A Rankin-Bass Christmas...Every Year

A column article by: Zack Davisson

I am going to date myself here, but it can’t be helped… I love Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, and I am going full-on nostalgic. No cynics or Scrooges allowed on this magical sleigh ride.

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a simpler time: before such a thing as the internet existed, before the ubiquitous nature of cable and satellite TV, before streaming video, Netflicks, DVDs, or VHS tapes -- back to when even the concept of home video recording seemed like science fiction. Yes, even back to a time when TV sets were still sold as either color or black-and-white. The mythical time of the 1970s.

 Imagine a time where, if you wanted to watch something on TV, you had one chance and one chance only to catch a broadcast. If you missed it, then it was lost into the ether forever, never to appear again. If you loved it, you had better pay attention because you only got to watch it once. Television was ephemeral.

Except for Christmas specials.

Why Christmas Specials are Special

Christmas specials had a unique kind of magic. Aside from all of their wonderful qualities -- and moving puppets and toys are always wonderful -- of all the different images flickering across your tiny TV screen, Christmas specials were the only things you got to watch twice. Or maybe even three or four times.

They were like river stones poking up from the flowing river of television and entertainment. They were something you could get your hands on. Something you could build relationships with. Something you could look forward to. To a kid, they were clearly more important than those other types of television that were only broadcast once and soon forgotten.

As a wee lad in the ‘70s, I was a maniac. I loved Christmas specials. Starting from November, I would nag my mother into buying a TV Guide, then relentlessly hunt down when and on what channel the years Christmas specials were airing. I would then schedule my activities over the next two months to watch as many as I could.

Woe be to the brother who wanted to watch some silly sports game or something while 'Twas the Night Before Christmas was playing. If my mother wanted to watch the news during Santa Claus is Coming to Town, then she needed to be prepared to fight me for it. The only real conundrum was when two shows were playing at the same time on different channels. There were no remotes, so you just had to clack the big dial back and forth to try and catch as much as you could of both. Sometimes it was just making a decision; which one did you want to see most? The Mr. T Holiday Special or A Very Smurfy Christmas? Which was it going to be?

But with one brand of Christmas specials, it was no contest. Everything lost to these. Any Christmas specials that had the credits of “by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass” was an instant trump.

Rankin /Bass – Makers of Modern Christmas

Modern Christmas is not as old as people like to think it is. Even though we pretend we are celebrating traditions dating back thousands of years, the reality is that many of our most treasured Christmas artifacts were born a few centuries ago at best. Christmas is largely an invented holiday, put together by a few creative types. Charles Dickens and Washington Irving get most of the credit, along with Charles Clement Moore. And Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass.

If Christmas specials were magical, then none carried more frame-by-frame magic than a Rankin/Bass production. They were -- and are -- a separate thing apart, never to be duplicated no matter how many have tried. It is not necessarily the fluency of the animation, which can be stilted and clumsy, but more the fully realized fantasy of their world.

They took all of this disparate elements of Christmas -- the flying reindeer, the talking snowmen, the elves and the North Pole -- and forged it into a mythology. Not a coherent one; they didn’t care about continuity. But one that operated as a separate world. Rankin/Bass had a pretty simple formula in their early specials: take a popular Christmas tune and write a story around it. That worked so well that it is almost impossible to imagine Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman without thinking of the Rankin/Bass versions.

How much of our modern Christmas imagery comes from the Rankin/Bass holiday specials? Their influence is everywhere. Nightmare Before Christmas and Elf are both pure Rankin/Bass homages. The idea of a Christmastown, with Santa’s Castle and Workshop is, likewise, pure Rankin/Bass.

Their version of some classic Christmas characters has become dominate. And their wonderful specials continue to entertain year after year. And though my article is way too short to tell the whole story -- I recommend Rick Goldschmidt’s awesome cool The Enchanted World of Rankin Bass -- I do have a few tidbits of info you might not know.


Rankin/Bass Fun Facts

  • Rankin/Bass is not Claymation ­­– A pet peeve of mine. Rankin/Bass used a process they called Animagic which combined stop-motion puppet animation with traditional cell animation. Claymation -- like Wallace and Grommet -- uses sculptable clay stop-motion. They are different.
  • A Dolly for Sue – If you watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer often enough, you ask the question: What the hell is wrong with a Dolly for Sue? She sure isn’t a cowboy riding an ostrich or a water gun that shoots grape jelly, so why is she on the Island of Misfit Toys? Finally addressing the issue, Arthur Rankin has said that Dolly's problem is more psychological. Make of that what you will.
  • Fame and Fortune – There are actually a couple different versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with different songs and different scenes. Most broadcast versions edit things down and swap out one of two songs, Fame and Fortune or We’re a Couple of Misfits. The scene where Yukon Cornelius finally finds his mine is always cut out.
  • Rankin / Bass is Studio Ghibli - When Rankin and Bass got together in the early 1960s they created a company called Videocraft International. But while Rankin and Bass get all the credit, they had a third partner, Mochinaga Tadahito, who was the stop-motion animator that brought all of those wonderful puppets to life. Almost all Rankin/Bass specials were actually animated in Japan by Mochinaga, and with cell animation supplied by Hara Toru and his company Top Craft studios. Hara Toru and Top Craft would later go to join a little company called Studio Ghibli and create films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro.
  • Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats! - Yep, the Thundercats are also Rankin/Bass. But I don’t love them the way I love the Christmas specials.


My Christmas Tape

When we got our first VHS recorder sometime in the ‘80s, I spent a few Christmas recording as many Rankin/Bass specials as I could to that I could watch them all year. Tracking them down was not easy; some of the specials played constantly, but finding Jack Frost or The Year Without a Santa Claus was tougher, and I never did manage to record The Leprechauns Christmas Gold. One of my favorites was the last one I managed to record, that pagan epic from L. Frank Baum The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

By the time home video was becoming the norm and the TV Guide slowly lost its death-grip on kids. Rankin/Bass filmed their last Christmas special, Santa Baby. In 2000. Then after forty years of making magic, they closed up shop and called it a day.

 I kept that tape for about fifteen years and watched it every Christmas until the advent of DVD, when I started replacing my worn-out old tape with shiny new DVDs. This has lead to a renaissance for Rankin/Bass, with a whole new generation falling in love with their specials. I see Rankin/Bass goods everywhere when I am Christmas shopping.

I love it. Even though I am older now, it still doesn’t feel like Christmas without some Rankin/Bass Christmas specials on the TV. I gotta put up the tree, mix up a batch of eggnog, get some twinkling lights up and watch some Rankin/Bass. And now that (almost) the whole collection is out on DVD now, I finally have a copy of The Leprechauns Christmas Gold.

I think I will watch it tonight. Maybe you should too. And have a Holly Jolly Christmas!


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