Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass created some of the greatest Christmas specials of all time, there’s no denying that. They did magical things with stop-motion puppets and traditional animation alike. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas… the list goes on and on and on. But not all of their productions are as well known as these, and even those that are relatively obscure are still pretty good.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) is one of my favorites. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum (creator of The Wizard of Oz), this is one of the most unique Santa Claus stories you’ll ever read. In this version, a fairy named Necile finds an abandoned mortal child whom she decides to raise as her own. She names the boy “Claus,” meaning “Little One” in her language, and the child grows up among the fairies and the immortals. As he grows older, though, he begins to understand that he grows and changes, while his mother and friends are unchanging and immortal. The lord of the immortals, the Great Ak, takes young Claus out into the world to show him the humans for the first time, and seeing how so many of his people suffer, Claus decides to go out into the world to try to make things better.
Claus decides that the way to change the world is through the children. We see how he invents the first toys, how he begins his mission of leaving them as the children sleep, and how the evil forces in the world conspire against him. This is, like I said, a Santa Claus you’ve never seen, but in the end, he grows and changes into the figure we all know. It’s an excellent story and one that’s perfectly in keeping with the sort of fantasy Baum was so well known for. This is the Santa Claus that shows up in the Oz books on occasion, the one that is more a part of the world of magic than others. His tale really is a beautiful one.
The 1975 special The First Christmas (sometimes known by its subtitle, The Story of the First Christmas Snow) is another rarity. Starring Angela Landsbury, this is the story of a blind shepherd child named Lucas taken in by a nun in a warm country, where she dreams of the snow-covered Christmases of her childhood. To help Lucas fit in, she tries to give him the part of an angel in the town’s Christmas pageant, but the other children reject him even more. As part of a cruel joke, some of the children lead him out into the woods, where he becomes lost.
When the boys regret their joke, they help Lucas save one of his lost sheep, and they bond together. It’s a sweet story, right down to the requisite Christmas Mircale at the end. It also has some particularly good music, including a wonderful rendition of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
In 1977, Rankin and Bass gave us Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Santa’s personal donkey narrates the story of his ancestor, Nestor, a donkey born during the Roman empire and afflicted with embarrassingly long ears. Nestor is ridiculed for his ears, although (unlike the reindeer who would one day make Rudolph’s life so miserable) the animals have a change of heart and apologize on one cold winter’s night. That very evening, though, a centurion sent by the Emperor of Rome seizes several animals for use by the Emperor, including Nestor. When he discovers Nestor’s giant ears, though, he takes the other animals without payment and leaves Nestor behind. The donkey is thrown out into the snow, alone and abandoned, about to freeze to death. His mother rushes out to protect him, but at a heartbreaking sacrifice.
Nestor encounters an Angel who tells him that he has a destiny to fulfill, to save someone else as his mother saved him. From here, seeing as how this is a Christmas story, it should be pretty easy to figure out where the story is going, but that doesn’t detract from it in the slightest. The music isn’t quite as memorable as most Rankin-Bass productions, but it isn’t bad. This (like The First Christmas) is the sort of special you don’t see too much of these days – the sort that actually seems to remember there’s a spiritual aspect of Christmas as well, and it’s quite good for that.
Nestor is a secondary feature for the Year without a Santa Claus DVD, but to the best of my knowledge The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and The First Christmas still aren’t available on DVD, although if you hunt hard enough you can find them on VHS. Fortunately, ABC Family puts all of these old Rakin-Bass specials in pretty heavy rotation every December. Keep an eye out, and you should be able to find them.