy’s beloved friend. Due to Small One’s slight stature and age, he is no longer able to work hard enough to cover the cost of keeping him. As a result, the young boy is forced to sell his much-loved pal, but he promises his friend that he will find a gentle master for him. The rest of the short film tells the story of the boy’s quest to keep his promise to Small One, and a very important chance meeting. While The Small One is only 26-minutes long, its animation is equal to that of a full-length feature film.


Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

How to watch: iTunes, DVD, VHS

The list of Muppet Christmas specials is a literal pantheon of greatness. Throughout the history of televised holiday features they are only rivaled by a certain set of comic strip friends and/or the epic collection of stop-motion classics. While Disney did not produce the best of the best Muppet Christmas specials, the Muppets have since become a part of the Disney family, so they most-certainly deserve multiple slots on this list. Diehard Jim Henson Studios fans argue over which of his holiday features should sit above the rest, but all can agree that Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas deserves a place somewhere near the very top. This simple, yet lovely story of Ma and Emmet Otter borrows its concept from the classic O’Henry short story, The Gift of the Magi. The adorable river-dwelling characters and an unbelievable set of songs make this 48-minute feature a must-watch Christmas tradition.


The Christmas Toy

How to watch: iTunes, iDVD, VHS

Another Jim Henson television special, The Christmas Toy, aired on ABC in 1986. I hope I am not alone in my love for Rugby, Apple, Meteora, and their playroom pals. I have come across very few people who remember this special, let alone any who own it on DVD as I do. For anyone who saw The Christmas Toy when it aired, it was very hard not to feel a small sense of déjà vu when Toy Story was released in 1995. With toys coming to life when the humans are away and a struggle for acceptance of the new favorite, the similarities are definitely present. Also, I have to take this opportunity to champion the unsung hero of this Christmas special, Mew the cat toy. He deserves a place alongside other small, but mighty Disney characters such as Aristocats’ Roquefort and The Rescuers’ Evinrude.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

How to watch:  Disney+, iTunes, DVD, VHS

Every bit of The Muppet Christmas Carol holds up today the same as it did when it was released theatrically in 1992. Songs like “One More Sleep ‘til Christmas,” “Thankful Heart,” and even the theatrically-cut “When Love is Gone,” along with Gonzo’s narration and Michael Caine’s performance have served to cement this film as one of the most beloved Dickens adaptations. There really isn’t any more to be said!

Muppet Family Christmas

How to watch: DVD, VHS

What does it take to make the best Muppet Christmas special of all time?  Fraggles, Sesame Street characters, a talking snowman, Muppet Babies, an appearance by Jim Henson, himself? The 1987 television special, Muppet Family Christmas, has them all. When Fozzie invites the entire Muppet family to his mom’s farmhouse for Christmas, zaniness ensues and a bad winter storm threatens Miss Piggy’s arrival, but fear not, everyone makes it home for the holidays. Sadly, this special has suffered a number of cuts over the years because of music rights, so much so that the Muppet Babies segment has been almost entirely removed from the DVD release. Perhaps this has also contributed to its limited availability. We can only hope that one day it will make its way to Disney+ because everyone should know to look out for the icy patch, learn how to “uh, uh, pass it on,” and be in on the Winnebago joke.

The Santa Clause

How to watch:  Disney+, iTunes, DVD, VHS

1994 was one of the greatest years in American film history (seriously, Google the list of movies that came out that year), and coming in at #4 on the list of top-grossing films of the year was the Tim Allen-led Christmas classic, The Santa Clause. To this day, the moment when Scott and Charlie Calvin descend below the North Pole snow has stuck in my memory as a moment of true movie-going wonderment. Perhaps that is the reason why The Santa Clause has endured. Everyone from age 4 to 94 can relate to the wonder and magic of hoping Santa will deliver their version of the Weenie Whistle or Mystery Date. 

Honorable Mentions

While the Disney Christmas specials listed above may be hard to find, they are still available to purchase one way or another, and thus, can become a part of your holiday traditions. However, there are two specials that I would like to offer Honorable Mention status because they exist only in memory, as they are not available for purchase or on any streaming service.

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree – This Jim Henson Productions Christmas special originally aired on CBS and featured an introduction by Kermit the Frog. Its rights status is unknown, but we can hope that it is under Disney’s care or perhaps will be one day. Featuring a knockout cast including Robert Downey Jr., Leslie Nielsen, and Stockard Channing, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree story tells the story of the titular character’s beautiful Christmas tree and how its immense size allows for many families both human and animal to decorate their individual homes. The special won the 1996 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, and without a doubt, “The Perfect Tree” is a cheery earworm of a tune.

Mickey’s Nutcracker – Disney Parks Fans, this is where your love of Christmas specials unites with your Parks fandom. In 1991 and 1992, a stage show known as Mickey’s Nutcracker was performed at Disneyland’s Videopolis Theater. At that point in Disney history, Christmas was not nearly the same event in either coast’s castle park as what it has become in recent years, so it is quite surprising that an entire 30-minute stage show loosely based on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was developed for Disneyland. Furthermore, it was filmed and broadcast on the Disney Channel. This is how my family happened upon this gem which included moving sets, original songs, and costumed characters like Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, Chip, Dale, Roger Rabbit, and Tigger. Several face actors played the roles of Mr. Narrator, Conrad, Ethel, and others, which were characters unique to this version of The Nutcracker. We can only hope that this Disney Christmas special is one day added to Disney+.

This is only a list of my family’s personal favorites. Which Disney Christmas specials does your family watch every year?

All images copyright Disney