The holiday season is synonymous with plenty of things: gingerbread houses, Christmas trees, and having arguments with the family that escalate into full-on brawls. Of them, the one thing that has always been a staple in modern holiday celebrations is the annual viewing of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. For years, people of all ages have been entertained by their charm and whimsy, passing this tradition down to generation upon generation. But when we’re not being distracted by the unrelenting onslaught of festive cheer practically being crammed down our throats, it becomes clear in these specials that not everything is so holly jolly up at the North Pole or elsewhere at Christmas – lending itself to the possibility that everyone working at Rankin-Bass was out of their frigging minds!
From a bitter and callous Santa Claus, to teaching kids to fear anything that isn’t normal, Rankin-Bass holiday fare isn’t exactly as family-friendly as we once thought it was. Here are 5 unsettling things that rip the facade off the cuteness like so much holiday wrapping paper:
5. Children are greedy little pukes that run Santa ragged.
To the credit of Rankin-Bass, the specials managed to give plausible explanations as to why a flying fat man in red was so keen on giving random children he didn’t even know gifts — an act that, nowadays, typically ends with one going on a trip to the local police station for lengthy interrogation. But perhaps the greatest question that was finally given a straight answer pertained to Santa’s choosing December 25th as the ideal day for handing out free toys. As revealed by Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, the big man was working 24/7 to meet the relentless demand of kids wanting presents on a daily basis. So essentially for a time, Santa was running a veritable sweatshop out in the North Pole, toiling away to please materialistic little nose-pickers.
Did the children even care that Santa worked till his hands bled or consider the implications such stressful work can have on his health? (He isn’t exactly Slim Goodbody, you know). No, of course not; they just wanted to know if they’d be getting that stupid wooden cat when they woke up in the morning. The sad part about all this was that Santa originally gave children toys to take their minds off their bleak existences, which ultimately backfired and ended up teaching them the definition of avarice instead. Best possible solution in this scenario? Steal Jesus’ thunder and declare that December 25th be the day ungrateful children are rewarded for doing nothing, leaving Santa to tend to his arthritis and gout for the other 364 days out of the year.
4. Villains are evil incarnate, but suck at devising grand plans.
First, let’s take a look at the snow sorcerer Winterbolt, from Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July, shall we? This guy is armed to the teeth: two gigantic ice dragons, ice scepter and the ability to bend the very season of winter to his whim. Hell, the guy could conquer the entirety of the North Pole in a day with zero resistance. But why squander such talents on conquest when they could be used to begrime Santa’s legacy and make kids curse his name? Embittered over the news that Santa was now the king of the North Pole — ol’ Saint Nick’s a despot too, apparently — Winterbolt conjures up the very fog that nearly gets him lost that one Christmas Eve. We all know how that story with Rudolph goes, but when you’re an all-powerful manipulator of ice and snow, you’d think he’d snipe Santa with icicle missiles or have the dragons level his workshop while everyone’s still inside. But getting him temporarily lost for one evening is apparently the height of evil machinations.
In The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, the Awgwas — a race of orc-like beast men — are every bit as piss-poor in acts of villainy as Winterbolt, if not more. Aside from great strength and an alliance with giant cobras, spiders, and Asiatic dragons, Awgwas are able to turn completely invisible at will. With power and allies like that they’d be able to do more damage than the Battle of Helms Deep and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings combined! As per the norm for Rankin-Bass villains, the Awgwas waste their abilities by teaching kids to disobey their parents and be general pain-in-the-asses year round. Indeed, the world will burn at the hands of whiny, obnoxious brats.
3. Santa is a miserable Jerk who cares about nobody.
Santa has always been portrayed as a kind, magnanimous, and tolerant soul that that is more than willing to put the needs of others before himself. Remember, though, this Santa’s totally different from the one that appears in Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. The latter, on the other hand, is the complete antithesis: a miserable and cantankerous bastard that isn’t above telling the world to go to hell. In Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he counted himself among those that saw Rudolph for the natural abomination that he was. So much so that he practically berated his father, Donner, for having a tainted gene pool (maybe he flew too close to the Northern Lights one year?).
Okay, maybe Santa was just having a bad year and took his anger out on those closest to him – it’s forgivable. Well, that’s what we would chalk it up to if The Year Without a Santa Claus didn’t already confirm that he still is a bitter prick. In spite of being comparable to a demigod, Santa can still suffer from ailments once thought reserved for lesser humans. But while we soldier on and go to work regardless, Santa pours on the hyperbole and incessantly bitches about minor aches and pains, opting to cancel Christmas. No, not postpone the holiday until a later time: outright screw everybody and try again next year, because Santa’s too busy popping pills and rolling over in bed to die!
2. Physical deformities result in public shaming and self-imposed exile.
If Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is anything to go by, a message that seems to reverberate in Rankin-Bass Christmas specials is to give into primal urges and fear and mock anything that is an affront to accepted social norms – and start beating the ground with sticks and bellowing like crazed chimps if possible. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year both featured characters that suffered from abnormally large ears and the ridicule that comes with it, ultimately leading to the decision that running off into the harsh wilderness and possibly dying alone is a much better option than growing a pair and learning to simply deal with it. Only when this happens do the tormentors regret their actions; it’s not so much that they’re sorry, but more to do with not wanting to be held accountable if the big-eared laughing stocks are found dead in a ditch somewhere.
Comparing the two, Nestor’s ordeal is nothing compared to that of Happy, the New Year’s Baby from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. Let’s break this one down: people actually made fun of a newborn infant during that crucial time when first experiences mold its outlook on people, places and social interactions in the future. So not only did they screw up Happy emotionally for the rest of his life, but they ensured that that year in particular was going to be a shitty one, rife with an economic recession and the threat of thermonuclear war. Crappy New Year, everybody!
1. Rankin-Bass had an unhealthy obsession with dictatorships.
Who doesn’t think of totalitarian dictatorships and their impoverished, subjugated masses when on the topic of Christmas? Certainly not us, but Rankin-Bass felt that villains modeled after history’s most reviled and bloodthirsty rulers would make ideal nemeses for Santa Claus and his friends. Santa Claus is Coming to Town kicked off this trend with Sombertown and its overlord Burgermeister Meisterburger, a lighthearted parody of the conformity and rigidness of Nazi Germany and its leader Adolph Hitler. How did Rankin-Bass manage this one without pissing off an entire country that views its World War II days as a historical blight? Simple: toys are burnt in massive bonfires in place of books, while anti-Semitic rhetoric is instead aimed at Santa Claus. Fortunately, the kiddies aren’t exactly cognizant enough of world history to realize that the silly Burgermeister man with his silly laws actually, in a fashion, existed and nearly brought the world to its knees.
And in yet another instance of insensitive parody on Rankin-Bass’ part, Jack Frost featured the titular character standing up against Kubla Kraus — the despotic ruler of January Junction and the obvious embodiment of Communist Russian rulers who lived in decadence while their people starved. Save for the fact that Kubla’s more fun… if you actually let go of the dark historical parallel for a minute. Even the townspeople living in abject poverty are given a saccharine sweet spin that paints them as a chipper bunch of folks, despite being forced to use pieces of ice as currency and celebrate imaginary Christmases. It’s far from the truth of what really went down in Communist Russia, but any more accurate and January Junction’s people would be spending more time burying their dead and running for cover when Kubla orders a random civil disobedience crackdown.