It’s that time of year to think of Christmas animation. Why this early? Ask the major animation companies. Thanksgiving week is when they have taken to releasing their big Christmas theatrical features. Sony Entertainment released its and Aardman Animations’ Arthur Christmas on November 23, 2011. DreamWorks Animation released its Rise of the Guardians, with a Russian Santa Claus and an icy Jack Frost on November 21, 2012. Disney is releasing its icy and snowbound Frozen, with Sven the reindeer and both good and monstrous snowmen – featuring Olaf the Snowman on its poster – on November 27, 2013. So let’s do an overview of Christmas animation.
YouTube has a handy but unreliable list of Christmas animation, and there are several equally unreliable DVD compilations of “Christmas cartoons”. Many on them are just snowy winter cartoons, such as the Van Beuren Studios’ Frisky Frolics, 1932, about funny animals ice-skating and having snowball fights; or the Disney 1942 Donald’s Snow Fight, where Donald gets into a snow fortress battle with his nephews; or the German 1944 Der Schneemann (The Snowman) by Hans Fischerkoesten, about a snowman made in winter who wants to see summer; or the Terrytoons’ 1949 A Cold Romance, where Oil Can Harry pursues Little Nell to the North Pole while Mighty Mouse is temporarily helpless, with just about every stereotyped North Pole joke except Santa Claus.
Not every “winter wonderland” cartoon with a snowman in it, or lots of snow and snowball fights and riding in a one-horse open sleigh, or about magically-living toys, is about Christmas. In my opinion, a cartoon has to have Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and wrapped presents, or Yuletide carolers singing Christmas songs – or an unmistakable religious Nativity motif – to be genuine Christmas animation.
What was the first Christmas animation? The earliest with a definite Christmas theme were stop-motion films made by Wladyslaw Starewicz in Moscow between 1911 and 1913: Christmas of the Forest Inhabitants (1911), Christmas at the Fox’s Boarding House (1912), and The Insects’ Christmas (1913). The first two seem to be lost today, but the 1913 film survives. So this year is the 100th anniversary of the oldest Christmas animation still in existence.
The Insects’ Christmas (Rozhdestvo obitateley lesa), a 6’32” stop-motion film directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz and “Produced by Khanzhonkov Company, Moscow, 1913”. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov founded the first cinematic company in Russia in 1911; Starewicz’s live-action and stop-motion were among his first films. A miniature Father Christmas ornament on a Christmas tree comes to life and climbs down, awakening a doll. He goes out into the snowy landscape and magically creates a tiny Christmas tree for “the people of the forest”; the ladybug, Miss Dragonfly, and all the woodland insects, plus a frog. They engage in ice skating and other winter activities. The beetle and the frog pull a Christmas cracker. The next morning, Father Christmas leaves them to return to his indoor Christmas tree.
Starewicz also made the 41-minute The Night Before Christmas (Ночь перед Рождеством = Noch pered Rozhdestvom) in 1913, but it was mostly live-action with only a little animation. It was the first film to combine live-action and animation in the same scene. He emigrated to Italy and later Paris to escape the Russian Revolution, and made more “winter wonderland” stop-motion films after World War II that are often included in compilations of Christmas animation, but none seem to be about Christmas rather than just a Russian snowbound winter.
Next is Der Stern von Bethlehem (The Star of Bethlehem), an 11’51” silhouette film by Lotte Reniger of Germany in 1921, about the religious meaning of Christmas: Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth, and the Three Wise Men following the star to find Him. I have not found any other animation in the entire silent-film era that is about Christmas! Are there any?
There have been plenty in the Golden Age of theatrical short cartoons, from the first talkies until theatrical animated shorts went out of style. I won’t guarantee that this chronological list is complete, but it is more comprehensive than anyone else’s (online, at least). Feel free to suggest additional “golden age” cartoons I may have missed in the comments below.
(1) In the Disney “Mickey Mouse” cartoon Mickey’s Orphans (December 9, 1931), Mickey and Minnie are given a basket of dozens of kittens at Christmastime. Mickey dons a Santa Claus costume to entertain them, with Pluto as his reindeer.
(2) The first color Christmas cartoon was Disney’s “Silly Symphony” Santa’s Workshop (December 10, 1932). It was Disney’s fourth film in full Technicolor, following Flowers and Trees, King Neptune, and Babes in the Woods. It features a jolly, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa Claus in his North Pole headquarters, surrounded by seemingly hundreds of industrious toymaking elves.
(3) Disney released the black-&-white “Mickey Mouse” cartoon, Mickey’s Good Deed, just a week later (December 17, 1932). A poor Mickey sells Pluto so he can buy gifts to play Santa Claus for a large family of kittens who have no toys for Christmas. Pluto is blamed for the spoiled rich boy’s mischief, and is thrown out to return to Mickey.
(4) In Leon Schlesinger’s/WB’s The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives (January 7, 1933), Santa Claus takes a poor orphan boy home to the North Pole, where all the toys come to life and sing the title song. I bet that if I checked into it, Warner Bros. would turn out to own the copyright on the song.
(5) In Disney’s “Silly Symphony” The Night Before Christmas (December 9, 1933), Santa slides down a chimney on Christmas Eve, and his toys decorate the Christmas tree.
(6) In the Fleischer Studios’ “Popeye the Sailor” cartoon Seasin’s Greetinks! (December 17, 1933), Popeye gives Olive Oyl a Christmas present of ice skates. Bluto tries to take over her skating lesson, with predictable results.
(7) The Van Beuren Studios’ “Little King” series (starring O. Soglow’s newspaper cartoon character) has Christmas Night (December 22, 1933), in which the determinedly democratic Little King invites two scruffy tramps into the palace to share Christmas with him.
(8) In Universal’s “Cartune Classics” by Walter Lantz in two-strip color, Toyland Premiere (December 7, 1934), Santa gets a telegram from Oswald the Rabbit telling him that there will be a huge reception for Santa’s Toyland Parade at his city’s biggest department store. Santa’s elves help him to get ready before he leaves the North Pole. The reception is a success, with caricatures of several Hollywood movie stars among the guests, until Laurel and Hardy try to steal the chocolate cake.
(9) In MGM’s “Happy Harmonies” Alias St. Nick (November 16, 1935), Mother Mouse reads ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ to her children. A cat overhears them arguing over whether Santa Claus is real, and disguises himself as Santa.
(10) The Disney “Silly Symphony” Broken Toys (December 14, 1935) is about a group of discarded broken toys (including several Hollywood caricatures, like a Ned Sparks jack-in-the-box, a Zasu Pitts doll, and a W. C. Fields roly-poly) who are led by a sailor doll to repair themselves and give themselves as presents to the children of an orphanage. The Christmas tie-in is only implied; it is during a snowy winter, and the giving of toys to orphans implies Christmas.
(11) In the Fleischer Studios’ “Color Classics” series, Christmas Comes But Once A Year (December 4, 1936) featuring the inventive Grampy (in his only appearance without Betty Boop), when the orphanage children’s Christmas toys all break, “Professor Grampy” makes Rube Goldbergish toys out of closet and kitchen utensils to make the children happy.
(12) In MGM’s “Happy Harmonies” cartoon The Pups’ Christmas (December 12, 1936), a family’s children and their two puppies get up early to see their presents. The puppies are frightened by the new toys. By the time the parents get up, all of the toys are broken.
(13) MGM’s Oscar-nominated Peace on Earth (December 9, 1939), directed by Hugh Harman, begins with forest animal carolers singing “Peace on Earth; Goodwill to Men”. Two young squirrels ask their grandfather what “Men” were, and the old squirrel explains that despite their songs of peace and brotherhood, the Men killed themselves off in endless, increasingly-destructive wars.
(14) MGM’s “Tom and Jerry” series has The Night Before Christmas (December 3, 1941), in which Jerry plays with Christmas toys until he mistakes Tom for a plush doll.
(15) Jamison Handy’s Jam Handy Organization made a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon in 1944 for Montgomery Ward & Co., directed by Max Fleischer after Paramount took his studio away from him, that was essentially a dramatization of Robert L. May’s original story with the full song by Johnny Marks. Rudolph is shown as an adolescent reindeer still living with his mother, until Santa recruits him.
(16) The 1945 10-minute Castle Films’ Christmas Toyshop by Paul Terry is an anomaly, with the first half in live-action showing two children getting ready for bed on Christmas Eve while Father sets up a Christmas tree. It cuts to the children getting up and surprising Santa Claus, who tells them about a toyshop where the toys come to life. This is footage from the December 13, 1935 Terrytoons cartoon Ye Olde Toy Shop, that had nothing to do with Christmas.
(17) In 1947 the National Film Board of Canada released Christmas Carols, an 11-minute straightforward focus upon the holiday’s religious aspects. The Big Cartoon Database’s synopsis of that is, “An animated presentation of Silent Night, Come All Ye Faithful, Good King Wenceslaus, Joy to the World and What Child Is This sung by the Leslie Bell Singers.”
(18) The first of Famous Studio’s “Noveltoons” to feature “Little Audrey” was Santa’s Surprise (December 5, 1947), in which Audrey and four “international” children (African, Chinese, Dutch, and Russian; all ethnic stereotypes) sneak aboard Santa’s sleigh, return to the North Pole with him, and clean his house while he sleeps.
(19) Another Famous “Noveltoon” was Hector’s Hectic Life (November 18, 1948). Hector, a dog (but he seems to be named Prince), is threatened by the maid with being thrown out of the house into the snow if he ruins the Christmas tree or the gifts around it. He tries to hide the destruction caused by his three mischievous puppies.
(20) Gaumont British Animation’s/David Hand Productions’ Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus (1949) in its “Animaland” series, has nothing to do with Christmas besides its title. Red squirrel Ginger Nutt, who was featured in several other “Animaland” cartoons, is the ringmaster of a winter forest circus. Willie Weasel has his ticket stolen by Boko the Parrot, and Willie keeps trying to get into the circus despite being thrown out by Ginger. The circus acts feature most of the animals that starred in the other “Animaland” cartoons.
(21) YouTube’s list includes Lotte Reiniger’s 1949 silhouette animation Post Early for Christmas, so I will keep it here, although it is only a one-minute public-service reminder, for the British G.P.O. since she was living in London at the time, to mail your gifts and Christmas cards early. Santa Claus goes on strike because people posted their mail too late last year, so St. Peter tells everyone to be sure to mail early this year.
(22) In Disney’s “Donald Duck” cartoon Toy Tinkers (December 16, 1949), Donald’s chopping down a small Christmas tree in the snowbound forest awakens Chip and Dale from hibernation. They follow Donald and the tree home, see all his plates of candy and Christmas food, and break in to eat it. Disney’s summary is: “Donald dresses as Santa Claus to have fun with the two thieving chipmunks, but ends up using the war toys underneath the Christmas tree to do battle with them.”
(23) In Famous Studios’ “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon True Boo (October 24, 1952), Casper wishes on Christmas Eve for a friend. When the Ghostly Trio steal his letter to Santa, he goes looking for a friend who won’t be scared of him, and dresses in a Santa costume to find one.
(24) In Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” cartoon Pluto’s Christmas Tree (November 21, 1952), Mickey chops down a Christmas tree that has Chip ‘n Dale in it. Pluto goes after the chipmunks after they and the tree are in Mickey’s house, while Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy sing Christmas carols.
(25) In Famous Studios’ “Popeye the Sailor” cartoon Mister and Mistletoe (September 30, 1955), Bluto disguised as Santa Claus interrupts Olive and Popeye decorating her house for Christmas.
(26) MGM’s Good Will to Men (December 23, 1955) was a Cinemascope remake of its 1939 Peace on Earth, directed by William Hanna and Joe Barbera rather than Hugh Harman, with mice replacing the squirrels.
(27) Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films’ British The Candlemaker (1957), produced for the United Lutheran Church in the U.S., was about a long-ago candlemaker who delivers two extra-fine candles to the town church every Saturday. When he has to leave town on an errand early on Christmas Eve, he trusts his son, Young Tom, to make the second candle. Tom’s candle, made with the help of his pet mouse Squeaky, fails, but Tom redeems himself just in time for Christmas Mass.
(28) Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films’ A Christmas Visitor (1959) started and ended as a 7”17” dramatization of Clement C. Moore’s 1823 A Visit from St. Nicholas (or maybe Henry Livingston Jr’s 1808 poem; see claims of disputed authorship), with a long interlude in the middle when Santa stops to partake of the Christmas snack left out for him (emphasizing his enjoying lighting up and smoking the cigar), while the toys come to life with the villainous jack-in-the-box tying the young-maid music box to the toy railroad tracks, and a sailor doll rescuing her.
(29) Christmas Cracker (1963); a National Film Board of Canada 9-minute portmanteau of three segments by animators Norman McLaren (children dancing to Jingle Bells in cut-out paper animation), Gerald Potterton (tin toys in a dime-store rodeo, in stop-motion), and Grant Munro (decorating the perfect Christmas tree, in cel animation), all presented by a live-action jester. It won seven animation awards and was nominated for the 1964 Best Animated Short Film Oscar.
(30) Disney’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol (December 16, 1983) feels today like an evolutionary link between a traditional theatrical short cartoon and a half-hour TV special or a direct-to-video release, and its half-hour (26 minutes, to be precise) length made it feel more like a “mini-movie”; but it was released theatrically and it was not a feature. An adaptation of Dickens’ classic, with all the parts played by Disney cartoon characters: Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge, Rat and Mole from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad as the two collectors for the poor, Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit, Willie the Giant from Fun and Fancy Free as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Black Pete as the Ghost of Christmas Future, etc.
These are all of the Christmasy theatrical animated shorts that I could find references to. Even I feel this has been too much Christmas animation for one column. Next week: The TV specials.
Before I get too deep into Christmas animation, let me acknowledge that this list, or these lists-to-come, make no claim to being complete. Some direct-to-video or -DVD productions that I have not had time to look up complete information on include, cartoon or CGI animation: Buster & Chauncy’s Silent Night (1998; 48 minutes); The Night Before Christmas: A Mouse Tale (2002; 47 minutes); In Search of Santa (2004; 81 minutes); Red Boots for Christmas (July 15, 2004; 28 minutes); The Happy Elf (2005; 45 minutes); Christmas Is Here Again (2006; 74 minutes); The Very First Noel (November 14, 2006; 23 minutes); Little Spirit: Christmas in New York (2008; 60 minutes); Gotta Catch Santa Claus (October 13, 2009; 66 minutes); Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (October 13, 2009; 58 minutes); The Littlest Light on the Christmas Tree (November 10, 2009; 44 minutes); and Timmy’s Gift: A Precious Moments Christmas Story (November 24, 2009; 23 minutes). And that’s just to 2010.
One very large category that is missing altogether is Christmas cartoons made by Christian organizations for video sales to the devout. If there is information on them besides the websites selling them, I have not found it. For example, there is a series of three half-hour cartoon animated direct-to-video releases featuring Spunky the puppy, based on Spunky’s Diary in the young children’s book series “Janette Oke’s Animal Friends”, published by Bethany House Publishers. The first of these, Spunky’s First Christmas, would qualify – not only is it a home video (now DVD), it was shown on the Christian Broadcasting Network on Christmas 1997. Spunky is born, gets a new home and a boy, Mark, becomes lost in a big city at Christmastime, remembers Mark talking about having faith in God and goes into a church with children performing a Nativity play, and is reunited with Mark.
There are three Spunky cartoons on Vision Video, but they are not included on IMDb or The Big Cartoon Database. Christianbook.com lists Spunky’s First Christmas (© 1997), along with The Toys That Rescued Christmas (2001) from Image Entertainment; Red Boots for Christmas (July 15, 2004) from Vision Video; Joy to the World: The Story of Christmas (June 20, 2007, in the “Bugtime Adventures” series) from Vision Video; A WowieBOZowee Christmas (October 23, 2007; featuring “BOZ the Green Bear Next Door”) from Provident Music Distribution; Silent Night (June 12, 2007; Christianbook.com: “A naughty donkey named Abib is purchased by Joseph to transport his wife Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of their baby. Along the way, Abib plays a vital role in the greatest story ever told–the birth of Christ–and becomes a role model for all donkeys.”) from Wisenquest; Micah’s Christmas Treasure (1995; Vision Video: “Micah, a poor shepherd boy, makes a wonderful discovery amidst the tumult and uncertainty of ancient Israel at the time of Christ’s birth. After Roman tax collectors punish their family for being unable to pay their taxes, young Micah and his sister, Rachel, set out to acquire the treasure that will save their home.”; this one is 54 minutes) from Vision Video; The Crippled Lamb (December 9, 2000; Christianbook.com: “This heartwarming animated DVD is based on Max Lucado’s story of Joshua, a little lame lamb who has a special chance to honor the Christ child one starry night in Bethlehem.”) from Thomas Nelson; Once Upon a Stable (Aha! This was a 2004 South African TV special; I cover it there.) from Casscom Media; and innumerable others; along with cartoon adventures that are related to Easter, Noah’s Ark, the stories of Moses, Daniel, Joshua, Jonah, Elijah, Gideon, and so on. Someone (not me!) should write a study on Christian-based animation.