From 'Elf' to Selena Gomez to '80s divas: 24 movies and TV specials to watch this holiday season

When you are old and gray, if you are not already, or about to be made prematurely so by the horrors of 2023, and recalling Christmases past, you will not look back fondly on some holiday-themed TikTok or Instagram post, whose very term of success suggests a disease. (At least I wish better things for you.)

But you may remember how you watched “Elf” or “A Christmas Story” 11 times in a row with your friends or “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your parents, then your kids, then their kids. Even if it’s just you and your television set, you might make yourself comfortable with a mug of cocoa and a plate of cookies; you might wreathe the screen in holly for a fun holiday effect. And, anyway, it’s a theme of holiday shows that the holidays can be hard.

Holiday programming comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes and degrees of investment and thoughtfulness — it may be animated, live action, original, regifted, comical, sentimental, comical-sentimental, sentimental-tragical (though never all that tragical), comical-musical, musical-sentimental.

Let it be clear that when I say “Christmas,” which I will repeatedly here, I am speaking of the secular American holiday that involves presents, stockings, reindeer, elves, misers with melting hearts and a jolly old fat man who in Christmas movies is often found to be something less than jolly, suffering some sort of midlife depression or problem at work. (As to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, counting all the way back to the dawn of television, precious little exists.)

So let’s take a look at what’s waiting under the pagan solstice tree and see what might be worth watching, in my absolutely personal, completely incomplete curatorial estimation.

The official beginning of the holiday shopping season, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (NBC, Nov. 23; simulcast on Peacock and in Spanish on Telemundo) deserves a prominent mention because a) you are likely to have grown up on it, in whatever time you grew up, perhaps wondering not merely at the big balloons but also all the stars and marchers bundled up against the New York cold, so mysterious to see on a Southern California morning. And because b) I always forget to set the clock (for 8:30 a.m.), and you might want to make a note to do that. Or just sleep in — it’s a holiday!

Disney+, not sleeping on a holiday with which some people doubtless confuse it, leads the pack in original scripted content, though it may not ease the sting of it raising your rates. This year brings forth a second season of “The Santa Clauses” (now in progress), with the question of who will succeed the Big Man in Red (Tim Allen) still up in the air; as in nine out of 10 stories in which Santa appears as a character, including the first season of this show, it’s a Save Christmas plot, with Eric Stonestreet very funny as a mad medieval predecessor magically brought into the 21st century, and little Marta Kessler quite frightening as his sidekick, an angry gnome named Olga. Allen, as always, is comfortable in his fat suit, and as before, the television series is better than the movies were — just as silly but much wittier.

Also from the House of Mouse is “The Naughty Nine (Nov. 22), a B-grade heist movie for kids in which a crew of abnormally talented small fry break into the North Pole to steal the presents they consider rightfully their own, held back on account of their being on the naughty list. Santa, when he appears (not a spoiler), is Danny Glover, co-star of that other “Christmas” movie, and that is the most surprising thing about this pleasant episode of bad behavior, with a moral.

Dashing Through the Snow(Disney+, Nov. 17) gives us Lil Rel Howery as Santa Claus (or so it seems) and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as a divorced dad who doesn’t believe. Though unseen, apart from a persuasive trailer, I’m more than ready to believe in this flick, given that it was co-written by Scott Rosenberg (the “Jumanji” movies) and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer Paula Pell, and Mary Lynn Rajskub‘s in it. But, really, they had me at “Lil Rel Howery as Santa Claus.”

In the same vein, but from Prime Video, is Candy Cane Lane (Dec. 1), a fantasy twist on the popular “suburbanites competing for the best decorated house” theme. Eddie Murphy is your obsessed family man, whose encounter with Jillian Bell as a “mischievous elf” (it says here) leads to chaotic hilarity when the creatures of “The 12 Days of Christmas” all come alive. (A marvelous 1955 short film on that idea, “On the Twelfth Day,” can be found online, and I recommend that you do.) Tracee Ellis Ross plays Murphy’s (I’m going to guess long-suffering) wife. You can tell this’ll be fancy even before you shake the package, and however good or bad it turns out to be, it’ll give you a chance to watch some of my favorite comic character actors, including Robin Thede, Nick Offerman and Ken Marino.

Back at Disney+, Christmas With Walt Disney (Nov. 24) is not a visit to wherever the cryogenically frozen old animator is being kept, but a video scrapbook consisting of home movies, holiday-themed film clips and footage from Disneyland back when you could go there without having to choose between that and your kids’ college fund.

Disney, having added “Doctor Who” to its portfolio, is also the platform for three new specials, the first of which, “The Star Beast” — sounds half-Christmas-y anyway — premieres Nov. 25, with subsequent episodes to follow Dec. 2 and Dec. 9. For some of us, this is all the gift we need this season, with David Tennant temporarily back as the Doctor, Britcom-fan-favorite Catherine Tate returning as companion Donna and Neil Patrick Harris as the evil Toymaker, not to be confused with the one Ed Wynn played for Disney in “Babes in Toyland” back when. Russell T Davies, who brought the series back from the dead — can it be 18 years now? — once again runs the show.

As always, the yuletide content offered by Hallmark, Lifetime and Great American Family comes in overwhelming legions like the marching wooden soldiers in “Babes in Toyland.” I wouldn’t go so far to say that they’re all the same — there’s like four or five, well, four templates — but they are all in the business of giving you what you came for, with cosmetic variations. Not even an exception, to judge by the trailer, is Lifetime’s brand new Ladies of the ’80s: A Divas Christmas (Dec. 2), with Donna Mills, Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild, Linda Gray and Nicollette Sheridan as a quintet of daytime soap stars reunited for a reality TV weekend, during which they will certainly engineer a match between their producer and director. No, I’m not psychic.

Their success has led inevitably to various knockoffs, from old school broadcasters to big-name streamers. This year’s unusual suspects include Freevee’s Exmas (Nov. 17), which gives you Leighton Meester and Robbie Amell as a formerly engaged couple competing for the affection of his family; ALLBLK’s Christmas Holidate (now available), a dating app comedy with Jasmine Burke and Iroko Anyogu; and QVC+ and HSN+’s The Recipe Files (Nov. 24), a product placement mystery starring Ashlee Simpson.

There’s a sense in which new Christmas specials are expressions of nostalgia for old Christmas specials, and that’s never more the case than when music, which rings so many emotional (sleigh) bells, is in the mix. Quite delightful is Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas (Nov. 22) on Apple TV+, a sparkly, black-tie hour wrapped tightly around the “Ted Lasso” — and musical theater — star from the stage of the plush 1904 London Coliseum. Waddingham, who has the affect here of a sexy human Christmas tree, would be a bad host had she not invited some of her “Lasso” castmates, and you’ll find them here, on and offstage or in comic backstage bits. After three seasons of watching him as Jamie Tartt, we shouldn’t be shocked to find that Phil Dunster can dance, but the singing comes as a bit of a surprise.

From Las Vegas hails Barry Manilow’s A Very Barry Christmas (NBC, Dec. 11; Peacock, Dec. 12), in which Bette Midler’s old music director wassails you with yuletide favorites and his own hits. What they call country nowadays is on display inChristmas at the Opry(NBC, Dec. 7, Peacock, Dec. 8), hosted by Wynonna Judd, with Kelly Clarkson, Brenda Lee and Mickey Guyton among the names I recognize, while down the road in Memphis, Tenn., Christmas at Graceland (NBC, Nov. 29 and Dec. 21; simulcast on Peacock), where the 1970s are preserved in amber, will pay tribute to the King and the King of the Kings. (Performers are under wraps as of this writing.) And though not branded Xmas, or altogether country, Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Celebration (CBS, Dec. 17), recorded in April at the Hollywood Bowl, merits a mention just because Willie is The Man. (And he did write “Pretty Paper.”) The smorgasbord of talent includes Keith Richards, Gary Clark Jr., Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Beck and Snoop Dogg, without whom no party is complete.

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s and until the leftovers run out, this is a time for eating, not to say overeating. Selena Gomez’s Selena + Chef: Home for the Holidays (Food Network, Nov. 30; streaming on Max) is a special four-week edition of the “Only Murders in the Building” star’s irresistible teach-me-to-cook-that series. Sharing its subtitle is the two-part MasterChef Junior: Home for the Holidays (Fox, Dec. 10), from the greatest of all American cooking competitions, which, along with the miracle of tots with knife skills, will bring you fake snow, Gordon Ramsay in a Santa suit and the Hanukkah and Kwanzaa content elsewhere missing. And the Roku Channel’s “The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holiday 2023,” with judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith establishing its “Great British Baking Show” bona fides, tests whether Joel McHale, Phoebe Robinson and Arturo Castro, among others, can cook as well as a fifth-grader.

This is all just to scratch the surface, of course, to tear the corner off the wrapping of a box that contains decades’ worth of holiday programming, and decades more if you factor in all the old movies that are part of the parcel, a considerable amount of which will still be available through some cable or streaming platform, or hanging around the internet. Of these, I will mention only the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, because it’s getting a network airing (CBS, Nov. 24) and because it’s one of the few modern works that — for all its weirdness, or perhaps because of it — has actually defined the look and feeling of Christmas. It might have existed forever.

And because you have been wondering since the first paragraph, the Elf” marathon runs Nov. 24-25 on TNT, with 24 hours of “A Christmas Story” playing Dec. 24-25 on TBS and TNT. And “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which remains as fresh as new snow nearly 60 years after its debut, can be seen on Apple TV+, for subscribers anytime and, in the spirit of the season, free for everyone else on Dec. 16 and 17. Linus would approve.

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