The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (released in 1975) is the topic for today, and, from what I can tell, it’s one of the lesser known additions to the Rankin/Bass canon. This one stands out from the previous anime by not being directly attached to any previous songs, poems or stories, but by being entirely its own thing. How sturdy can these writers and artists be, when standing on their own? That’s what we’re going to find out. Also, is it just me, or do these titles just keep getting longer?
Can it be? Can it possibly happen? A Year Without a Santa Claus? Without tyranny, or cruelty? Where reindeer can be themselves without judgment? A year where evil magicians won’t be casually tolerated? Where children won’t be forced to give kisses, where the law will be obeyed, where all can have opinions? Could it be true? Well, in 1974, our friends at Rankin/Bass decided to answer such a wonderful question, with the help of a book by Phyllis McGinley.
After learning the origin of Santa last time, the special that came immediately after, Twas the Night Before Christmas, furthers the adventures of everyone’s favorite Christmas criminal. Released four years after the last special, the source material this time is the classic 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” credited to Clement Clark Moore but with some questionable authorship. The poem itself is the actual origin of many conceptions we currently have about Santa, and pretty much every kid nowadays has heard it at least once, so in tackling this most important of Christmas stories, did Rankin/Bass get it right? Eh.
Given that we’ve so far covered four of these specials, it kind of surprises me that, until now, Santa Claus, the embodiment of Christmas spirit and the most recognizable holiday-themed public domain character, has never been a protagonist. Sure, he’s been a secondary character in two of the previous specials, where he first showed his contempt towards people and goodness, but so far, we still don’t know why he is that way. Maybe, just maybe, Rankin/Bass will finally solve this problem in 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. This one’s back to being 50 minutes, because Rankin/Bass hates me apparently.
After a couple of specials that took chances tonally, Rankin/Bass very much found it’s classic form again in 1969 with its fourth special, Frosty the Snowman. It’s adapted from a popular children’s song originally recorded by Gene Autry, it’s more about the carefree fun of Christmas than anything else, and Santa is a character. Also with this special, Rankin/Bass has by now established a pattern of alternating between stop-motion and the cheaper traditionally animated styles, with this one following squarely in the latter category.
The Little Drummer Boy, released in 1968, is a much-welcome return to the classic stop-motion style of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, and also the shortest one so far, reaching only 25 minutes, in contrast to the roughly fifty minutes of the last two. The subject this time doesn’t come from the more modern, mainstream idea of Christmas like the last two were, but instead tells a story surrounding the Biblical origin of the holiday… kinda. There’s no mention in the Bible of the birth of Christ being accompanied by a sweet drum rhythm, but the song based around it, written by Katherine Kennicott Davis, has become so well-known, one could be forgiven for forgetting that. But, how does the perpetually silly Rankin/Bass do when attempting a more reverent tone? Well…
A cricket on the hearth… sounds crazy, no? But in 1967, it was the second Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass, and also one of the more obscure. It the first of these Christmas anime to use a more traditional 2D style, and also, compared to Rudolph, it’s much more down to earth, in terms of tone and story. Mostly. Much of that is because of the source material this was adapted from, a Christmas-themed novella by the acclaimed author Charles Dickens. Wait, no, not that one. This doesn’t have the looming specter of death as a character, we already had Bumble last time for that. While Cricket on the Hearth may not be as beloved a tale as that other one, Rankin/Bass is sure to defy comparison, and make sure that this anime can truly stand on its own. Continue reading