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Dec 22 2013 11:00am
Supreme Holiday Weirdness: Rankin, Bass, and L. Frank Baum Ask, Should We Just Let Santa Die Already?

Supreme Holiday Weirdness: Rankin, Bass, and L. Frank Baum ask, Should We Just Let Santa Die Already?

Hearken unto me, little children. I grew up during the 1980s, when something called the Video Cassette Recorder was still the red hot, razor sharp, cutting-edge of technology. While it seems hard to believe nowadays, the bulky black rectangle, perched like a crude, mass-market facsimile of the Monolith from 2001 glowered ominously from the heights of our family entertainment center and was worshiped as a household god, which might be why my brother kept trying to feed it his Cheerios all the time (that did not end well). For me, the VCR was just a magical purveyor of Fraggle Rock and Cyndi Lauper videos; for my father, I now realize, it became a means of ruthlessly hunting down and capturing every single televised holiday special aired in the tri-state area between the late 70s and the mid-90s.

The amazing thing is that most of these tapes still survive to this day, having somehow escaped both the trauma of having soggy cereal dumped into the VCR and my manic Mystery Science Theater taping-sprees of yore (Hey! Joel said to keep circulating the tapes—if that meant recording a Gamera movie over some lesser sibling’s first baby steps, so be it. I have no regrets). The upshot of all this is that my siblings and I have had access to A LOT of really strange, Christmas-themed entertainment, and yet every year we return to one of our collective favorites: the 1985 Rankin/Bass adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, also known as The World’s Most Bizarre Animated Christmas Special...EVER.

If you’re not familiar with Baum’s take on the Santa Claus legend, here’s the deal (get ready): Claus, a mortal infant, is found by the great Ak, Master

Woodsman of the World, and raised by the immortals populating the magical Forest of Burzee, which include Fairies, Wood Nymphs, Gnomes, Elves, Imps, and (most awesomely) Wind Demons. His education includes a traumatizing jaunt through the human world, where he encounters war, poverty, child abuse and neglect, and general inhumanity, at which point Claus decides that he must venture forth from his charmed existence in order to bring some good into the depressing hellscape that is mortal life.

The rest of the book follows his transformation into the kindly, toy-dispensing Santa Claus we’re all familiar with, except in this version he has to fight the evil Awgwas (a sort of malevolent ogre/demon blend) with the help of all his wacky immortal buddies, culminating in an massive battle between the Great Ak and his minions and the forces of evil: Awgwas, Demons, Giants and, of course, Dragons. Because what Christmas story is complete without evil, Santa-hating dragons?

Even better than the random demon-and-dragon battle, though, is the fact that the entire story is framed by a plot device involving Claus’s impending death. The Rankin/Bass special begins with the Great Ak assembling a council of Immortals in order to decide whether Claus should be granted the Mantle of Immortality and continue bringing joy to the children of the world, OR whether they should, you know, just let him drop dead. Tonight. Got it, kids? Santa’s about to go to sleep AND NEVER WAKE UP. Yeah. Thanks, Rankin and Bass, for bringing the much-needed stench of death to the world of cheery holiday fun. Wow.

I really can’t describe how weird and amazing this special is, so all I can do is implore you to see for yourself, beginning with the clip below. Feel free to skip the first minute of the clip if you’re in some sort of weird hurry, but please, please, please check out the opening song, which combines creepy pseudo-Latin chanting with crazy puppet wind demons, and features catchy holiday lyrics like: “Ora e Sempre/ Today and Forever/ For ages and ages to come/ To the first cracking of Doom!!!” Not exactly “Frosty the Snowman,” is it? Doom? Wind demons? Chanting in Latin? These things alone should be enough to convince that you haven’t done Christmas right until you’ve done Christmas with L. Frank Frickin’ Baum (whose profound and awe-inspiring weirdness is overlooked far too often by the general population). This year, do yourself a favor and check out Baum’s book, the inspired Rankin/Bass production (which is as visually gorgeous as it is bizarrre), or some combination thereof; the holidays will never seem quite the same again...

This post originally appeared on Tor.com on December 19, 2008


Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com.

12 comments
jeff hendrix
1. templarsteel
I remember seening that one when i was a kid,it was strange to say the best but then were most of the Rankin-Bass Christmas special post rudolf.It seemed more like a warhammer Fantsey novel with the epic battle btween good and evil at the end,then a chldren's special.I don't even think they show it on tv anymore.
Ace Hamilton
2. Ace Hamilton
I had never seen this until last week. ABC family showed it under the name The Life of Santa Claus.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
I am a fan of this too! Introducing it to my friends this Christmas Eve.
Bridget McGovern
4. BMcGovern
@templarsteel and Ace Hamilton: It's funny--it's been four years since I originally wrote this post for Tor.com, and in that time, I've definitely noticed it popping up more often on cable (thanks to programming like ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas--say what you want about Christmas Creep, but at least the demands of an entire month of holiday specials means that some of the weirder, lesser-known oddities get more play :) Apparently it's also become available on DVD in the last few years, packaged together with "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey" (never one of my particular Rankin/Bass favorites, but plenty strange in its own right.)
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
@mordicai: High five! Somehow, I'm not surprised :) I watched it again last weekend, and it really never gets old, and the soundtrack is SO GOOD. I'm hoping that in another four years, all the radio stations that have to play 24-hours of Christmas music all month will start incorportating some of these songs. All I want is to walk into a mall one day and hear "Born in our present state, never were babies we/Live where no mortal has been, we're the nobility/of non-humanity--we have no children or kin!" sandwiched somewhere between Wham! and Bing Crosby...
Ace Hamilton
6. Stefan Jones
This special first played when I was at college; I was far too busy to watch it. I only caught up with it when ABC Family Channel began playing all of the Rankin-Bass specials.

I agree that this is one WEIRD holiday special. Quite pagan when you get right down to it.

A few observations:

After repeated viewings (I have it DVRd), I've come to think that the execution does no lives up to its ambitions. I think Rankin-Bass was over the hill when this was produced, outsourcing animation to overseas shops. This doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing, just not dazzling.In its prime, R-B could have done better.

I read the Baum novel. I have to say, I like R-Bs adaptaton a lot better! Baum, writing for little kiddies who grew up on stories about Brownies and faries, pulled a lot of punches. It is awfully sticky-cutesy. The TV special actually had more grit!

Finally . . . I think Rankin-Bass's wonderful Santa Claus is Coming to Town was a sort of first draft of this story. Consider:

* Santa was an orphan raised outside of human society by elves / fairies.
* Santa brought toys to children living in a world deprived of fun.
* Santa's quest was impeded by dark magic forces (Aagwas / the Winter Warlock).

Finally: I'd love to see this story re-adapted. Its pagan elements, the notion of Santa being shown the sadnesses of the world and the plight of its children, the whole judgement framing device . . . that is really wonderful stuff.

It could be CGI, or live-action with CGI creatures and settings.
Ace Hamilton
7. Jencendiary
We had this on VHS, although I think I might have seen it on first-run. Anyway, it was my favorite Christmas special ever. I was sorely disappointed that the Great AK and his lot were not actually mythological figures when I went on my later myth sprees.

I can't wait to show my nieces this tomorrow. There's a version on the Youtube. Hehe.
Ace Hamilton
8. John C. Bunnell
And in the Department of "I Did Not Know That"....

It turns out that there was a second animated version of Baum's story released back in 2000 -- this one traditionally animated, not stop-motion -- featuring well-known voice talent including Robby Benson (young Nicholas), Hal Holbrook (Ak) and Maurice LaMarche (King Mogorb, Bo). I have never seen this production, but there was a DVD in the post-holiday discount rack yesterday at one of my local retailers, and I had to look at it several times to conclude that no, this clearly wasn't a repackaging of the Rankin/Bass version.
Ace Hamilton
9. Tim Gatewoood
I recall seeing that in my younger years, I think. (My childhood is something of a blur after all these years. ) Just wanted to let everyone know that the Kindle version of Baum's book is free.
James Goetsch
10. Jedikalos
My kids and I used to watch it every year (we had it videotaped as well) and just about wore our copy out. We would go to Christmas service, then come home and break out that great battle between the good and evil. Even had a bit with Santa seeing how mortal children suffered and died! It was just SO DIFFERENT that it stood out from all the others (especially with all that chanting and immortals trying to decide if Santa was to die and the battles with the monsters). We would all cheer when the Agwas were defeated and Claus got the mantle of immortality. (Come to think of it, this might explain how I and all my kids also ended up avid players of Everquest).
Earnie
11. esotirokos
I've been trying to remember the name of this special forever. Thank you for reintroducing me to my favorite Christmas VHS.
Sky Thibedeau
12. SkylarkThibedeau
I've seen this one on Family Channel over the years. I always thought it was Rankin Bass' Japanese Anime Santa Claus. I didn't know it was based on a Baum book. This one was never one of my favorites. I always liked Jack Frost and Rudolph best.

Rankin Bass stuff was always hit and miss. I do admit being a little disappointed when the Orcs in Peter Jackson's 'Return of the King' didn't sing 'Where there's a Whip, There's a Way'.

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