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…