Starting about 1950, Christmas animation began to be made for television. An early example is the first animation of the Frosty the Snowman song (above), 3 minutes by UPA in 1954 and shown annually for some time. This was in black-&-white since all TV broadcasts were in black-&-white in the 1950s, though theatrical animation had long since become in full color. There may have been other 1950s-early 1960s TV animation. A similar example is the one-minute holiday interstitial that aired on CBS, of birds in a tree being serenaded by a man with a musical saw playing “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”, directed and designed by R.O. Blechman. It is titled today “R. O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message”, although the only text in it is “Seasons Greetings from CBS”. This was first broadcast during the holiday season of 1966, and has been shown often thereafter.
The first animated TV special was the December 18, 1962 60-minute Christmas special Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, produced by UPA; and it really opened the floodgates. It seems to be the first animation of Charles Dickens’ classic December 1843 seasonal ghost story, A Christmas Carol; starring the nearsighted (but not for this role) Quincy Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge, of course. It has since become a classic – and I highly recommend Darrell Van Citters’ hard-cover history of the film.
Also of course, there had been several live-action theatrical and TV productions of A Christmas Carol by this time. I cannot speak for all of the Christmas-themed regular episodes of TV animated cartoon programs, but the TV animated Christmas specials came increasingly thick and fast following the Mr. Magoo special. Dickens’ novella remained the golden model. The half-hour and one-hour animated Christmas TV specials ranged from straightforward dramatizations with humans, to straightforward dramatizations starring a popular studio’s or popular TV cartoon of the moment’s cast, to recognizable adaptations of varying degrees of faithfulness, to completely original stories. According to The Big Cartoon Database, there have been TV Christmas specials – and later, in the era of videocassettes and DVDs, direct-to-video movies of over an hour — starring the cartoon casts of Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Warner Bros., singly and all together; and of Alvin and the Chipmunks, American Dad, The Berenstain Bears, The California Raisins (Will Vinton’s Claymation), Dora the Explorer, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Family Guy, Frosty the Snowman, Garfield, He-Man & She-Ra, Little Lulu, Pac-Man, Phineas and Ferb, Postman Pat, Ren & Stimpy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sesame Street (so The Muppets aren’t animated; so sue me), the Smurfs, SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidbillies, The Wild Thornberrys, and many others. Even Hoops & Yoyo, a cartoon pink cat and green rabbit on a series of Hallmark greeting cards, have had a half-hour animated Christmas TV special; Hoops and Yoyo Ruin Christmas (November 25, 2011). I won’t try to list them all, but here are some that stand out.
First, an anomaly. Ralph Bakshi worked with Nickelodeon to create Tattertown, a 39-episode TV cartoon series during 1988. A pilot episode, set during Christmas, was produced, but Nickelodeon finally aborted the series. To salvage the pilot, it was turned into a half-hour TV special, Christmas in Tattertown, broadcast on Nick on December 21, 1988. It thus became the only Christmas animated TV special based on a nonexistent TV cartoon series.
The Story of Christmas. December 22, 1963. The first one-hour TV special, narrated by Tennessee Ernie Ford with music by the Roger Wagner Chorale. It was mostly live-action, but it included 18 ½ minutes of animation, with art direction by Eyvind Earle, who had designed Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.
A Charlie Brown Christmas. December 9, 1965. Wikipedia’s summary: “A Charlie Brown Christmas is the first prime-time animated TV special based upon the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. It was produced and directed by former Warner Bros. and UPA animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for the character of Snoopy. Initially sponsored by Coca-Cola, the special debuted on CBS in 1965, and has been aired in the USA during the Christmas season every year since: on CBS through 2000, and on ABC since 2001. Long an annual telecast, the special is now shown at least twice during the weeks leading up to Christmas. The special has been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award.” A half-hour special; 25 minutes plus commercials. (This should not be confused with the later It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, November 27, 1992.)
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. December 14, 1970. A one-hour (48-minute) TV movie by Rankin/Bass in their stop-motion Animagic process, with an all-star voice cast. IMDb’s synopsis: “The Mailman [S. D. Kluger, voiced by Fred Astaire] decides to answer some of the most common questions about Santa Claus, and tells us about a small baby named Kris who was left on the doorstep of the Kringle family (toymakers). When Kris grew up [Mickey Rooney], he wanted to deliver toys to the children of Sombertown. But its Burgermeister (Herr Meisterburger) [Paul Frees] is too mean to let that happen. And to make things worse, there’s an evil wizard named Winter [The Winter Warlock; Keenan Wynn] who lives between the Kringles and Sombertown, but Kris manages to melt Winter’s heart (as well as the comely schoolteacher’s) [Miss Jessica; Robie Lester] and deliver his toys.”
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass specialized in animated holiday TV specials, especially for Christmas, from 1964 through the 1970s. Some others were Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, and the feature film, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July.
A Christmas Carol. December 21, 1971. Animator Richard Williams’ 25-minute straight adaptation of Dickens’ tale is a classic in its own right; directed by him to look like 19th-century illustrations, and produced by him and Chuck Jones. Although for the American ABC-TV network, it felt like a top-quality British job with narration by Sir Michael Redgrave, and Alastair Sim and Sir Michael Hordern reprising their 1951 live-action roles as the voices of Ebenezer Scrooge and of Marley’s ghost. The TV special was so popular that it was rereleased theatrically, and won the 1972 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. The Oscar rules were subsequently changed to remove TV specials that are later shown theatrically from Oscar eligibility.
A Christmas Story. December 9, 1972. A half-hour Hanna-Barbera TV special written by Ken Spears and Joe Ruby before they started their own animation studio in 1977, featuring many of H-B’s top voices: Daws Butler, Don Messick, Hal Smith, Paul Winchell, Janet Waldo, Walter Tetley, and others; designed by Iwao Takamoto, with music by Hoyt Curtin. A young father and mother, dressed in Victorian styles prepare to celebrate Christmas. The father reads Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas to young Timmy. Timmy’s dog Goober, and Goober’s friend Gumdrop the mouse, find Timmy’s letter to Santa Claus unmailed. They set out to deliver it to him.
The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. December 17, 1973. A half-hour (25’06”) TV special, directed by Gerry Chiniquy & Harley Pratt, and produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Narrated by Casey Kasem. Theodore Edward (Ted E.) Bear (voice of Tom Smothers) is a laughingstock for believing in Christmas, which all other bears in Bear City hibernate through. His girlfriend Patti Bear (Barbara Feldon) fails to talk him out of it, and Professor Werner von Bear (Arte Johnson) ridicules believers in Christmas on television. Ted E. is determined to skip hibernating one winter while all the other bears fly on BearAir to Bearbank to sleep, and goes looking for Christmas which he thinks is a place. He wanders into a human city, where a street-corner Santa Claus (Robert Holt) who is really the real Santa explains to him what Christmas really means.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. December 6, 1974. Director Bill Melendez’s 25-minute Emmy-winning dramatization of New York Sun editor Francis Church’s famous 1897 editorial reply to an 8-year-old girl’s letter, asking if there was a real Santa Claus.
The Year Without a Santa Claus. December 10, 1974. A one-hour (51 minutes) Rankin/Bass Animagic production. Narrated by Mrs. Claus, this is the story of how Santa gets a bad cold on Christmas Eve and is persuaded to stay in bed over Christmas. The main characters are two of Santa’s elves, Jingle and Jangle, and Vixen, the baby reindeer, who deliver the presents and run into a Southern U.S. town where people do not believe in Christmas. Mrs. Claus must persuade two grumpy nature spirit brothers, the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, to make it snow in Southtown on Christmas. When they refuse, she goes over their heads to Mother Nature.
A Cosmic Christmas. December 6, 1977. This half-hour TV special is memorable because it was Nelvana Ltd.’s first production. The original story was by Patrick Loubert, one of Nelvana’s founders. Amalthor, Lexicon, and Plutox, three space aliens who look like elongated, stylized versions of the Three Wise Men, come to a small Canadian town to learn the Meaning of Christmas. They are befriended by the boy Peter and Lucy, his pet goose, who save the spacemen from the panicked townsfolk. Nelvana tried to make the aliens look more alien by moving them in limited animation, while the humans got full animation.
Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper. November 30, 1978. A half-hour TV special by Chuck Jones Enterprises, funded by Bobbs-Merrill. June Foray and Daws Butler voice Raggedy Ann and Andy, versus Les Tremayne as both Santa Claus and villainous Alexander Graham Wolf. A. G. Wolf, who looks just like Wile E. Coyote, is an inventor who plans to take over Santa Claus’ workshop. Alexander W. has invented gloopstik, a transparent and unbreakable substance that he plans to coat all toys in, making them unbreakable (but also unplaywithable). Santa’s reindeer Comet overhears Alexander’s plans, and goes to Raggedys Ann, Andy, and their dog Arthur to stop him. It turns out that the only thing that can break gloopstik is LOVE!
The Stingiest Man in Town. December 23, 1978. This was Rankin/Bass Productions’ one-hour (51 minutes plus commercial time) musical adaptation of Dickens’ story, produced in traditional cartoon animation rather than the stop-motion “Animagic” that Rankin/Bass usually used, by the TopCraft studio in Tokyo. It was actually an animated remake of a 1956 live-action TV production, with Walter Matthau’s voice replacing Basil Rathbone as Ebenezer Scrooge.
The First Christmas. 1979. A half-hour Australian cartoon TV special, animated by Air Programs International (API). The story of the Nativity, from the appointment of Quirinus as governor of Syria to the birth of Christ. More of an impartial history dramatization than a Christian religious story. Not to be confused with The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, a 1975 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special.
Yarst! This column is going to have to be divided into two parts. Feel free to add to this list in the comments below. Next week: The animated cartoon Christmas TV specials from the 1980s to the early 2000s. (They’re almost all CGI after that.)