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Geeks' most beloved holiday classics

By Henry Hanks, CNN
  • Nerdy holiday favorites star Pac-Man, Pee-wee and Chewbacca
  • Rankin-Bass, known for its holiday specials, also adapted "The Hobbit"
  • Even a grumpy villain like Skeletor can enjoy the spirit of Christmas

(CNN) -- There's Rudolph and Frosty, the Grinch and Charlie... Ralphie, George Bailey, Clark Griswold and Buddy. But do you recall the geekiest holiday specials and movies of all?

For those looking for a change of pace from the traditional holiday fare on TV this season, here are some suggestions for programming that's traditional in certain households of the, shall we say, nerdier variety. Some of them are regularly seen on cable, others are extremely rare, but all of them are cult classics.

"The Star Wars Holiday Special"

This is the granddaddy of them all. Debuting on CBS in November 1977, and subsequently never aired on television again, it survived thanks to a few early adapters of the VCR and was passed from fan to fan through the years.

Some might have thought it was a legend until they laid their eyes on it the first time. The story centers on Chewbacca's family - whom, you might remember, don't speak English - as they prepare to celebrate the Kashyyk holiday of "Life Day."

Guest stars including Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Harvey Korman (in multiple roles!) show up, as well as the movie's cast of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. At one point, Fisher sings the "lyrics" to the "Star Wars" theme. There's also a notorious scene where Diahann Carroll sings to Chewie's father, Itchy.

For all of its campy appeal, there's also an animated portion which introduces fan favorite Boba Fett, and it's quite good.

At the same time, if you're not a big fan of "Star Wars," chances are you'll have trouble sitting through the entire two hours, 1970s commercials and all.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas"

It's no secret that stop-motion animation and the holidays naturally seem to go together (witness the most recent episode of NBC's "Community" ), and this won't be the last one of those on the list.

In 1993, Tim Burton unveiled his creation of "Halloween Town," a world of ghouls ruled by Jack Skellington, who accidentally found himself in Christmas Town and immediately had to find out more about it, studying it like a science experiment --- even turning it into an equation.

The movie, which originally wasn't released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner because of its dark nature, made a respectable $50 million at the box office.

In the years since, it gained a cult following, and slowly, the Disney theme park and merchandising machine began to embrace it (it takes over the "Haunted Mansion" every holiday season at Disneyland). It's also been re-released in theaters twice in 3-D.

"Claymation Christmas Celebration"

CBS executives probably envisioned an entire special devoted to the California Raisins, a big sensation in 1987. Instead, "claymation" master Will Vinton gave them a show hosted by, well, two geeky dinosaurs, introducing new takes on classic Christmas carols. Our hosts couldn't agree on the meaning of the term "wassail" throughout the proceedings.

The special went on to win an Emmy, and yes, the raisins showed up at the end to sing the Temptations' version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." But, for my money, the highlight is "Carol of the Bells," which would have easily fit in as a "Looney Tunes" cartoon (the stunning animation on "Joy to the World" a close second).

If this doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, I don't know what will.

"Batman Returns"

Continuing on the Tim Burton theme, we have this sequel from 1992, which, despite its summer release, actually took place during the holidays.

This one will start fights among comic book fans. Most will agree that Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was just about perfect. But for every supporter of the film, there's another who thinks that a movie where Batman is essentially playing "third fiddle" is not a Batman movie at all.

Either way, it's probably the only holiday-themed movie where someone's nose is bitten off.

"Christmas Comes to PacLand"

In the early 1980s, Saturday morning cartoons took notice of the video game craze and did several mostly-forgettable series based on them. The king of them all was "Pac-Man," and ABC even went so far as to create this holiday special.

As one might imagine, Santa Claus has a little trouble with his sleigh, and crash-lands in Pac-Land. Pac-Man and his family use power pellets to help him continue his Christmas mission, while fending off ghosts led by the evil Mezmaron. But of course. (Check this one out on Cartoon Network's Boomerang! --- which, like CNN, is a Time Warner company --- during Christmas weekend).

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"/"Santa Claus" (1959)

For out-and-out cheese, "Pac-Land" and the "Star Wars Holiday Special" have nothing on this, what may be the first holiday-themed sci-fi movie.

A mainstay in late-night syndication and on cable throughout the holidays for decades, it seems that the children of Mars are in need of a little holiday merriment, so the Martians kidnap Santa, along with some innocent bystander Earth kids. Much goofiness ensues.

In recent years, many have preferred seeing this one getting the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" treatment -- the cult comedy show riffed on it in the early 1990s. This movie was so popular with fans that some of the original "MST3K" crew did it again in 2008, with new riffs on the movie as part of "Cinematic Titanic."

Then there's the truly bizarre "Santa Claus" from Mexico, in which Santa has to fight off one of the devil's minions (who spends most of the movie prancing about in his red makeup and tights), while keeping a close watch on all the children of the world, using advanced spying methods, such as a disturbing eye telescope.

The poor dubbing adds to the whole affair, and Santa's laughter comes off as just creepy (not to mention his mechanized reindeer). It, too, was given the "Mystery Science Theater" treatment in the show's fifth season.


All of the holiday episodes --- including this year's --- have been hugely entertaining, and all of them have featured the robotic Santa Claus, who goes on a rampage every year because of a glitch that caused him to believe almost everyone on earth to be naughty.

New additions through the years have included Kwanzaabot and Chanukah Zombie.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special"

When you think of nerds in the 1980s, you probably think of "Revenge of the Nerds," Ed Grimley or Pee-wee Herman.

Pee-wee's 1988 Christmas special was truly one of the weirdest ever, even weirder than most episodes of his Saturday morning show.

Featuring everyone from Oprah to Charro, from Cher to Grace Jones, and from Frankie to Annette, the plot goes something like this: Pee-wee is generally a jerk to everyone on Christmas and keeps receiving fruit cakes, which he turns into a new wing of the Playhouse. Another one that's probably only worth seeing if you're a fan.


Not the first movie you would think about during the holidays, but it's been ranked on many "best holiday movie" lists by film geeks over the years.

If you were anywhere in the '80s, you probably know the story of Gizmo, the mogwai who multiplied when exposed to water, and whose offspring became the grotesque gremlins when fed after midnight. They proceed to wreak havoc throughout the town at Christmas time, and the movie is still a lot of fun more than 25 years later.

"The Year Without a Santa Claus"/"'Twas the Night Before Christmas"

You can't have this list without a little Rankin-Bass, now can you? the production company was, after all, behind the best-known adaptation of "The Hobbit," prior to the upcoming movie, and of course the well-known "Rudolph" and "Frosty" specials.

1974's "The Year Without a Santa Claus" is a real favorite among the hard-core aficionados of its stop-motion specials. You've got the Heat Miser, the Snow Miser, plus the two elves, Jingle and Jangle. What's not to love?

Rankin-Bass was riding high in 1974, because it also put out the hand-drawn "'Twas the Night" the same year. Here, Father Mouse's geeky son, Albert, learns the true meaning of Christmas after writing Santa to tell him he didn't exist. Ouch.

"A Wish for Wings that Work"

Now here's a real obscurity. Based on Berkeley Breathed's "Outland" comic strip, nerdy penguin Opus only has one wish for Christmas (see the title).

"Peanuts," "Garfield" and other comic strip series had made beloved TV specials, but "Outland" was certainly the first one to come to mind for a new one. It probably didn't hurt that it was from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.

It had excellent animation and surprise voices supplied by Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. (Again, it probably didn't hurt to have the Spielberg connection.)

"He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special"

The last one on this list is far from the least. Here, earth children teach the denizens of Eternia and Etheria all about their holiday of Christmas.

Most amazingly, these little moppets even melt the evil Skeletor's heart. It's also notable for the appearance of some "Transformers"-esque characters who seem shoehorned in. The ending, however, is worth the price of admission, when the kids tell their parents all about where they've been.

Whether you prefer to spend the season with Jack Skellington, Pac-Man or Pee-wee Herman, there's probably something in this list for you. Happy holidays!