As a child, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the TV Guide each week. I would circle the specials I wanted to watch to make sure that I would not forget when they were on.
The magazines that circled the most were the ones that arrived in December, as that was when those delightful Rankin Bass Christmas specials were on. Back in the days before VCR’s, DVD and Blu Ray players, cable television with the “On Demand” feature and online viewing with Hulu or Netflix, a program aired one of the three major television networks only once, and then it disappeared until the following year.
If you missed it, you literally had to wait an entire year to for an opportunity to see it again.
Since there were no Chanukah specials for children, my Jewish friends and I enjoyed Christmas vicariously through the animated Rankin Bass specials that we all enjoyed.
Who Were Rankin Bass?
Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass were the brilliant minds behind their Videocraft International company. They produced dozens of holiday and non-holiday specials, but are most fondly remembered for the ones they created for Christmas.
The company was founded in 1960 and used not only standard animation (like Frosty the Snowman) but also “Animagic”. This technology was created in Japan and used stop-motion to move the characters.
Although they had their own stable of voices (that is why many are so familiar in one special after another), they were also able to recruit some of the most talented actors of their day. Fred Astaire, Burl Ives, Ethel Merman, Vincent Price and many others lent names and their vocals to some of the Christmas holiday’s most believed characters.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
You Better Watch Out!
This special, which stars Fred Astaire as the narrating mail carrier, first aired in December 1970. Viewers learn how many Christmas traditions began. We are introduced to the ill-tempered Burgermeister Meisterberger who rules over the people of Sombertown.
When a baby is left at his doorstep with the name “Claus” on a name tag, he orders the baby to be placed in an orphanage. A wind blows his basket away, and he is found by animals who hide him from the nasty Winter Warlock. Eventually, he is found by Tanta Kringle and her elf family (side note-”tanta” is Yiddish for “aunt”).
Time passes, and the children are not allowed to have toys because he hurt himself tripping over a toy duck. Kris Kringle, who wants to restore the family as the chief toymakers, attempts to bring toys to the town. He encounters Jessica, a schoolteacher who will eventually become Mrs. Claus.
The adventures continue as we meet many delightful characters who, along with Kris Kringle’s help, create the magic that is known as Christmas.
The Memorable Introduction
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
This 1964 Rankin Bass special was based on the popular song of the same name. Given today’s acceptance of people with special needs and differing abilities, it seems almost silly that a reindeer is bullied and teased for having a red nose (no one ever teased Santa about his red nose!) This truly was a program ahead of it’s time, and the topic is still relevant today.
Rudolph’s parents are embarrassed by their son’s nose, and after he is teased too much, he runs away. While he is gone, he runs into Hermie, an elf who really wants to be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, who wants to be rich.
The find the island of Misfit toys, where all rejected toys go. Rudolph, a misfit himself, promises to get Santa to help them find a home. Of course, he remains true to his word.
Meet the Misfit Toys
Frosty the Snowman
My Twins Favorite Special!
I have seen this 1969 Rankin Bass special more than any other because it was my twins’ favorite when they were younger. We watched it year round, and it brought me about 25 minutes of peace and quiet when my kids sat and viewed it.
Frosty, narrated by the great Jimmy Durante, comes to life through the magic of an old silk hat. The kids in town, especially Karen, love to play with Frosty. But the mean magician want it for himself, a struggle ensues. Frosty has to leave, but he will be back again-he promises!
Frosty is Alive!
I never understood why Karen did not have tights on during the winter!
The Year Without a Santa Claus
This special seems to air at the same time on the ABC Family network, as it is one of our “winding down” programs that we watch on Christmas Eve. Produced in 1974, this tells the tale of how Santa is just too sick to leave bed and deliver the toys on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Claus, voiced by Shirley Booth, lets him rest, but has other ideas.
Jingle and Jangle, a pair of elves, hop aboard the reindeer Vixen to share the news that Christmas is cancelled.
The kids do not seem to care.
When Vixen is impounded and Santa finds out what everyone is up to, he decides to save the day. His mood is brightened when he finds out that people do still believe in him and have the spirit of the holiday. So he does not cancel Christmas after all.
Shirley Booth Sings the Title Song
Twas the Night Before Christmas
The last Rankin Bass animated Christmas special was made in 1974 and tells the Christmas story from the viewpoint of a family of mice. When Santa reads an article, written by one of the mice, that he is not real, he gets upset and decides not visit the town of Junctionville. Can Mr. Trundle’s little bit of clock magic help change Santa’s mind?
A Classic Clip
Rankin Bass produced many different specials over the years. Which one is your favorite?
Photo from Pixabay and altered by the author in Picmonkey