Late to the Party: Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: q-pa watches some “Stale TV Spciaaaallls~!” We’re focusing on the Christmas output of famous animation production house Rankin/Bass (formerly Videocraft International Ltd.).

I had been avoiding it all November.  Like a horror-movie victim barricaded in their house (thanks, pandemic!).  Muting all commercials, taking discretion with my social media consumption, ignoring AfroPig’s Countdown (I’m sorry), even avoiding any and all news about one of my favorite artists releasing & promoting a Christmas album and special.  Publicly celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving should be a crime.  Those advent calendars have only one month on them, people!

I have my reasons.  I’m “a lonely Jew” who doesn’t even have his family nearby.  My 8 days of presents have become a single care package of nothing materially special.  We tried to do Menorah-lighting over FaceTime this year & the last, but it was a pale imitation of being there.  The Holiday seasons holds nothing for me anymore.  (And to be honest, I still have residual trauma from my move 2 Decembers ago when my parents and I shared an early, exceptionally-tense Hanukkah just after moving in and I was forced to do new-apartment shopping alongside the Christmas rush.  Never again.)

Now, you may know that I lived a relatively-culturally-sheltered childhood (why do you even let me on this pop-culture-centered website?).  This naturally extended to the various Christmas specials the networks trot out–almost-literally–every year.  For whatever reason, the only ones I saw as a child are the surprisingly-gritty Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, the sweet Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas and the British classic The Snowman (plus bits & pieces of How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Now I’m not gonna lie: all of these hold a warm place in my heart (especially The Snowman; I highly recommend you check it out via that link). And I imagine if I had grown up with some of these, they would have too. But I didn’t. And that’s why we’re here today.

Literally my only piece of Holiday-wear.

I woke up on December 1st to–and was inspired to start writing this article by–our first true snowfall of the year (it normally doesn’t happen until next month).  And look, CBS is airing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tonight!  Guess I’ll start there.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

First aired: 1964, on NBC
Creative team: Produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. & Jules Bass, directed by Larry Roemer, written by Romeo Muller, adapted from a story by Robert May. Narrated by Burl Ives.
Based on: the song by Johnny Marks
Can now be seen on: CBS and YouTube

Geez, the father figures in this film are dicks! Showing the parents reactions to his… “non-conformity,” treating it as more of a deformity, is… something (“There are more important things than comfort: self-respect!”). Yet I understand Rudolph’s father has a reputation to uphold (“Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself! What a pity”)… And the coach isn’t much better.

[avantgarde flute solo!]

Santa’s got the right idea by singing to the young buck (but “I’m the king of ding-a-ling”?). The music is hit or miss, honestly. I was familiar with Burl Ives rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas” and the “Misfits” song (via covers/parodies). The “Santa’s elves” song is terrible. Worse than the equivalent Doozer song from Fraggle Rock (one of my least favorite from that show).

I see the influence this show has had in ways I’ve never realized. I think The Nightmare Before Christmas based its style on this (and the Misfit toys’ song is like a mirror version of “This Is Halloween”), Rudolph & his doe-friend are Stan & Wendy in the first episode of South Park, characters even make the >.< and ^ – ^ faces! “Rudolph was growing up, and growing up made Rudolph realize you can’t run away from your troubles”? Literally The Lion King.

I fully get it now.

Overall, the message is of course “be yourself and eventually people will love you for it, or at least celebrate your differences.” Gotta say I related to it a lot. Not only is the Misfit boat a stutterer like me, but going off on my own without a word in from anyone else is so me. But man, those father figures! I realize this is the “father knows best” 60s, but have a little compassion!

Grade: B

Loose observations:

  • It starts off the exact same way as The Snowman: a tale of a storm
  • Clarice has a very different singing voice, and apparently the animal-summoning abilities of Snow White!
  • And speaking of which, the “We’re a couple of misfits” recording is noticeably lower-quality than the others.
  • LOL @ Yukon Cornelius having all kinds of sled dogs
  • Do you think Herbie the dentist elf is coded as (culturally) gay? He’s got the nice hair.
  • And how the hell would the Abominable Monster not notice his teeth being pulled? Did the elf have a secret stash of anesthetic or something?

Frosty the Snowman

First aired: 1969, on CBS
Creative team: Produced & directed by Arthur Rankin Kr. & Jules Bass, written by Romeo Muller. Narrated by Jimmy Durante.
Based on:
the 1951 song by Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins
Can now be seen on:
CBS and YouTube

I felt this one lacked the heart–or at least care–that Rudolph had. The 2D animation, done by Mushi Studios and full of looping sequences, reminded me of B-tier properties like The Pink Panther. But even moreso, the children designs looked like something I’ve seen on old pencil cases, and sounded… pretty generic.

Jackie Vernon as the voice of Frosty is a treat though, like a kindly… well, not grandpa, but jolly elder fellow. I chuckled at his first words and I remember hearing his “Let’s make a pawty out of it!” sampled somewhere. This guy knows a lot for just being born–except traffic rules, apparently. He even knows how to break the fourth wall (“Could I really be alive?”)! But I kept wondering what kind of entity he was before, because this is clearly not his first rodeo with sentience. (“What a neat thing to happen to a nice guy like me.” Huh?)

Like Barney & Friends, now that I think about it.

I never understood/paid attention to the song’s 2nd verse before, so I was surprised when they marched into town to presumably rub it in the magic guy’s face. And I didn’t know that Frosty & Karen will literally “be back again someday” (meaning dinnertime; this girl–like all kids–must have a warped sense of time & space). And we’re only at the halfway point! The showdown in the woods & the greenhouse was fine; decent acting by Karen, plus those reflections were nice. The action definitely felt Pink Panther-y to me (to use the comparison again). But in the end, the moral of the story is: don’t fuck with Santa Claus. And believe in the magic of Christmas, I guess.

Grade: C

Loose observations:

  • Very first thought: “AHH! Who are you, old man?! Stranger Danger!” But once I warmed up to Jimmy Durante, this special also starts off with the tale of a snowstorm.
  • Nice cameo by Mr. Zip!
  • The Simpsons has warped my view of elementary-school classrooms, but I do remember all concerned parties stopped caring once the Holidays came close. It was a magical time–even if this snowstorm didn’t give these children the day off.
  • “You make the head.” “The head is the most difficult part. Ask anyone.” Okay, little girl.
  • So Santa visits woodland animals too? Isn’t he busy enough? More on that below.

The Year Without a Santa Claus

First aired: 1974, on ABC
Creative team: Produced & directed by Arthur Rankin Kr. & Jules Bass, written by William Keenan. Narrated by Shirley Booth.
Original songs by: Maury Laws & Jules Bass
Based on: the book by Phyllis McGinley
Can now be seen on:
AMC and YouTube–but missing the last 2½ minutes

This one I chose over 1970’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town [Note: I did give a quick review of that one in the comments by popular demand] mainly because I was familiar with the Miser brothers and their song(s) via covers–as well as Batman & Robin. And they sure were a joy to watch, especially that “big ham,” “tutti-frutti snow cone” (again, he’s coded as gay). But unfortunately, that was the only time I smiled during this whole hour-long special; it’s like they were from a different work. I was put off by the more-realistic-looking humans and their dead, unfocused eyes. And I kept trying to figure out how Santa Claus works in this universe. So he has no contingency plan? Mrs. Claus had to think up one herself in a “Plan A” that goes nowhere? And no present deliveryman means no presents? So the schoolkids don’t care if they get presents or not?
And hold up: Christmas is not a “national holiday?!”

I realize the creators were probably inspired by the more-cynical 1970s (this was right around the height of Watergate, wasn’t it?) but also wanted to give it a timeless feel. And I think they could have walked that tightrope better… At first I thought Santa’s advisor was pushing, ugh, fake news (Who doesn’t love Santa Claus–even if they don’t believe in him??) but it turns out P.O.D. was right about Southtown. The kids may be kids, but the cop is a racist asshole and the Mayor is an implied drunkard (the red nose & all) who gets a “Sidestep”-style musical number, but not the graceful moves of Charles Durning.

But after Mrs. Thistlewhite takes the woefully-unprepared Santa in and introduces the family (one of whom had the honor of previously meeting him!), Santa & the townspeople form a personal bond. He even had time to fly down his street at the end! That’s always the problem with these movies, and arguably religion in general: the economics of scale. Santa Claus–as in a man personally visiting every Christian household to deliver presents and eat cookies–simply wouldn’t on a worldwide, let alone county-wide, scale.

Anyway, the “B” plot has the elves and Mrs. Claus appeal to the Snowmiser, then Heatmiser, then Mother Nature herself (That’s the natural goddess of this world? She’s so… homely!). And like Frosty, our villains are forced by the Great Good to cooperate and Christmas is saved. The Mayor does in fact arrange for Santa a “national holiday” and the spirit of Christmas inspires children around the world to make & give gifts to Santa, which in turn grows his own heart and inspires him to deliver them. You’ll never be without a Santa Claus!* (some restrictions apply)

This looks like The Snowman–and I don’t mean the Christmas special.

Grade: C+

Loose observations:

  • Mrs. Claus introduces herself like an infomercial. “You may remember me from such Holiday programming as…” I dunno, she wasn’t in any of the others I saw.
  • Listen to your doctors this year: don’t travel!
  • “Wow, Mickey Rooney?!” He’s really believable as angry Santa Claus.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth had a similar duelingsongs dynamic to the Misers 4 years earlier.
  • I appreciate that they printed out real miniature newspapers,
  • I’m honestly a little offended that everybody in the world is Christian.
  • Can you imagine every child making such a sacrifice now, with no whining or complaining?
  • The plastic tears lend pathos to major-key sad songs that otherwise wouldn’t work.

Bonus: A Charlie Brown Christmas

First aired: 1965, on CBS
Creative team: Directed by Bill Mendes, written by Charles M. Schulz
Score by: Vince Guiraldi
Based on: Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip
Can now be seen on: Apple TV+

This one I saw for the first time 3-4 years ago, but rewatched for this article. I know Apple securing the rights to this (along with all other Peanuts programming) was controversial, but I get it (they eventually made the program free with an Apple log-in). After being lukewarm on it the first time, and after being introduced to the Rankin/Bass alternative, I definitely appreciate all the creators did here and I think I prefer this to the other 3.

I sensed the contrast to the Rankin/Bass style right away: the bright, imperfect painted backgrounds, skating to the same–shock–jazz music that I found tame before (Vince Guiraldi is no Dave Brubeck, I’ll just say that). Just the simple presence of PigPen! This special, compared to those that came before and after it, is downright modern and subversive.

This scene especially really pops.

And it addresses the all-too-universal stresses of the season too. In fact, I think I related to Charlie Brown’s opening lines, “Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel” more than ever! The first time I watched this I didn’t think it felt much like the comic strip at all (which, as a kid, was far from my favorite but pleasant enough). Now I think I see the nuances of the writing and how it does feel like a series of comics/situations put together.

There’s no Santa, let alone adult figures in this one (as is Peanuts tradition). Kids are forced to figure things out on their own and squabble amongst themselves. But then comes the very-special-comic-strip-y ending, where Linus waves away all doubt and infighting with “STFU, Jesus.” Then the other kids follow Charlie Brown out for some reason, steal ornaments to put on his tree and they all sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I didn’t find that a sufficient answer to Charlie Brown’s problem (for obvious reasons), but I still loved the special leading up to that.

Grade: A-

Loose observations:

  • Interesting choice of gothic-style font
  • I love this remix.


I do feel like I was let in on a little Holiday secret, a piece of the American puzzle that I had been missing until now. It’s not necessarily Rockwellian as there aren’t really any good family units save for the Thistlewhites, and there’s plenty of conflict to go around. But I can see how these specials can generate warm feelings this time of year. They’re something to watch with your family while you’re all together, which I’ll admit is foreign to me (my brother and I were parked in front of the TV when we saw our specials).

I appreciate that all of the Rankin/Bass specials star different versions of Santa Claus and don’t mention Jesus at all (one of them even has pagan gods!). Yet as a Jew, I still had a hard time relating. There’s no pretense about where or from whom presents come from in Hanukkah; I guess it’s like the middleman is cut out. But of course, what these specials really spread is that “Christmas cheer.” And that’s universal… right?

I wanted to thank this project for helping me get in the Holiday spirit, even welcoming it with open (as in over 90 degrees) arms for a change! And for helping me erase the memory of two years ago.

Happy Holidays, everybody (and an especially-happy 8th night of Hanukkah to all who celebrate it)! Ho ho ho, etc.!