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Into the Santaverse
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Into the Santaverse

How a couple of New Yorkers teamed up with Japanese animators to define Christmas specials for generations.

A long time ago in a land with only four television networks, when the calendar rolled past November children would listen with eager anticipation for the sound of Santa Claus’ arrival.

No, I don’t mean sleigh bells. I mean the percussion and horns that announced the beginning of a CBS Special Presentation. Whenever its cadence filled the living room, all activity stopped for the next thirty to sixty minutes.

During the first several decades of their existence, Christmas specials were, for their intended audience of pre-teens, very special indeed. They aired once and only once a year, and with no VCRs or DVRs or streaming or rerun-happy cable channels, if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, you were out of luck until the next December, sidelined while your classmates debated whether the Abominable Snow Monster would beat the Winter Warlock in a fight. 

Sixty years after the first animated Christmas special (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, originally airing in 1962), the genre is as much of a holiday staple in the United States as Black Friday sales or Mariah Carey songs, and almost as ubiquitous. 

The paragon of the form is of course 1965’s timeless A Charlie Brown Christmas, the sublime excellence of which is so well-documented that we can acknowledge its place at the head of the line—the bright star on top of a gaudily decorated tree, if you will—and move on. 

The silver medalist of Christmas specials is a split decision between Chuck Jones’ wonderful 1966 adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a colorful stop-motion confection based on a popular song.

The latter special shares a theme with Charles Schultz’s understated masterpiece: both A Charlie Brown Christmas and 1964’s Rudolph are about the little tragedies and unlooked-for joys on the emotional rollercoaster of childhood. But unlike the Peanuts special, Rudolph eschews any mention of the Biblical origin of the Christmas holiday, opting instead to build on a much more contemporary foundation: an American child’s conception of Santa Claus. 

From that basis, two New Yorkers, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, with the incongruous assistance of a Japanese animation studio, constructed a whimsical modern mythology that grew—and simultaneously diminished—in the telling, one sequel and rerun at a time.

Neither Rankin nor Bass nor anybody else knew it in 1964, but their creation would presage today’s popular entertainment world of shared universes and interlocking stories and even an over-the-top team-up movie.

But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s have a look at where this Santaverse came from.

* * *

It couldn’t have been a surprise when Arthur Rankin, Jr. went to work for the nascent ABC network as an art director in the late 1940s. Born into a multi-generation show business family—Rankin’s grandfather Harry Davenport played Dr. Meade in Gone With The Wind—he took quickly to the new medium of television, and partnered in 1955 with ad man and fellow ABC employee Jules Bass to make commercials. 

The pair tired of both advertising and working at a network, and in 1960 founded their own production company, Videocraft International. It was then that they made the crucial decision to eschew live-action filming and embrace animation as their nascent studio’s signature and visual palette. 

Rankin and Bass gleaned the “International” portion of the company’s then-futuristic name from their partnership with animation studios in Japan, both for traditional hand-drawn cel productions and with their frequent collaborator Tadahito Mochinaga (credited as “Tad Mochinaga” on screen) for his distinctive stop-motion puppetry.

The partners named this process “Animagic” (there’s that advertising background coming out, and not for the last time) but the slow and painstaking method of creating motion pictures one frame at a time out of tiny adjustments to articulated puppets was older than film itself, dating back to crude efforts in the mid-19th century and refined over the decades by special effects wizards like Ray Harryhausen of King Kong fame—not coincidentally, one of Rankin’s favorite movies. 

Mochinaga and his puppeteers perfected the form, achieving the illusion of lifelike (if quirky) motion out of wooden puppets that the intellect says should remain inanimate. The globe-spanning team worked out the kinks with adaptations and extensions of popular stories like Pinocchio before hitting on the property that would make the studio’s name—soon to be changed to Rankin/Bass Productions—synonymous with Christmas and its red-suited secular patron saint.

* * * 

Appropriately enough, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has his origins not in myth or legend, but in commerce. The character was born in 1939 when the Montgomery Ward department store chain decided to cut out the publishing middleman and produce its own give-away coloring books for children. In-house Ward copywriter Robert L. May invented Rudolph and most of the lyrics we know today. The result was a hit, with over 6 million copies handed out, even though distribution was halted for several years due to wartime paper rationing.

In a true example of Christmas charity, the Montgomery Ward company granted May full rights to the poem and character in 1947, enabling him to retire a stifling personal debt load and comfortably raise his five children (although the astronomical income tax rates of the era eventually induced him to return to his old job at Ward). 

A year after gaining ownership of his creation, May cajoled his musician brother-in-law Johnny Marks to turn an expanded version of the coloring book text into a song, which upon being recorded by an initially reluctant Gene Autry in 1949 became an even bigger hit, cementing the red-nosed reindeer into American Christmas lore. 

The canny Rankin and Bass, appreciating the value of glomming onto what we now call “intellectual property” with an audience already built by somebody else, selected Rudolph for their first foray into Christmas specials. Enlisting the aid of screenwriter Romeo Muller and composer Maury Laws—a mutual collaboration that would bear animated fruit for the next two decades—the partners set to work.

Enhanced with an extensive set of musical numbers composed by Laws and lyricist Bass, the special was produced by the Videocraft partners, animated by Mochinaga’s studio, and unleashed upon the unsuspecting youth of America for the first time on December 6, 1964.

The result was a smashing success, rivaled in popular and critical acclaim over the history of Rankin/Bass only by its 1977 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From the slight framework of the May & Marks song, the studio teased out a rambunctious fantasy world worthy of the childhood tribal fables it both grew out of and generated in its own right.

Ever the shrewd ad men, Rankin and Bass dipped again into the well of popular music for their next smash hit, 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. The original Frosty song, written by Water Rollins and Steve Nelson, was a top-10 hit for both Gene Autry and Jimmy Durante in 1950, and has been re-recorded many times since. The producers tapped Durante himself as a friendly grampa of a narrator in what would be his last role before a stroke forced him to retire from show business.

The Rankin/Bass adaptation of Frosty is a slighter affair than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and not just thanks to the half-hour running time. Once again the Muller script follows the outline of the original song, but there’s relatively little world-building beyond Frosty’s new best friend Karen and the villainous-but-incompetent Professor Hinkle.

When Hinkle manages to trap Frosty and a sobbing Karen in a hothouse, seemingly causing the snowman’s demise, it’s the best and most (by which I mean, only) poignant scene in the special. The day—or more accurately, night—is saved by the appearance of Santa, summoned down from his Christmas Eve flight by Frosty’s woodland critter friends to rescue the hours-old snowman. 

Like a nobleman in a Shakespeare comedy, Santa quickly puts things to right: restoring Frosty and offering a lift to a safely-frozen new life at the North Pole, punishing Hinkle, and getting Karen safely back home.

The Kringle ex machina ending would appear again and again, even in such obscure climes as 1980’s Pinocchio’s Christmas (where, I’m sorry to say, Santa and the reindeer also appear in an ill-advised disco-themed dream sequence). A repetitive trope to be sure, but what child would not instinctively believe that Santa Claus will always be there to make everything all right?

* * *

Santa took center stage during 1970’s Christmas season with the release of the stop-motion Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Yet again, this was a special based on a song: this time a J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie composition that had been a much-recorded hit since its release as sheet music in 1934.

This time around, Rankin/Bass added two bona-fide stars to the voice cast: Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle and Fred Astaire as a postman narrator. This continued a tradition of boosting the profile of the specials with very well-known actors who were past their A-list status, but still within “garners special notice in TV Guide when they’re the guest on Columbo” territory.

Rooney took the first of his three turns voicing the Santaverse’s key figure in an origin story that follows Santa’s early life. Muller pulled together several threads of Claus mythology to establish Kris Kringle as a foundling adopted by a family of red-suited toymaker elves, who finds his calling sneaking toys into the homes of children living in an oppressive walled city.

The villain and show-stealer is the over-the-top kaiser of Sombertown (identified only as located in “one of the northern countries”), Burgermeister Meisterburger, a pompous, lederhosened tyrant who outlaws all toys in a rage and makes it his mission in life to end the career of “the terrible toymaker.”

All of this nonsense is just a good excuse for what would become the pattern of most “prequel” movies, generating a plot to flesh out and explain the salient points of a franchise’s backstory. The Santa myth offered numerous opportunities, presented in this case by Astaire as questions in letters from contemporary children: “Why the red suit? Why do you come down the chimney? How did you meet your wife?” and so forth.

All are addressed in now-familiar prequel box-checking fashion; the last even gives the special the Santaverse’s only real mention of the Biblical origin of Christmas (give or take a framing sequence around 1977’s Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey) when Kris and the future Mrs. Claus are married in a woodland grove adorned with Christian iconography, on what Astaire calls “The most sacred night of the year, Christmas Eve.” 

(We’ll let that questionable theology pass, simply noting that Rankin/Bass also produced a lot of Bunny-focused Easter specials as the years went on.)

This is a good place to recognize that Rankin/Bass did not place much value on what we’d call franchise continuity, or “canon.” Mrs. Claus is a prime example: she transforms from an imperious, iron-haired, European-accented queen of the castle in Rudolph to Sombertown’s hot blonde schoolmarm in Comin’ To Town to Shirley Booth’s gentle, white-headed Midwestern grandma in the next special, 1974’s The Year Without A Santa Claus with nary a nod that anything has changed.

Based on a 1956 Phyllis McGinley picture book, Year Without is when the Santaverse started to run out of steam. The basic story—Santa gets tired, decides to quit, then changes his mind when he gets nice letters from good children—could have been done in a Looney Tunes-length short. The special is most-remembered now for two Vegas-style musical numbers starring the sort-of villains, cool customer Snow Miser (who rules the north and wants to send ice and snow everywhere) and his brother and arch-rival, the devilish Heat Miser (who rules the south and is not so much a fan of the white stuff).

* * *

If the entertainment business of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has taught us anything, it’s that once a production company has a hit, it will continue to go back to the well for sequels and spin-offs until all the good will and interest is leached out of their once-beloved franchise. Rankin/Bass and the Santaverse were, sadly, no exception.

The Bicentennial year of 1976 saw the studio knocking out sequels to both of their signature original specials: the cel animation Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and stop-motion Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. The former, starring Andy Griffith to take Duranty’s place as narrator, tells viewers how Frosty gains a wife named Crystal and makes friends with would-be villain Jack Frost.

In the latter, set only a day after his famous first ride with Santa, Rudolph finds himself suddenly de-aged back to faun status (apparently his mature antlers weren’t deemed cute enough) and sent on a mission to help Father Time (Red Skelton) locate the missing Baby New Year before the clock runs out on December 31. Santa, of course, swoops in to save Rudolph and the New Year at the end, just in time for a big ball drop celebration featuring most of the secondary character puppets from Year Without.

How all these folks from Southtown made their way to Father Time’s castle is never addressed, but in fairness that kind of exposition would have been asking a lot of an hour-long show that also featured a talking camel, a talking whale, a caveman, a knight, and Ben Franklin.

Neither show is particularly offensive, but they are both tedious, particularly the Rudolph-led attempt to add another holiday to the Christmas special calendar. Still, the sequels were ratings successes, and paved the way for the grand finale of the Santaverse saga, 1979’s feature-length stop-motion extravaganza Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas In July.

No, I’m not making that up.

I’m also not even going to try to summarize the plot of Christmas In July, which you probably have never seen, and for good reason. It’s too long, too weird, and most of all, unnecessary. There was nobody out there in 1979—or at any other time—asking for Rudolph and Frosty (the latter now promoted to three dimensions, and with two snow-children having arrived since Winter Wonderland to boot) teaming up with a six-gun-toting Ethel Merman to save a Florida circus (see?).

You can think of it as the predecessor of the recent Marvel “Avengers” movies: a giant-scale team-up of every hero and most of the supporting characters from everything that came before, with a voice cast that would have been (and at one time or another probably was) comfortable on “Hollywood Squares”: Red Buttons, Merman, Rooney, Jackie Vernon, Shelly Winters, and Paul “for-gosh-sakes” Frees.

If you’re fond of the Rankin/Bass specials—and if you aren’t, I can’t imagine why you’re still reading at this point—I will allow that it’s worth seeing once, just for the sheer kitchen-sinkery of it all, although no one would fault an adult for not making it through in a single sitting. 

I trust I am not spoiling anything by revealing that Santa once again flies in at the end to save our heroes as well as the circus.

Christmas in July, which originally aired in November of ’79, was not a hit, and rarely reappeared before the advent of cheap home video and content-ravenous cable channels. I suspect that without them it would be entirely forgotten. It’s mostly notable today as an example of how sequelitis eventually runs even good material into the ground.

* * *

Rankin/Bass continued to produce Christmas specials and other children’s entertainment until the studio’s 1987 dissolution, but never returned to what we would recognize as the Santaverse. A 1985 production titled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was based on an entirely different (and deeply weird) fictional history of Saint Nick written by Oz author L. Frank Baum. 

Some specials, like 1974’s charming ’Twas The Night Before Christmas and 1968’s reverent Nativity retelling The Little Drummer Boy were quite good. Others, like 1981’s execrable The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold ought to have been tossed in a dumpster before they could be seen by unsuspecting audiences.

Still, the original specials and most of their antecedents lived on, first in the one-off annual broadcasts and later on videocassettes, DVDs, and endless cable reruns, which of late begin even before Thanksgiving and run right up through Christmas Day.

Home video brought out an additional benefit to viewers. Over the decades, all of the Christmas specials had been quietly trimmed down to make room for more commercial time. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in particular lost several minutes between 1964 and the late 1990s, including large portions of musical numbers (not all to the bad; Santa hates We Are Santa’s Elves for good reason) and even the conclusion of Yukon Cornelius’ character arc, which went unseen from 1965 until being restored in a 2004 DVD release. 

The full versions, now widely available on both physical media and streaming services, almost certainly contain scenes or bits of scenes that you never saw in your childhood, and are worth the trouble to find and add to your family’s holiday viewing plans—and of course, this way you can avoid the toy commercials as well.

The five fathers of the Santaverse lived long and prosperous lives, seeing their creations become permanent fixtures in the Christmas season and go on to delight successive generations of children around the world. 

Arthur Rankin, Jr. continued to produce new material through 1999, passing in 2014 at the age of 89 in his Bermuda retirement home. Prolific screenwriter Romeo Muller died in his sleep in 1992, at age 64 the shortest-lived of the Rankin/Bass team. 

Tadahito Mochinaga died in Tokyo in 1999 at 80, a revered figure in his animation-loving country. Composer Maury Laws passed in Wisconsin in 2019 at age 95, and his long-time collaborator Jules Bass died in October of 2022, just a few weeks before this writing, at age 87.

God (and Santa) rest you, merry gentlemen.

Will Collier is an engineer by profession and a writer by compulsion. He lives in metro Atlanta.