Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

title

Plot in 3 Sentences: Nestor is thrown out of the barnyard because of his long ears and his mother gives her life to save him during a snowstorm. He meets a cherub who guides him to his destiny, which is to carry Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. His ears allow him to hear guiding voices and bring the expectant couple safely to their destination, making him a hero among the animals.

Fun Fact: The special is based on a 1975 Gene Autry song, which Roger Miller covers as the title song for this show.

My thoughts: There’s no question that this seems like a mawkish and sentimental attempt by Rankin/Bass to recreate their earlier success with 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The stories share a lot of similar themes, although there was a little more social conscience at work here, as the show takes a much stronger stand against the bullying that Nestor receives from the other animals. A song called ‘Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry’ was part of the original broadcast but is usually missing when it’s shown during the ABC Family holiday schedule. Long time Rankin/Bass fans will recognize some familiar faces in the cast, as models from The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Little Drummer Boy and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year were all re-used here. Yes, it’s a really sad story and I don’t watch it every year, but it’s one that I consider to be a classic that’s worth watching (if you have a box of Kleenex nearby).

camels

Further proof that camels are jerks.

sad-nestor

Nestor is showing us what all the viewers look like.

tilly

Tilly is adorbs.

mary-and-joseph

Mary’s eyes are so light blue that it makes her look blind.

Individual Superlative: Make that the Jumbo Kleenex – I watched the premiere of this special with two boys that I was babysitting and the three of us were reduced to a blubbering mass of tears and sniffles after Nestor’s mother died. “Ears, Nestor.” SOB.

Want to Watch it? Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey is available on VHS and DVD and it still shows up annually in the regular holiday programming.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Title

Debuted in 1970

51 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: A foundling child is adopted by a family of toymakers and he grows up determined to deliver his family’s toys to children in nearby Sombertown, where toys are outlawed. In order to do so, he befriends the Winter Warlock, charms a local schoolteacher and finds ways to get around the town’s rules. He marries the schoolteacher, eventually limits his toy deliveries to once a year (on Christmas Eve) and becomes Santa Claus.

Fun Fact: This was the first time that Mickey Rooney provided the voice of Santa Claus. He did it again in The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July, The Happy Elf and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas. Maybe he was so good at it because his actual last name was Yule.

My thoughts: This classic special has been a part of my Christmas for as long as I can remember. I was terrified of the Winter Warlock and his razor sharp teeth, so his transformation was always a big deal to me. And I used to think that the ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’ song was a big waste of time, but as an adult, I can better appreciate the concept of achieving goals by taking small steps. (So now it’s just Jessica’s love song, ‘My World is Beginning Today,’ with its trippy animation that I forward through.) Fred Astaire reprised his role as mailman/narrator S.D. Kluger in a similar special that explores the origin of the Easter Bunny. Burgermeister Meisterburger is a fantastic villain here and I kind of like that the story resolves with the people realizing that his laws are silly and overturning them. I could make a really good political statement here, but it’s Christmas so I’m not going there. In addition to being a good origin story, this special sets Santa up as a role model for perseverance and positivity. I’m glad this one is still out there entertaining a whole new generation. (And let’s face it…this is where we all learned the word ‘burgermeister.’)

A baby baby

This scene is equal parts ridiculous and awesome. “A baby baby, Zingle.”

Winter and Kris

Putting one foot in front of another is still the best way to get where you’re going.

Burgermeister

Burgermeisters just want to have fun.

Fever dream

“Before we animate Jessica’s song, let’s all drop acid!”

Individual Superlative: They Cut What? – Over the years, they’ve trimmed the special down to allow for more commercials by cutting songs and taking out the ‘traumatic scenes’ of Burgermeister Meisterburger setting fire to the toys. But some versions have removed the clips of Kris Kringle jumping from house to house on the rooftops, out of fear that kids will emulate his dangerous behavior, which seems ludicrous to me when you’re talking about a guy who has flying reindeer.

Want to Watch it? Santa Claus is Coming to Town is available on VHS, DVD, YouTube and it still comes on TV annually.

A Christmas Tree

Title

Debuted in 1972

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Charles Dickens is sharing a Christmas story with Peter and Mary when Peter Piper shows up to tell them that Horatio the giant has stolen the essence of Christmas. Peter and Mary go after it, but discover that Mantu the Evil Magician has stolen it from the giant. After riding a star down a river of trolls and fighting Orlando the Snow-Breathing Dragon, they manage to release the essence of Christmas, which turns Mantu into a nicer person.

Fun Fact: Of all the Festival of Family Classics episodes, this is the only one that hasn’t been released on DVD.

My thoughts: The best thing about this completely bizarre special was the Festival of Family Classics opening, which I hadn’t seen in years and had completely forgotten. It opens with a full screen of storybooks and then there’s a rainbow and all the literary characters walk over it. Rankin-Bass produced 18 shows in this series, animating classic stories such as Robin Hood and Puss in Boots. Dickens’ A Christmas Tree is a truly strange choice for such a show, as it’s not well known, has no real narrative and is mostly just reminiscing about childhood and ghost stories.  This special, however, just takes the basic shell of the idea and runs away to Weirdsville with it. I mean, just go back and read the plot! Even when compared against other holiday story plots, this one is way out there.  (Of course, it turns out that Peter & Mary were asleep and dreamed the whole thing, so we jumped abruptly from Weirdsville to Cliché-town.) Also, none of the character voices seemed to match their animated characters and that was more than a little distracting throughout. Honestly, I just found the whole thing a little baffling.

Charles Dickens likes to point

Charles Dickens likes to point. He points a lot.

Kids under the tree

Peter and Mary are playing with the toys that will be trying to kill them soon.

The giant and his friend

The giant’s wife? Housekeeper? Cook? Baby mama?  It’s complicated.

Mantu

Mantu could use some sun.

Individual Superlative: What the Dickens? – Based on Charles Dickens holiday story? They might as well have said ‘Based on a Charles Dickens story that we hope no one has ever read, since this story is NOTHING like that one.’ They both involve people looking at a Christmas tree and the original story mentions giants and magicians. Other than that, it’s like saying Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on an apple pie recipe.

Want to Watch it? A Christmas Tree is available on VHS and YouTube.

Frosty’s Winter Wonderland

Title

Debuted in 1976

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Frosty the Snowman comes back to life when the winter snow returns, but the children notice that he’s lonely, so they build him a snow wife and name her Crystal. Jack Frost is jealous of the way the children love Frosty and steals Frosty’s magic hat, but Crystal brings him back with a snow corsage and asks Jack Frost to be their Best Man. His attitude changes and he keeps winter going extra long so they can have lots of time to enjoy it.

Fun Fact: Other than Frosty himself, the only returning character from the original special is the traffic policeman.

My thoughts: I remember when this special originally aired and there was a lot of excitement about it. We had all been watching Frosty the Snowman every year since we were little and the idea of a new Frosty story was pretty awesome, especially since it had the look and feel of the original. The story is narrated by an animated Andy Griffith and, as a North Carolinian, there is a special place in my heart for Andy. After the original made a special point of saying that Frosty needed his magic hat to come to life, some may think it’s a bit of cheat for this special to bring snow people to life without it. But they choose to go with things that are individually special to the snow people involved (a bridal bouquet for Crystal and the bible for the snow parson who marries them) and that’s a sweet touch. It’s a simple special with a really nice message about inclusion and the importance of friends and loved ones.

Andy Dance

Andy looks like he’s kidnapping that boy.

Angsty Frosty smoking

Angsty Frosty wants to smoke in peace.

Crystal

Crystal is sweet and lovable with a literal mop of hair.

Snow Parson

Parson Brown is teaching the snow parson how to be sanctimonious.

Individual Superlative: Separated at Birth – In 1974, the broadcast rights to the Rankin-Bass catalog changed hands. Everything made before that date is now owned by CBS and everything after is owned by ABC, which is why (in case you’ve ever wondered) ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas shows this special but not the original.

Want to Watch it? Frosty’s Winter Wonderland is available on DVD and YouTube, plus it still shows up on TV every year.

Jack Frost

TitleDebuted in 1979

50 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Jack Frost becomes human to win the heart of a winter-loving girl named Elisa, who lives in a town ruled by Cossack king Kubla Kraus. But when Kubla Kraus kidnaps Elisa, it is handsome Sir Ravenal who saves her and she falls in love with him. Kubla vows revenge on the whole town when winter ends and Jack Frost gives up his humanity to stop him by making winter stay longer, leading to the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Fun Fact: The reporter who is covering the Groundhog Day appearance of Pardon-Me-Pete is voiced by Dave Garroway, the first host of NBC’s Today show. This was his last television performance.

My thoughts: Here’s another one that has a layer of nostalgia to it because it’s one that I watched with my kids. The plot itself is pretty thin and more than a little convoluted, but there are some really lovely moments, too, including the idea of dream presents (empty boxes that you can pretend hold your heart’s desire) and Jack sacrificing his hopes for himself in order to save the people he loved. It shows up every year as a Christmas special, although it only involves Christmas in a marginal way. Jack is a pretty complex character, who struggles with the choices he’s made and has to deal with his inability to achieve his goals in either human or sprite form. But I think it’s very sweet when he covers Elisa’s bridal bouquet with frost and she tearfully tells her new husband that “an old friend kissed the bride.”

Her dream gift is a mirror. She wants to admire that meticulously curled hair.

Her dream gift is a mirror. She wants to admire that meticulously curled hair.

And I wouldn't be surprised to find that Sir Ravenal just wants to marry her for that dream mirror.

And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Sir Ravenal just wants to marry her for that dream mirror.

Kubla and Dommy, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!

Kubla and Dommy, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!

My oldest daughter would kill me if I didn't include a picture of Holly, the sprite who looks after the Christmas snow.

My oldest daughter would kill me if I didn’t include a picture of Holly, the sprite who looks after the Christmas snow.

Individual Superlative: Steampunk Before It Was a Thing – Kubla Kraus builds technologically advanced robotics, included a steam-powered metal horse.

Want to Watch it? Jack Frost is available on VHS and DVD and you can watch the full special on YouTube. It also shows up on TV several times during the holiday season, but with a few of the songs cut.