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Why are the most beloved Christmas specials so terrible?

  • "Let’s begin with the granddaddy of them all, the stop-motion puppet show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," says Tom Nichols. "Produced by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass in 1964, Rudolph became an industry, spawning toys and collectibles and a legion of die-hard fans. (There are a few in my own family.) It has pleasant songs and touching moments, if you like that sort of thing. It’s also terrible. I feel a bit of guilt saying this, because my late mother loved that show, and every year when I was a boy, we watched it together because she thought that I loved it just as much as she did. I didn’t mind; I loved my mom, and when it appeared, it meant both my birthday and Christmas were near, so I was happy enough. But yikes, what a story. I am not the first person to notice this—my Atlantic colleague Caitlin Flanagan wrote the definitive takedown of this nightmare in 2020—but everyone in Christmas Town is a jerk. From Santa—a choleric coot who runs the North Pole like a Depression-era factory executive—to the dictatorial head elf, to Donner and the other reindeer bigots, they’re all dislikable." Nichols adds: "The problem is that because Rudolph was a giant hit, Rankin and Bass wouldn’t stop. In 1970, we got Santa’s origin story in Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town—don’t ask; it involves a warlock and a penguin—and in 1974 we got the hathotic mess titled The Year Without a Santa Claus...Frosty the Snowman, in particular, is a Rankin/Bass crime that I hated instantly the moment it aired—on my ninth birthday, in 1969, no less—and that refuses to go away. Whatever you thought about Rudolph, it had a kind of innocent beauty to it. Frosty, featuring a cameo from Jimmy Durante and the excessive vocal hamminess of the character actor Billy De Wolfe as the bad guy, was cynical dreck. And why, you might ask, was Durante in this thing? Because Rankin/Bass, for some reason, assumed that kids like me loved old-timey stars. These specials over the years featured such ostensible children’s heroes as Durante, Shirley Booth, Red Buttons, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, George S. Irving, and, in a bizarre 1979 misfire, Ethel Merman. Who were these specials made for? The middle-aged guys drinking boilermakers and listening to the Mills Brothers on the jukebox over at the American Legion bar back in my old neighborhood?"

    TOPICS: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Christmas, Holiday Programming