Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass are the Gods of animated Christmas programs. Their production company, Rankin/Bass, released about twenty seasonal specials in its heyday, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), and The Little Drummer Boy (1968). Seriously, just about every legendary animated Christmas movie was directed and produced by these guys, save for a Grinch here and a Charlie Brown there (and my favorite Christmas movie ever).
My favorite Rankin/Bass films are the ones I watched on TV every holiday season, over and over and over again. Sure, you can catch Frosty or ‘Twas the Night before Christmas on CBS if you luckily come across a 6 pm broadcast on Sunday, but I’m talking about the obscure claymation features ABC/Fox Family shamelessly powerhoused back-to-back at all hours of the day during Christmastime; I’m talking about the Stale TV Specials. You love ’em or you hate ’em, but Claus damn it if you don’t know them. Here are my top five:
1. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
If you aren’t familiar with the names “Snow Miser” and “Heat Miser,” your Christmas simply isn’t complete. The plot is driven by the mission to get a bedridden and disillusioned Santa Claus back in the spirit of Christmas. Anchored by the Misers’ mutual resentment and subsequent compromise (in a scheme to show Santa Christmas cheer), this special is probably the most memorable on the list. Just check out these cuties and bask in the nostalgia:
2. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town served as Rankin/Bass’ venue to unite all the random Santaisms under one storyline. For instance, according to the program, “Kringle” was the name of the elves who took Santa in; “Claus” was a word found on his orphan name tag.
The concept is fun and convenient for the little ones. Or convenient for the stumbling parents who attempt to explain Santa’s twenty different origins. All in all, the special is well executed, except for this uncomfortably psychedelic love sequence from future Mrs. Claus:
3. Jack Frost (1979)
No, not the weird Michael Keaton snowman version, the one with Buddy Hackett as Pardon-Me-Pete the gopher. The story follows Jack Frost, an immortal, ghostlike humanoid responsible for winter’s icy blanket, in a futile pursuit of human love. Although the focus is far from Christmas, the sole Christmas scene conveys the spirit of the holiday in a wholesome, gimmick-less context—an element lacking in most of the other specials. Watch as the central, impoverished family exchanges a box of, well, nothing:
4. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
As obvious from the title, this special has nothing to do with Christmas. That said, it’s a refreshing mix-up amidst the ocean of Santa plots. It’s not even that good, really, but you can’t expect too much from a Stale TV Rudolph spinoff. Occasional comedic success and moments with a fetching Father Time character earn its spot in this list. The original commercial tells all:
5. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
How this special is not a cult classic is beyond me. It’s the alternate, mythological Santa universe for sci-fi nerds, fully equipped with an “Immortal Council” and a group of demons desperate to halt our jolly hero from spreading Christmas joy. Watch this excerpt from the introduction and try to remember that you’re not hallucinating:
These specials have created a paradox: though I dub them as “stale,” they are undoubtedly timeless. With this essay as your guide, I hope you enjoy your holiday season with some good ol’ peculiar, nonsensical, and timeless Stale TV Specials.