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18 Facts About Your Favorite Christmas TV Specials

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Here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits about a handful of holiday small-screen favorites.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

1. Which came first, the TV special or the song? Johnny Marks wrote the song in 1949. He was the brother-in-law of Robert L. May, the Montgomery Ward copywriter who’d created the story of the red-nosed reindeer for a department store coloring book. Marks had a good ear for a catchy holiday tune and was responsible for many of the Christmas classics we still hear today, including “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nevertheless, he was reluctant at first to allow his tune to be the subject of a TV special – he thought that over-exposure might equal a decrease in record sales. Luckily he lived just down the street from Arthur Rankin, of Rankin/Bass fame, who eventually managed to change Marks’ mind.

2. Mario Muller, the screenwriter for the TV special, stated in an interview that the reason his script deviated so much from the original story is that he was unable to find a copy of May’s book at the time. Several of the characters, including Hermey the wannabe dentist, were named after Muller’s real-life friends.

3. The first few drafts of the screenplay did not include the character of Sam the Snowman. In fact, the songs sung by Sam in the final version were originally performed by Yukon Cornelius. But General Electric felt that the production needed a “name” in order to sell it to a network, and Burl Ives was brought on board.

Frosty the Snowman

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4. The song came first in this instance, too; in fact the tune was written by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1950 specifically as a means of capitalizing on the success of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record wasn’t as huge as “Rudolph” sales-wise, but Frosty’s story was nevertheless perpetuated via Golden Books and Dell Comics.

5. Despite a long career in radio and film, legendary comedian Jimmy Durante’s memory has been primarily kept alive all these years thanks to his role as the narrator in this Christmas special. Durante loved children, and is famous for turning down a performance fee at the Eagles International Convention in 1961. When asked by the organizers “What can we do, then?” Durante replied in his trademark Brooklynese: “Help da kids.”

6. First aired in 1969, Frosty was the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to utilize traditional animation (versus the stop-motion method used in their other projects). Paul Coker, Jr., a long-time MAD magazine illustrator, provided both the main character and background drawings.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

DreamWorks Classics

7. Yet again, the song came first. In this case, way first: J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie wrote it in 1932, at a time when sheet music outsold records. The song only received national exposure in the first place because Eddie Cantor, Coots’ employer at the time, reluctantly sang it (at the urging of his wife) on his radio show in late November 1934. Despite the music publishers’ dire warning that songs aimed at children were doomed to fail, Cantor’s performance sent the sheet music for the song flying off retailers’ shelves and inspired countless other popular artists to record it.

8. How does a 71-year-old hoofer keep his name in the spotlight many years after MGM had ceased producing big-budget musicals and his aging bones have begun to betray him? Voiceover work! That's how Rankin/Bass was able to secure Fred Astaire for the role of the mailman/narrator for their 1970 special. R/B’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been airing annually since 1964, so Astaire agreed to this project, rightly assuming that it had “legs.” Rankin/Bass also benefited because even older adults with no kids at home tuned in to see and hear the Fred Astaire they remembered so fondly.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

United Feature Syndicate

9. In 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson filmed a documentary about Charles Schulz and the daily process involved in creating his Peanuts comic strip. The Peanuts documentary never sold, but Coca-Cola execs happened to see it and asked Mendelson if he’d be interested in doing an animated Charlie Brown Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like “sad Christmas tree,” “school play,” and “ice skating” scribbled in the margins.

10. When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Charlie Brown’s head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from dancing the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

11. When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were uneasy, to say the least. There was not enough action, it moved too slow, the voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors, there was no laugh track, etc. Most upsetting was the fact that Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. (“You can’t read from the Bible on network television!”) Nevertheless, CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as it turned out, A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Warner Bros. Television

12. Boris Karloff, best known as a horror film actor thanks to his starring roles in movies such as Frankenstein, won a Grammy Award in 1967 (in the spoken word category) for his work as the narrator/Grinch when How the Grinch Stole Christmas was released as an LP.

13. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, whose basso profundo voice is familiar to most of the world as that of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrrreat!!”)

14. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ original 1957 book was black and white with touches of pink, like every other illustration. It was director Chuck Jones (who’d produced and directed countless Warner Brothers cartoons starring Bugs Bunny and his pals) who decided that the Grinch should be green.

15. Just prior to the Grinch’s first airing, Variety snarked at the $315,000 budget (extravagant by 1966 standards) for a children’s cartoon. "The Grinch - It Not Only Stole Christmas But Picked CBS' Pocket” was the headline of doom.

Bowie and Bing

16. It’s not an official stand-alone Christmas special, but this 1977 clip manages to get aired every holiday season, mainly due to the odd juxtaposition of the participants: old-school crooner Bing Crosby (age 73 at the time) and contemporary artist (considered somewhat outrageous by those who still remembered Ziggy Stardust) David Bowie. Crosby was in the midst of a UK tour at the time, and the theme of the show was “Christmas in England.”

17. Bowie’s management had agreed to have him appear on the special because A) it was filmed at Elstree Studios, not far from Bowie’s home, and B) his video for “Heroes” would be a part of the show (complete with an introduction by Der Bingle himself).

18. At the last minute, however, Bowie read the script and objected to singing “Little Drummer Boy,” stating “I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?” Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan (the show’s producers and songwriters in their own right) adjourned to the studio’s basement and in less than 90 minutes came up with the “Peace on Earth” bit that Bowie agreed to interweave with Crosby’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”

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8 Awesome Halloween Displays From Around the Country

Looking for some Halloween decorating inspiration? Look no further than these spooky displays. From New Mexico to New York, here are eight creepy homes worth going out of your way for each All Hallows' Eve.

1. THE PUMPKIN HOUSE IN KENOVA, WEST VIRGINIA

C-K AutumnFest—an annual fall festival thrown by the West Virginia towns of Kenova and Ceredo—offers scarecrow-building contests, tractor shows, and home-canning competitions, among other activities. Its highlight, however, is probably the Pumpkin House. The historic Victorian abode once belonged to IRS commissioner Joseph S. Miller, a friend of President Grover Cleveland. But when Ric Griffith moved in, he put it on the map with elaborate jack-o'-lantern displays.

Each year, in late October, the onetime Kenova mayor festoons the home’s yard, porch, rooftops, and gables with 3000 glowing pumpkins, some of which sit on specially built displays with music and lights. The laborious project begins in earnest around a month before Halloween, when Miller and his daughter start drawing faces on the gourds. Then, around five days before AutumnFest kicks off, local volunteers help the duo scoop, carve, rinse, and arrange the jack-o'-lanterns into tiered rows around the house and yard.

You can check out the Pumpkin House in person at this year’s festival, which runs October 27-28. “Due to the shelf life of a carved pumpkin, carving will not begin until October 23,” organizer Kim Layman tells Mental Floss. “Once the pumpkins are carved and set into place, they remain lit 24/7. The best time to see the greatest number of pumpkins lit is the weekend of AutumnFest. Weather permitting, the pumpkins will remain lit through Halloween.”

2. DANIEL'S HALLOWEEN HOUSE OF WARWICK IN WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND

The annual Halloween display at 69 Darrow Drive in Warwick, Rhode Island is so over-the-top that it has its own Facebook page for local fans. Past iterations have featured Halloween props designed by homeowner Mike Daniels, spooky interactive figures, and multi-colored lights synchronized to more than 14 songs. This year’s clown-themed yard show won’t be complete until around mid-October, but there will be “new designs and props and music,” Daniels tells Mental Floss. “We’ve added some awesome new stuff!”

Proving that Halloween isn’t always about tricks and/or treats, Daniels typically leaves out a bin for charitable donations. This Halloween, the collection will be donated to the Spirit of Children hospital foundation, which funds art, music, and other therapeutic projects for children receiving medical care.

3. “OPERATION: SCARE ‘N SHARE” IN WELLS, MAINE

In 2006, Stanley Norton of Wells, Maine, began competing with his brother to see who could build the best Christmas light show. The winner gained bragging rights, and the loser was required to hang a portrait of their sibling in their home with the words “I wish I was my brother” underneath. Norton got so into the challenge that eventually, the satisfaction of beating his brother was no longer enough. About two years after the inaugural lights contest, he also began regularly decorating his home for Halloween, an endeavor he’s since dubbed “OPERATION: Scare ‘N Share.”

Norton’s annual display runs the week before Halloween, and features spooky props and thousands of lights synced to radio music. (They're erected with help from the local Wells Soccer team, which Norton used to coach.) The tunes and lights change each year, but visitors are always asked to bring canned goods to donate to a local food pantry. In 2015, Norton’s Halloween house had so many visitors that they collected close to 1000 pounds of food.

4. THE CUNNINGHAM HAUNT HOUSE IN FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO

When a prospective career in the haunted house industry didn’t work out for him, Darrell Cunningham, a software programmer in Farmington, New Mexico, decided to turn his passion into a hobby by decorating his own home for Halloween. The project soon morphed into an ongoing tradition that's now six or so years running.

Today, Cunningham, with help from his father, constructs elaborate Halloween displays at his parents’ more spacious abode. The Cunningham Haunt House, as it’s called, features handmade props that Cunningham builds himself. (They've included grim reaper, witch, and angel statues fashioned from chicken wire, plastic pipes, paper mâché, and "monster mud," a special mixture of paint and drywall compound.) There are also plenty of spider webs and fake tombstones, as well as projectors that play music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller."

Since Halloween props are expensive, the father-and-son duo is always soliciting either online cash donations or crafting materials—“decorations, webs, pumpkins, wagons light posts, poles, wood, anything that could make cool props,” according to the Cunningham Haunt House’s Facebook page.

5. 84 MAIN STREET, CAMILLUS, NEW YORK

Trick-or-treaters in the greater Syracuse, New York region visit the town of Camillus to admire (and score candy from) Mickie and Bill Hendrix’s house on 84 Main Street. The homeowners are fans of classic horror films, so each October they transform their residence into a spine-tingling attraction complete with a fog machine, orchestral music, a giant barrel of "toxic waste" that pumps out green goo, and life-sized figures of skeletons, clowns, mummies, and vampires.

The display surrounds the house, and trick-or-treaters are forced to navigate their way through a sea of monsters and ghouls to receive candy at the back door. There, they're greeted by jumping motion-sensor creatures. (Some kids are too scared to come to the door, in which case Mickie Hendrix will toss candy out the window, or go downstairs and hand it to them personally.)

The couple have been decorating their home for more than 16 years. "It started out small and just got bigger and bigger," Mickie Hendrix told Syracuse.com. "It's getting out of control and we're getting older. Thank God for our grandchildren. They helped us get everything out." However, the display might be in its final years, as the couple is planning to eventually move to Florida.

6. TERROR ON TILLSON IN ROMEO, MICHIGAN

Halloween is a community affair in Romeo, a tiny 19th century village in Macomb County, Michigan, where residents transform a single two-block street into a spooky wonderland each October.

It’s said that the seasonal spectacle on Tillson Street began with longtime homeowner Vicki Lee, whose birthday falls on Halloween. To celebrate the occasion, she always decorated her home with pumpkins, corn stalks, and scarecrows. Her enthusiasm for the holiday spread, and as more families with young children moved into the area, other neighbors began building handmade Halloween scenes in their own front yards. Ultimately, around 30 homes joined in on the fun, resulting in the street-wide affair that the village knows and loves today.

Today, an estimated 80,000 visitors are said to visit Tillson Street each year to experience the spectacle—nicknamed Terror on Tillson—for themselves. On Halloween, the street is blocked off so kids can safely trick-or-treat under the watchful eye of a makeshift security team of high school athletes. (In a separate event, Tillson Street residents also team up with the Kids Kicking Cancer organization to provide a safe daytime trick-or-treating event for around 50 children with cancer.)

Terror on Tillson has become so famous that it’s spawned souvenir T-shirts, a neighborhood cookbook, a food drive, and a scholarship fund dedicated to Lee’s late husband, Buzz Lee, who passed away from a brain tumor in 2002. Paying the street a visit, however, is always free of charge.

For more information, visit Terror on Tillson’s official website.

7. EDWARDS LANDING LIGHTS IN LEESBURG, VIRGINIA

For the past seven years, Brandon Bullis of Leesburg, Virginia has created a musical Halloween light show, covering the front of his house with thousands of lights that are synced to blink along with popular tunes. Past examples include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums, and "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Norwegian electronic group Ylvis, the last of which caused the home to go viral in 2013.

The show—which Bullis has branded “Edwards Landing Lights”—is technically silent, but viewers can listen to its tunes by turning on their car’s radio. They can also add money to a driveway donation box, the proceeds of which are donated to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

To see Edwards Landing Lights in person, drive along Woods Edge Drive Northeast in Leesburg, Virginia after dark.

8. EAST 30TH STREET AND TACOMA AVENUE IN LORAIN, OHIO

Ricky Rodriguez constructs Halloween displays that look like movie sets. In 2013, the Lorain, Ohio resident teamed up with his brother Tony to built a giant two-story pirate ship, designed to look like it was crashing through the side of his home. The pirate ship returned to East 30th Street and Tacoma Avenue in 2014 (and presumably 2015), but last year, Rodriguez replaced the vessel with a fabricated steam-powered locomotive, inspired by the final scene of Back to the Future Part III.

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12 Halloween Traditions From Around the World
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Although most Americans spend Halloween dressing up and trick-or-treating, other countries have their own celebratory rituals. Here are 12 Halloween (and Halloween-like) traditions from around the world.

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