The creative forces behind the new Christmas special Yes, Virginia know they face daunting odds.
At this time every year, TV programmers serve up shiny new holiday-themed fare, only to have viewers discard most of it like so much gift wrap. When it comes to seasonal fare, the stuff that's new rarely generates the same interest as the tried-and-true.
"It's tough to break through the crowd," says Matt MacDonald, a producer for Yes, Virginia, which debuts Dec. 11 on CBS. "A lot of specials in recent years have failed to stick around. Everyone seems to love the classics from the 1960s."
He's referring to holiday hall-of-famers including A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — timeless favorites that cast a powerful yuletide spell.
Yes, Virginia — featuring the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Alfred Molina — is one of this season's rookies trying to seize some attention. It's a computer-animated offering that revisits the late-1800s tale of young Virginia O'Hanlon, who wonders whether Santa Claus really exists. She eventually writes a letter to the New York Sun newspaper, which responded with an editorial that has become part of Christmas lore.
The story received TV treatment for a 1974 special, but MacDonald and his collaborators thought it was worth telling again.
"We anchored it in reality, but we didn't try to make it too hip or too modern," he says. "We don't want it to be something that has its day and is gone. Twenty years down the road, we'd love to be right there with Charlie Brown and Rudolph."
Here's a rundown of some of television's prime-time holiday highlights. Take note that many of the cable programs will receive multiple airings (for dates and times, consult your listings). And some shows have already premiered; where that's the case, we have listed the time of the first repeat broadcast.
THE HOLIDAY HALL OF FAME
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Quick, put Whoville on lockdown. The greedy grouch is lurking once again. (8 p.m. Dec. 23, ABC.)
A Charlie Brown Christmas: A pathetic little tree gets some love, and the Peanuts gang learns the true meaning of Christmas. (8 p.m. Dec. 8 and 24, ABC.)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: It's a celebration of nonconformity as North Pole outcasts rise and shine. (8 p.m. Dec. 12, CBS.)
The Year Without a Santa Claus: Say it isn't so: The big guy goes on strike. (8 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family.)
Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town: Mickey Rooney as Kriss Kringle melts the heart of the Burgermeister Meisterburger. (8 p.m. Dec. 7, ABC.)
Frosty the Snowman: It's time to chill out with the jolly, happy soul. (8 p.m. Dec. 18, CBS.)
NEW FOR THE KIDDIES
Disney's Prep & Landing: An elite unit of Santa's elves readies homes for the big night. (8 p.m. Dec. 16, ABC.)
Yes, Virginia: Neil Patrick Harris and Jennifer Love Hewitt lend voices to a familiar tale of girl who questions the existence of Santa. (8 p.m. Dec. 11, CBS.)
The Santa Clause: Tim Allen lives large as he dons the red suit. (3:30 p.m. Dec. 6, TBS. The Santa Clause 2 will air at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 on Disney, and The Santa Clause 3: Escape Clause will air at 9 p.m. Dec. 5 on Disney.)
A Christmas Carol (1984): George C. Scott stars as Scrooge. (Noon Dec. 4, Hallmark.)
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) becomes a walking disaster around the holiday. (8 p.m. Dec. 4, AMC.)
White Christmas: Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye work hard to make your days merry and bright. In one of her first movie roles, Kentucky native Rosemary Clooney plays half of a sister act with Vera-Ellen. (8 p.m. Dec. 5, AMC.)
It's a Wonderful Life: Capra classic still has the power to turn us into blubbering wrecks. (8 p.m. Dec. 12 and 24, NBC.)
A Christmas Story: We triple-dog dare you not to watch this nostalgic charmer over and over and over. (24-hour marathon starts at 8 p.m. Dec. 24, TBS.)
GIFTS THAT KEEP GIVING
Mickey's Christmas Carol: Disney does Dickens in this 1983 'toon. (7 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family.)
A Miser Brothers' Christmas: A 2008 sequel to 1974's The Year Without a Santa Claus. (9 p.m. Dec. 8, ABC Family.)
A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa: Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang celebrate the holidays. (8 p.m. Dec. 11, NBC.)
The Flight Before Christmas: Animated tale of a young reindeer who aspires to be an expert flyer like his father. (9 p.m. Dec. 12, CBS.)
Frosty Returns: Apparently, there's still some magic in that old silk hat. (8:30 p.m. Dec. 18, CBS.)
FRESHLY WRAPPED TV MOVIES
The National Tree: Father (Andrew McCarthy) and son (Evan Williams) bond on a cross-country trip as they deliver a majestic spruce to Washington, D.C. (8 p.m. Dec. 4, Hallmark.)
The Dog Who Saved Christmas: A former police dog confronts Grinch-like burglars. Dean Cain stars. (10:30 a.m. Dec. 5, ABC Family.)
Debbie Macomber's Mrs. Miracle: Doris Roberts plays a heaven-sent housekeeper who gives a fractured family an unforgettable holiday. (8 p.m. Dec. 5, Hallmark.)
12 Men of Christmas: Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth plays a PR exec who raises temperatures in a Montana town with a hunk-filled calendar. One of the hunks is Lexington native Josh Hopkins. (9 p.m. Dec. 5, Lifetime.)
Christmas in Canaan: Flatwoods native Billy Ray Cyrus stars in a tale about two boys who form an unlikely friendship in the 1960s. (8 p.m. Dec. 12, Hallmark.)
The Christmas Hope: A social worker (Madeleine Stowe) bends the rules and takes in an orphaned child. (8 p.m. Dec. 12, Hallmark.)
Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe: In the sequel to the 2006 TV movie, Jenny McCarthy stars as Santa's daughter, who feels torn when Dad wants to give up the Christmas biz. (8 p.m. Dec. 13, ABC Family.)
MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT
Carrie Underwood: An All-Star Holiday Special: The country crooner performs holiday classics with her pals, including Dolly Parton and Brad Paisley. (8 p.m. Dec. 7, Fox.)
Jennifer Hudson: I'll Be Home for Christmas: The Oscar-winning "Dreamgirl" gets into the holiday mood. (8 p.m. Dec. 14, ABC.)
Christmas in Washington: Mary J. Blige, Neil Diamond, Sugarland and others celebrate in musical style. (8 p.m. Dec. 20, TNT.)
A Home for the Holidays with Faith Hill: Celebrities present inspirational stories about adoption. (8 p.m. Dec. 23, CBS.)