Jingle Bell Schlock: Television Holiday Specials of the 1970s and '80s

The 1970s and '80s were a golden era for classic holiday TV shows: a prime-time hour or two of Christmas cheer decked out with singing, dancing and some very special guest appearances. Relive a few memories with this holly-jolly list of some of our favorites.
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The 1970s and '80s were a golden era for classic holiday TV shows: a prime-time hour or two of Christmas cheer decked out with singing, dancing and some very special guest appearances. Relive a few memories with this holly-jolly list of some of our favorites.
David Bowie: It was definitely a holiday to remember when crooner Bing Crosby and rock star David Bowie performed Little Drummer Boy for Crosby's Christmas special in 1977. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

It was definitely a holiday to remember when crooner Bing Crosby and rock star David Bowie performed "Little Drummer Boy" for Crosby's Christmas special in 1977. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Holiday television specials of the 1970s and 1980s were a unique phenomenon: they combined holiday plotlines with variety shows featuring music, comedy, dance numbers and many, many guest appearances. Legendary performers like Judy Garland, Bob Hope and Perry Como were earlier pioneers of the holiday special, and they hosted Christmas shows throughout their careers. By the 70s, however, many popular entertainers from The Osmond family to Pee-Wee Herman were hosting their own specials, leading a cast of supporting celebrities through some holiday antics on a studio set.

Holiday specials were aired constantly from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, and watching them became an annual ritual for many of us. The plots might have been flimsy at best, and the snow might have been as artificial as the laugh tracks, but these shows definitely bring back some holiday memories.

Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, 1977

For his final holiday special, the legendary crooner Bing Crosby traveled to England with his wife Kathryn and their three children. According to the TV storyline, they were visiting a long-lost English relative; the setting gave the show an opportunity to include several English entertainment personalities, from wisecracking actor Ron Moody (who played the ghost of Charles Dickens) to model-actress Twiggy. In one of television’s all-time oddest and most indelible pairings, Crosby sang a medley of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth” with rock icon David Bowie.

The Carpenters at Christmas, 1977

In their first of two Christmas-themed TV specials, the brother-sister duo of Karen Carpenter and Richard Carpenter perform an album’s worth of holiday tunes in their signature style. For the storyline, Karen is hosting a Christmas Eve party, and Richard just isn’t feeling the spirit. However, after some chance encounters with celebrities like Harvey Korman of “The Carol Burnett Show” and actress Kristy McNichol (then star of the television drama “Family”), not to mention the puppets from the early TV show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” Richard remembers the value of friends and family. Naturally, he rallies in time for the party and everyone ends up singing together around the piano.

Star Wars Holiday Special, 1978

This highly promoted spin-off of the first Star Wars film reunited Star Wars actors Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, along with their favorite droids and a few menacing stormtroopers. The plot revolves around Star Wars character Chewbacca and his dangerous journey home for the Wookie holiday Life Day, with the help of his old friends and some new characters. This special is notorious for its shoddy writing and acting, not to mention its incompatible guest contributions from an unlikely assortment of 1970s celebrities: comedy bits from Art Carney, a musical appearance by rock group Jefferson Starship, and vocal performances by singer Diahann Carroll and actress Bea Arthur. By trying to please everybody, this show ended up pleasing nobody, but Star Wars fans now treasure it as as a cult favorite.

Donny and Marie Christmas Special, 1979

In addition to Donny and Marie Osmond and all the other Osmond brothers (not to mention their spouses, their children and the Osmond parents), this special brought several guest celebrities to its Utah setting. Cindy Williams (of “Laverne & Shirley”) joined the Osmonds for some comedy sketches, as did child actor Adam Rich from “Eight is Enough.” Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill performed an ice-skating routine, and “CHiPs” star Erik Estrada sang a duet with Marie. The Osmond siblings also joined together for numerous traditional holiday songs, plus a Christmas version of the of the Earth Wind & Fire disco hit “Boogie Wonderland.”

Andy Williams and the NBC Kids Search for Santa, 1985

Singer Andy Williams hosted his own series on the NBC network in the 1960s, and he continued his television career with annual holiday specials. His 1985 show, in an effort to reach a multi-generational audience, featured a cast of NBC’s younger stars. Some of these guests were Joey Lawrence of “Gimme a Break!,” Mindy Cohn from “Facts of Life,” Soleil Moon Frye of “Punky Brewster,” and the “Cosby Show” kids---Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. All of them participated in a plot about traveling to the North Pole to find Santa Claus, but the real attraction was seeing so many members of the NBC “family” singing and dancing on-screen together.

Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas, 1987

In this holiday special, Julie Andrews returns to Salzberg, Austria, where she filmed “The Sound of Music” in 1965. As Andrews notes, it’s the perfect place for any musical event, since it’s the birthplace of Mozart. Against the beautiful backdrops of the city’s monuments, churches and elegant mansions, Andrews invites John Denver and famous tenor Placido Domingo to sing Christmas carols and other holiday standards, plus songs by Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin and more. Domingo performs “O Holy Night” and John Denver sings his own “Dancing with the Mountains,” and both join forces with Andrews in duets. All in all, this special is as calming and cheering as its views of the snowy Austrian countryside.

Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, 1988

Paul Reubens, as Pee-Wee Herman, is the host and star of this holiday entertainment. It’s a cock-eyed valentine to the traditional Christmas variety-show special, with a cast of guests that only Pee-Wee could have imagined. The line-up is wholesome and campy at the same time. Television old-timers Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello make Christmas cards, singer Little Richard learns to ice-skate, Cher picks the “Word of the Day,” and Grace Jones sings “The Little Drummer Boy.” Joan Rivers makes a cameo appearance on a TV screen, and star athlete Magic Johnson takes Pee Wee for a sleigh ride. What other show would include Zsa Zsa Gabor and k.d. lang?! Yet, despite their differences, all the guests genuinely seem to be having fun and sharing seasonal cheer…which was the main point of every holiday special.