The Insane Paganism of Rankin and Bass

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , ,

It is the Christmas season, and Christmas season means those Rankin and Bass stop-motion animation specials.  You’ve probably seen at least Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer–because EVERYONE’s seen that one–but there’s actually a whole bunch of them, and they get sort of increasingly demented.

Jeanine just bought a DVD for five dollars that has Year Without A Santa on it, and Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.

Early on in their career of insane Christmas specials is Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which is the one that I always remember from my childhood, because it featured the Burgermeister Meisterburger.  This isn’t so nuts — it does completely divorce the character of Santa Claus from St. Nicholas, and has him consorting with an evil wizard in order to gain his magic powers, but it’s substantially less paganistic than their later efforts.

Year Without a Santa is actually just a little bit nuts.  Like most of these specials, the focus on Christmas is completely inconsiderate of the holiday’s Christian roots.  There’s no talk about God, or Jesus, or miracles, or anything like that.  Santa, in this special, is just a supernatural drama queen who is convinced that no one appreciates him enough, so he pretends to have the flu and just lies in bed.  (It’s a common feature of Santa-related stories that children were always in danger of not caring about Christmas anymore, which I guess is a decent enough premise considering how insane everything else is, but seriously?  Seriously?  When in history have kids EVER been in danger of not being jazzed to DEATH about Christmas?)

Anyway, Mrs. Claus and a reindeer and some elves have to go to some crazy lengths to prove to Santa that everyone still cares about him so that he’ll stop being a dick and get back to work.  In order to do those, they have to go to a town called Southtown, where the mayor is holding one of Santa’s reindeer hostage unless Mrs. Claus can make it snow.  Mrs. Claus goes to someone called the “Cold Miser”, who sings a sing about how he makes it snow.

It’s hard to be sure what Cold Miser is.  He seems to be the living embodiment of winter which, aside from the conspicuous lack of Jesus during Christmas, is the first indication that the cosmology of this Santa Claus universe might be a little zany.  But it gets crazier.

See, Cold Miser can’t make it snow because Southtown is under the jurisdiction of Heat Miser, who, I guess, is the living embodiment of summer (he sings the EXACT SAME SONG as Cold Miser, only it’s about how he likes it to be hot).  So, not only do we have two supernatural weather demons in this world, but they have actually divided up the world into their own sub-domains.

Not only that!  It turns out that Cold Miser’s mother is Mother Nature herself — a good, old-fashioned pagan earth-mother deity.  And!  Cold Miser, when he refers to Heat Miser, calls him not his brother, but his STEP-brother.  So, assuming that Mother Nature is Cold Miser’s natural mother, there must be a whole other set of supernatural deities responsible for the Heat Miser.  There is the clear implication that there’s an entire supernatural family here — one in which members die, remarry, adopt each other.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is a step even further in the direction of completely nuts.  This is the sequel to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and, like the others, is a Christmas special that seems completely disinterested in Jesus.  But it’s more than that — remember the first Rudolph?  Straightforward story about a reindeer who’s ostracized for a physical deformity, fights a giant snow monster, meets a prospector, and then brings a bunch of defective toys back to crabby old Santa who has a change of heart once he realizes that the mutant reindeer is useful for something.  It’s depressing, but it totally makes sense that all of those things —  prospector, snow monster, elf-dentist, watergun that shoots jam — might be found at the North Pole and, thus, part of Rudolph’s story.

But the sequel…my goodness. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is about Rudolph trying to save the infant embodiment of the New Year from being eaten by a horrible gigantic vulture called Eon who represents the end of the previous epoch, and wants to eat the baby New Year so that he can STOP TIME.  Old New Year — who carries a scythe, despite the fact that he finishes his time in January, meaning he must be an embodiment of death — sings a song about how, LIKE A DYING KING, the Old Year passes the crown to the infant New Year, who then becomes the new embodiment of time.  Seriously, this is some Golden Bough stuff happening here.

Moreover!  Old Year reveals to Rudolph (to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the hero of our story.  Our story about time being destroyed by an old epoch that refuses to relinquish its power.  The hero of that story.  Is a reindeer.) that all of the previous years, when they finish their time of sovereignty, retire to an archipelago where they each have an island that is exactly like the year that they represent.  So, Rudolph (THE REINDEER) has to fight this giant monster-bird (who I can only assume represents the Age of Pisces, which is about to end in favor of the Age of Aquarius) with help from a Caveman, who lives on the Island of 1 million BC.

Definitely not biblical literalists here.  What’s amazing is that Rankin & Bass studios did do a bunch of movies that *were* at least vaguely related to Jesus:  The Little Drummer Boy, Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, The First Christmas.

Then they made The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which is based on an L. Frank Baum story.  This movie is insane.  Here is what happens:

the Great Ak summons a council of the Immortals to bestow upon a dying Claus the Mantle of Immortality. To make his case, the Great Ak tells Claus’s life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the magical forest and his raising by Immortals, through his education by the Great Ak in the harsh realities of the human world and his acceptance of his destiny to struggle to bring joy to children.

What is my point here?  Nothing, except that if you had to guess what Christmas was about based solely on Rankin and Bass Christmas specials, you’d have NO IDEA what was going on.  Hell, I know what Christmas is about, and the Great Ak still confuses the crap out of me.

Seriously, look at him. He is the HORNED KING.

  1. SB7 says:

    The sequel to Year Without a Santa, A Miser Brothers’ Christmas seems as batshit and gives more info about the Claus cosmology.

  2. braak says:

    But who is Heat Miser’s father!?!? Is Mother Nature still married to him? Or does she just get around like Liz Taylor?

  3. Carl says:

    Completely true. I have always loved The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus for this very reason, actually– the unselfconscious blending of paganism back into the story of the Christian Saint. As a kid, this was my favorite of the Rankin/Bass outings.

    Course, Catholicism is very different from Protestantism with regards to its treatment of paganism, so it probably figures. In the tradition I came up in, Christianity is the crowning capstone on the top of the structure of the human search for divinity. It completes and sanctifies that whole long history, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those gods didn’t exist in some capacity of how power in their own rights, it just reconfigures the way in which they are perceived and redirects worship to the proper Source of all Things (including lesser spirits mistaken by men for gods) in the One God. And, as I’m sure you know, there are endless examples of Catholicism tolerating pagan elements and absorbing them into its practice as it assimilated pagan cultures (the Irish whose spirituality still very much features faeries and spirits alongside saints and angels, the Voodoo blending of African paganism and the Catholic cult of the saints, and Latin American Catholic Churches with frescos that feature pagan gods, etc.) Protestants will often point to the presence gargoyles on the outside of Catholic Churches or figures from the zodiac present in St. Peter’s as evidence of the Catholicism not being genuinely and wholly Christian faith. I think in my case, too, actual theology was unavoidably muddied by the Tolkienian cosmology over the years(the conscious attempt by a devout Catholic to refold pagan pantheons into the Catholic cosmology), and it was sort of nice to see a holiday special that suggested that the Maiar still had something to do this late in the Age of Men.

    Also, as a kid, Eon freaked me the fuck out.

  4. Erin says:

    To be fair, Rudolph’s Shiny New Years wasn’t a Christmas special (regardless what ABC Family now believes), so omitting Jesus doesn’t mean much.

    As for the others, don’t underestimate the importance of Baum’s stories about Santa. As far as I can tell, the entire cosmology of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (and by extension Nightmare Before Christmas and Elf) got its start there, and Rankin/Bass were borrowing heavily from Baum long before they officially adapted the Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (look no further than Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has the same basic plot).

    Of course, there’s always been a pagan element to Christmas, particularly when Santa enters the mix. Sure, he got his start as Saint Nicholas, but long before his name was shortened to “Claus,” he was a lot more Odin than bishop.

  5. Joe says:

    As an adult I can watch these knowing that they are fictional and all in good fun. I have never not made Christmas about Jesus, as I know the bible to be true. Children can watch, but should be told that these are fictional and not what Christmas is all about.

  6. braak says:

    hi Joe — actually, I think it’s also fine to tell them that this stuff is true, and also that it is what Christmas is all about. My feeling is, as long as kids are learning to be kind, learning to be generous, and learning to care for each other, the religious structure in which they learn it is largely irrelevant.

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