Earlier this year, Arthur Rankin, one of the founders of Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died at age 89. Rankin/Bass Productions (“RBP”) is probably best known for its Christmas TV specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. These specials have become so much a part of American pop culture it seems that a Christmas season doesn’t go by without a spoof of one. One of the things that made the specials appealing at the time they were originally broadcast, and which contributes to their continuing appeal, is the parallels of the story lines to what was happening in the United States at the time.
Although Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), based on the popular song, focuses on the titular reindeer, Santa Claus plays an important role. Rudolph, first broadcast during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, presents many lessons in acceptance. When Santa at first rejects Rudolph based on his appearance, it reminds one of the real-life intolerance many authority figures of the 1960s had towards those who looked different. (One could go further with this idea – was the Island of Misfit Toys a ghetto?) Once Santa recognizes Rudolph’s abilities, he realizes that Rudolph, given the chance, can be a productive member of North Pole society. Similarly, the subplot regarding Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist reflected the increasing desire of young people of the time to follow a path different from that of their parents. That Hermey was able to work at the North Pole fixing dolls’ teeth showed that even the most traditional of places can find room for those who have different ideas.
In contrast to the authoritarian of Rudolph, Santa is downright rebellious in 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (“SCCT”). SCCT, first shown during the height of the “youthquake” of the Baby Boom generation, is the story of how the young and cute Kris Kringle becomes the jolly old elf we all know so well. Kris, with his long, almost Beatlesque red hair and his sunny demeanor, spurs an uprising against the old uptight ways of the establishment – personified by the grumpy, anti-toy Burgermeister Meisterburger. Along the way, Kris manages to find romance with the lovely town schoolteacher Jessica. In a scene that has been cut from recent showings of SCCT, Jessica sings about the changes Kris has brought to her and her town. This reflects the real-life changes that youth brought to American life during the 1960s and early 1970s.
SCCT also draws a parallel between Santa and another iconic figure – Superman. Both Santa and Superman were foundlings adopted by elderly couples. Both assume an identity (Kris Kringle/Clark Kent) separate from their true identities (Claus/Kal-El). Both have special powers that don’t manifest themselves until adulthood. SCCT manages to wrap the heretofore mysterious Santa in a cloak (or cape, as it may be) familiar to many viewers.
A few years later, in 1974, RBP introduced The Year Without a Santa Claus (“YWSC”). Departing from the generally “known” aspects of Santa’s world, and based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, YWSC was released at a time of moral crises in the United States. The events of Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon, as well as the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, were on the minds of the American people. Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Santa sees the increased disbelief in the spirit of Christmas. Disappointed and discouraged, Santa decides to take a (permanent?) vacation instead of delivering toys. It’s up to Mrs. Claus, with the help of a couple of elves, the reindeer Vixen, and a bunch of kids in a small Sunbelt town, to get her husband back in the sleigh. The casting of Shirley Booth, TV’s “Hazel” from the 1960s, as Mrs. Claus is appropriate here. (This was also Shirley Booth’s last acting role.) Just as Hazel the maid took charge of a dysfunctional household, Mrs. Claus takes charge during the chaos. In real life as well, women were beginning to take charge in many ways.
But despite the fact that Santa is encouraged enough to resume his duties (of course), YWSC may have been seen as too cynical for some people. Network TV hasn’t shown this off-canon look at Santa Claus since 1980. The cable channel ABC Family does show YWSC as part of its “25 Days of Christmas”. This hasn’t affected the popularity of YWSC one bit – there are regular references to it in other parts of pop culture.
Rudolph, SCCT and YWSC demonstrate that Rankin/Bass Productions, and in turn Arthur Rankin and (the still living) Jules Bass, recognized that American society was undergoing a shift. Rankin and Bass were aware as well of the pop culture of the time, and of the need to be relevant to television viewers, no matter what their age or knowledge of current affairs. For many of us who, as kids, sat in front of the television in our pajamas year after year, the underlying themes of these shows sunk in. In any case, we continue to hold these shows dear in our hearts.
Lynne a.k.a. Poprocker1