There is a house down the street from me that looks like the seasonal section at K-Mart ejaculated over its front yard. There is Santa, Mrs. Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, some gingerbread men, birds, presents, a Shrek for some goddamn reason; all lit up like a tacky-ass looking Rockefeller Center. This house is the only part of my life that even remotely feels like Christmas right now.
My landlord, a man I imagine would let his home fall into Grey Gardens if he didn’t insist on having tenants, has no Christmas decorations in the house. Not in the yard, not hanging from the gutter and not even in boxes in storage. It’s like I’m living in a Jehovah’s Witness’s house. Something I considered might be true writing this sentence until I remember there is still a piece of his birthday cake in the fridge from five months ago.
It’s only going to actually feel like Christmas for me when I make the five-hour drive to see my parents. Growing up our house was basically the North Pole this time of year. Instead of spending our Black Friday’s macing white women so we could get the last $39.99 VCR, we were out in the yard hammering plastic yard ornaments into the cold Pacific Northwest ground. We had like fifty of these things and had to position them just right so the people driving by to look at our decorations could see them all. Can’t have the nondescript snow person blocking the baby Jesus, now can we?
Today it’s much different. Both my parents are in their fifties and mostly just decorate the inside of the house with a few festive wreathes hung outside. No more getting over our tryptophan coma by whoring up the yard.
The one big holiday tradition that does remain is when I arrive there in a few short days, my Dad will turn it over to Freeform for whatever fucking Rankin/Bass holiday special is on the air. More than likely it will be all of them, just one right after the other. And while we own all of them on DVD, we’ll still sit through the commercials and complain about how they cut so much out of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to make it fit the time slot even though the DVD is right there. We will sit there as a family, occasionally glancing down at our phones, watching the Rankin/Bass Christmas Cinematic Universe (RBCCU) because that’s what you do at the holidays.
Hold on, what? What do you mean what do I mean Rankin/Bass Christmas Cinematic Universe? Are you talking about those stop-motion animated Christmas classics that for some reason had the abominable snowmen in them? Yes, that’s what those movies are. Rudolph, Frost, Santa, even the Little Drummer Boy all make up the original cinematic universe. Before Kevin Feige had an idea about Iron Man or Zack Snyder had a bad idea about Superman, there was the RBCCU. Instead of being about superheroes battling to save the planet, it’s about the increasingly stupid adventures of the claymation Christmas crew.
Let me break everything down. And right from the start, let me make one thing clear: not every Rankin/Bass Christmas movie is part of this thing. Pinocchio’s Christmas? Nope. Twas the Night Before Christmas? Nuh-uh. The Stingiest Man in Town? Whatever. The Story of the First Christmas Snow? Sorry. Any of the sequels produced in the nineties and oughts? As if. Not even counting The Little Drummer Boy Book II because who the fuck knew this was a thing.
With those out of the way, we can focus on the core films of the RBCCU. I’ve watched all these specials multiple times over the last 25 years because it seemed inappropriate to just put Christmas Vacation on a continuous loop starting the day after Thanksgiving. Make no mistake this is a cinematic universe. It has origin stories, cross-overs and a big event that brings everyone together at the end, and it all starts with the original, the Iron Man of this universe: Rudolph.
Debuting in 1964 on NBC, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the longest running TV Christmas special in history. You’ve probably seen this once in your life, but if you need a refresher here’s the gist of it: a reindeer with a birth defect is relentlessly bullied until he decides to run away from home. Tagging along is an elf with a tooth-fetish. The duo eventually pair up with a hobo, travel to depression island, horribly maim and domesticate an endangered animal, and eventually return home to lead Santa’s sleigh. Fun fact: in the original broadcast, Santa and company never returned to the Island of Misfit Toys, because let’s be honest: nobody actually wants a Charlie in the Box.
It’s supposed to be a Wonder-ish feel-good story about overcoming adversity and not allowing your outward appearance to define who you are, but really it’s a parable about how everybody at the North Pole, including Santa Claus, is a dick. Do you actually think Santa learns his lesson at the end of this film? Hell no, he’s still totally bigoted towards Rudolph, it’s only now he can use Rudolph’s natural talents to make himself more notable. Basically, he’s Donald Sterling.
With that special, the RBCCU was in business. Adaptions of popular Christmas stories became all the rage. In 1965 CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas. The very next year the far-superior-to-anything-else-in-this-essay Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! debuted. Rankin/Bass Productions wouldn’t create the second piece of the RBCCU until 1968. It was The Little Drummer Boy, and just like the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it doesn’t matter and nobody actually likes watching it. The kid is a lousy drummer and if people really cared about the birth of Jesus instead of the death of him, The Nativity Story would have made $600 million at the box office instead of The Passion of the Christ. All that matters here is this is where the most important character of the RBCCU is established: Christmas. Yes, Christmas. It’s the character that brings everyone else together. I guess that makes Christmas Sam Jackson.
1969 saw the next piece of the RBCCU fall into place with Frosty the Snowman. Bucking Japanese stop-motion animation for Japanese traditional animation, it features a young girl with incredibly negligent parents who helps bring a snowman to life; a snowman that says “Happy Birthday” every time he comes to life because that’s what passed for comedy in the Nixon administration. This film left viewers with a lot of unanswered questions, such as why the hell is that girl wearing shorts on a snow day? That answer is not important. What is is this is the first meeting of Santa and Frosty and also that Santa can sometimes only afford to use half of his reindeer.
From this point, the rest of the universe starts to take shape. In 1970 it was the Santa and Mrs. Claus origin story with Santa Claus is Coming to Town, followed by The Year Without a Santa Claus where Rankin/Bass proved a female-led film set in a cinematic universe could be successful decades before Wonder Woman did. Also, this movie gave us the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs, which are the best in the RBCCU. Unfortunately, it’s also where the plot holes start. Both of these films take place before Rudolph but after The Little Drummer Boy. In Santa Claus is Coming to Town, all of Santa’s reindeer are fully grown when they break him out of prison, however, in The Year Without a Santa Claus, the reindeer Vixen is shown to still be a calve. How can that be? Either it’s a plot hole or it can only lead to one conclusion: every year Santa slaughters his reindeer and he, Mrs. Claus and all the elves feast on their corpses to welcome in the new year. And when Rob Zombie reboots this franchise, that’s exactly what’s going to happen (starring Sheri Moon Zombie as Mrs. Claus).
At this point, we have the origins of Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Mrs. Claus and Christmas. Rather than bring them all together here, we get a couple of sequels starting in 1976 with Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. Keeping his promise from the end of Frosty the Snowman, Frosty returns seven years later when the kids from the original film would probably all be high schoolers having to convince a therapist a snowman really did come to life and not, as administrators suspect, just a hallucination they had while smoking the reefer.
Winter Wonderland introduces two new characters to the RBCCU: Jack Frost and Crystal. Frost starts out as the villain of the picture but eventually turns good at the end. I know that’s tough to comprehend and I wish I could think of a character in the MCU to compare it to but there just isn’t one. Crystal is Frosty’s wife, built for him by the townsfolk because single people during the holidays tend to depress everyone else. She’s another snowperson who says “Happy Birthday” when she comes to life because that’s what passed for comedy in the Ford administration. Just like all of the other movies here, people are dicks. Parson Brown refuses to marry Frosty and Crystal, so they have to make a Snow Parson to perform the ceremony. Eventually, snowmen and snowwomen would gain the right to be legally married in the groundbreaking Snowfell v. Hodges Supreme Court case.
That was followed up eight days later with Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. Taking place hours after Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this 70’s coke haze for kids features Rudolph searching through time for the Baby New Year otherwise it will be December 31st forever which would be awful because I don’t get that day off work. This film has some parallels with Rudolph’s origin story: Happy, the Baby New Year they’re looking for, ran away because people made fun of his Obama-sized ears, confirming my initial suspicion that everyone in this universe is an asshole.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer what Iron Man 2 is to Iron Man, namely a garbage film marinated in garbage water and deep-fried in a garbage machine. But it does introduce another central character to the RBCCU: Big Ben the Whale. It’s a whale with a clock in its tail. He’s really not important and only plays a small role in future films. So basically he’s Hawkeye.
In 1977, Rankin/Bass attempted to add a new character to its cinematic universe with Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey, giving them another chance to make a show about a creature with birth defects who has to endure the cruelty of society because, as was previously established, this world is nothing but dicks. An interquel of The Little Drummer Boy, Nestor tells the previously untold story of the stupid donkey who saved Jesus. In doing so, it established yet another plot hole: If Nestor is there when Jesus is born, why wasn’t he in The Little Drummer Boy? I hope they fired whoever let that slip by.
With that one-shot out of the way, it was on to the main event. By now, the characters of the Rankin/Bass Christmas Cinematic Universe have been well established and Rankin/Bass couldn’t keep them apart any longer. We got the origin stories and the sequels, now they had to throw them together. This is when you get The Avengers or Justice League or Grown Ups in the Sandler Cinematic Universe. In the RBCCU, it led to 1979’s Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, a holiday special so insane I can only imagine it was written, directed and edited by Liza Minnelli’s pill bottle. And while it doesn’t bother to ever explain how Frosty and Rudolph became such great friends, it does manage to show that, once again, the world is filled with dicks.
Choosing to retcon Rudolph’s nose, Christmas in July establishes the glowing schnoz is the work of Lady Boreal, the Northern Lights, who in her battle with the Wizard Winterbolt — not to be confused with the Winter Warlock — gives the last of her power to Rudolph by deforming his face and setting him up for a life full of hardships and ridicule. Eventually, Winterbolt learns through the Genie of the Ice Scepter, which is a talking rock wall, that in order to fully gain his powers back Rudolph has to use his nose for evil. If the influence of cocaine isn’t evident enough yet, eventually Rudolph, Frosty, Crystal and their two kids Milly and Chilly (no word on if they built their kids or made them the old fashioned way) eventually find their way to a circus run by Temple Grandin where Rudolph is tricked into using his power for evil by the reindeer Scratcher, who lives his life in exile because that’s what you do in this universe to people and animals you don’t like.
Things go awry when Winterbolt shows up on his snake-driven sleigh and convinces Frosty to give up his hat, effectively eliminating both of his enemies in one fell swoop. Being the RBCCU’s Avengers, the whole team eventually comes together: Rudolph, Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jack Frost and Big Ben. They defeat Winterbolt — I mean straight up murder the asshole — and save Frosty and family, who by this point have all melted because they’re snow people and it’s the middle of July. Using Jack’s magic breath, they all come back to life and say “Happy Birthday,” which they do because that’s what passed for humor in the Carter administration. Rudolph gets his glowing nose back and the film ends nonsensically with everybody flying to the sky as the credits roll.
A couple of weeks later the RBCCU concluded with a Jack Frost solo project where he becomes human for a while but eventually ends up back as winter sprite. Where this falls in the timeline of the Rankin/Bass Christmas Cinematic Universe I don’t know nor particularly care. In 1985 Rankin/Bass would attempt to reboot the franchise with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but it would prove to be more psychotic than anything the company had produced before. The first five minutes of the film features demonic chanting, imps, and a group called Leaders of the Immortals debating whether or not Santa Claus should be killed. It only gets more fucked up from there.
With that, the Christmas Cinematic Universe was done for good, much like the DC Extended Universe will be in about a year and a half. Other production companies tried to pick up the slack decades later with new specials, but they all lacked the charm, heart, shoddy animation and magic mushroom plot lines of the original. Time moves on, and new holiday shows will be made featuring whatever was the last Dreamworks movie to see release, but these movies will always be there.
Sitting in my father’s entertainment center.
Because why watch something uninterrupted when you can sit through an endless string of advertisements for the Better Brella.