Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town: Reviewing The Rankin-Bass special
Posted by Chris Lang on December 20, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Okay, a few weeks ago, I listed the song ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town’ as number one on my list of disturbing and inescapable Christmas songs that the Nostalgia Chick overlooked for some reason. But now, let me talk about the Rankin Bass stop-animation special inspired by it.

Coming off the success of the ever-popular Rudolph the Red Nosed-Reindeer special, this special gives us an origin story for a holiday icon who’s been around a lot longer than Rudolph. Namely, Santa Claus.

It starts with mailman S.D. Kluger (voiced by Fred Astaire) introducing himself as the guy who delivers mail to Santa, and mentioning that in addition to kids sending their Christmas lists to Santa, the kids also ask a LOT of questions about him. Since this took place before there was an Internet and before Santa Claus could have a website with a FAQ section, S.D Kluger chooses to answer the kids’ most Frequently Asked Questions with the story of how Santa got started.

According to Kluger, the baby Claus just showed up one day on the doorstep of the Burgermeister Meisterburger, mayor of Sombertown. Burgermeister Meisterburger did not want to be saddled with a baby, so he tells his associate Grimsby to take the baby to an orphanage. However, Grimsby accidentally loses the baby Claus on the way, and the baby ends up on the other side of the mountain from Sombertown. There he is adopted by the Kringle family of toymaking elves, and given the name Kris Kringle.

As the boy gets older, the senior female Kringle Tanta Kringle explains that the Kringles used to be toymakers to the King, and explains their responsibilities in song. ‘A Difficult Responsibilty/First Toymakers to the King’. Making a big deal about this certainly makes sense, as kings certainly expect only the best, and won’t approve of any shoddy products. Of course, aside from the pictures seen during this song, we never actually see any king during this special. More on that later.

So when Kris Kringle becomes a young man, he dons the Kringle family’s signature red suit, thus explaining the origin of the costume we most associate with the modern Santa Claus. He then goes to Sombertown to deliver the toys, making friends with an extremely lost penguin (he remarks that since the penguin is from the South Pole, the penguin’s as lost as anyone can get), and risking the wrath of the Winter Warlock who lives on the mountain.

Unfortunately, by the time he arrives in Sombertown, the Burgermeister Meisterburger has injured himself by tripping on a toy, and as a result says that this is the last straw, and that toys are ‘illegal, immoral, and unproductive, and anyone caught with a toy will be thrown in the dungeon’. Sombertown is a gray and gloomy place, in contrast to his bright red outfit, and the first kids he meets are miserably washing clothes. They tell him about the Burgermeister’s law, and he tells them he thinks it’s a silly law. It’s then that he meets the local schoolteacher Jessica, who soon learns to question authority herself.

In the meantime, he entertains the children, and in a scene clearly intended to explain the ‘mall Santa’ tradition of kids sitting on Santa’s lap, sings ‘If You Sit On My Lap Today’. This bit, of course, has certainly not aged well. These days, if Kris Kringle went about inviting kids to sit on his lap, it wouldn’t be just Sombertown who’d send the authorities after him. The song, alas, doesn’t quite have the innocence it used to, and is often cut from syndicated airings.

Of course the Burgermeister Meisterburger finds out about Kris Kringle’s distributing toys, and there’s a confrontation. At first, it seems like the Burgermeister Meisterburger is going to see the error of his ways, as he starts to play with a yo-yo and seems caught up in childhood nostalgia. But then Grimsby reminds him that he’s breaking his own laws. Burgermeister, angry at being tricked like this, sends the guards after Kris, who is forced to leave Sombertown.

That above scene is worth noting because one of the most interesting things about Burgermeister Meisterburger is that unlike many other antagonists in Christmas specials, we never see him reform or see the error of his ways. While I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, I do find it interesting. Burgermeister, instead of mellowing out, becomes even worse in his tyranny later on.

However, while Kris Kringle fails at winning over the Burgermeister, he has more success with the Winter Warlock. He and his penguin companion are captured and threatened by the Winter Warlock and the trees commanded by him, but when Kris Kringle offers him a gift, the Winter Warlock is moved by his act of kindness. No one has ever been that nice to him before.

Kris encourages the Winter Warlock to change his ways, but Winter has his doubts that he can. Kris Kringle, however, believes that nothing’s impossible if you put your mind to it, and compares changing from bad to good to taking your first steps. This leads to the song ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’, where rising from your chair and walking across the room becomes a metaphor for changing your lifestyle. And besides, the song’s catchy. I happen to like it.

Winter becomes an ally to Kris Kringle from that point on, creating a magic scrying snowball so that Kris Kringle can look in on the children and see if they’ve been naughty or nice. Of course, this is the same sort of Paranoia Fuel as the song itself regarding the invasion of privacy and all, but since Kris Kringle is portrayed in this special as a kind, caring, compassionate person and all-around nice guy, we’re willing to overlook this as it’s clear that this version of Kris Kringle can be trusted to only use that power for good.

So Kris returns to Sombertown, only to find that the Burgermeister Meisterburger has put further restrictions on the community, telling them to lock their doors at night. This leads to Kris Kringle inventing the tradition of climbing down the chimney to deliver the toys, and the first toy he delivers in this manner is a toy Noah’s ark, who he delivers to a sick little girl. Sadly, the Burgermeister Meisterburger sends the town guards on another toy-confiscating rampage, and we’re never told what happens to the little girl. S.D. Kluger probably deliberately leaves that out of his story because it’s just too sad a side-story to tell to the kids whose questions he’s answering.

So then Kris Kringle invents the tradition of putting toys in stockings hung near the chimney, and this works … for a while. But eventually, Burgermeister Meisterburger has Kris, the Kringles, and Winter arrested and their toy shop burned down, much to the dismay of Jessica, who had warmed up to Kris and helped him out.

Jessica gets a song about how her worldview is changing thanks to Kris’ influence. The song itself is all right, but what’s weird about it is the bizarre animation that goes with it. I’m not sure if I can describe it without pictures or film clips, but it’s incredibly weird psychadelic imagery done in different animation styles, clashing with the stop-motion animation of the rest of the special. Were it not part of Jessica’s Character Development, I’d be tempted to say this was a Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

Burgermeister Meisterburger, meanwhile, shows what a truly heartless wretch he is by burning the confiscated toys in a huge fire in front of the crying children. With the help of Jessica, Kris, Winter, and the Kringles escape jail on the backs of reindeer, who are able to fly thanks to the Winter Warlock’s magic feed corn. There’s a brief shout-out to Rudolph when S.D. Kluger tells the kids “I bet you know their names” (referring to the reindeer), and a kid’s voice says ‘Rudolph’.  S.D. Kluger replies “That’s another story.”

Anyway, Kris, Jessica, the Kringles, and Winter are forced to flee Sombertown and go into hiding, because Burgermeister Meisterburger has ordered a manhunt for Kris Kringle that extends to other towns. Now this is a headscratching part of the story, because Burgermeister Meisterburger is only the mayor of Sombertown. Despite what he says in his Villain Song, he can’t declare that there will be ‘no more toymakers to the King’ because the King presumably outranks him. Couldn’t the Kringles go to the King and get him to overturn Burgermeister Meisterburger’s edicts?

It’s never explained why they don’t go and do just that. But my guess is S.D. Kluger doesn’t tell us why because he’s telling this story in response to questions from little children. And those little children don’t want to hear a discussion about politics — they want to hear about how Santa Claus got started, and where all the traditions associated with him came from. Sure, he could have mentioned how the current King and/or the mayors of the other towns didn’t want wars or other unpleasantness started over something as seemingly insignifigant as toys, so they went along with the Burgermeister’s laws until he or his heirs got tired of them, or until they fell from power. But all this would have only distracted from the story, which is first and foremost about Kris Kringle/Santa Claus.

Anyway, that’s my explanation. But I think Rankin-Bass wants us older folks to just apply the MST3K Mantra (“It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”) to this.

Okay, so the story goes explaining how Kris Kringle grew his beard and then started operating under his birth name of Claus, and then how he and Jessica were married in the forest on Christmas Eve (Jessica’s becoming Mrs. Claus, I’m sure, comes as no surprise even to the little kids in the audience). They go on to explain how he built his workshop up North, and had to keep operating in secret for a few years since the Meisterburger’s laws were still in effect and he was still an outlaw. He only stopped being an outlaw after, according to Kluger, the Meisterburgers died out and fell from power, and everyone else realized how ridiculous those laws were.

Meanwhile, demand for the toys far exceeded what the Kringles could supply, so he had to limit his delivery to one day a year — Christmas Eve. This of course means that if this story is to be believed, Santa goes out travelling the world on his wedding anniversary.

Oh, and the religious significance of Christmas is not entirely overlooked, either. It’s mentioned during the wedding scene that Christmas Eve was a holy night, and at the end, when S.D Kluger is talking about what a nice person Claus is, the little children say “So that’s why he’s called Santa Claus”.

(It’s a line that only makes sense if you know that ‘Santa’ means ‘saint’, and the special doesn’t outright tell us that despite the kids — the anthropomorphic personification of the letters our narrator is answering — going “Oh, so that’s why Santa does this” or “Oh, so that’s how that got started” at nearly every turn).

S.D. Kluger concludes his story by saying that there are still a few sourpusses in the world who just can’t let the joy of Christmas and giving and love into their hearts (there’s a brief shout-out to ‘A Christmas Carol’ there). But still, Santa and Jessica/Mrs. Claus are examples to follow, and that indeed if more people valued love and kindness, it would indeed be a merrier world. And then we conclude with the song that gave the special its name.

So, how does this special hold up after all these years? Pretty well, I’d say. The voice actor cast, from Mickey Rooney as Santa to Keenan Wynn as Winter to Paul Frees as Burgermeister Meisterburger and Grimsby, pretty much hit all the right notes in their portrayals.  The story is overall a fun look at how Santa Claus might have got started. And the ending speech moves me every time I see it.

All in all, while yes the song that gives the special its name is a bit disturbing, the special itself deserves its status as a holiday classic.

Feel free to leave your comments below.

Categories: Chris Langs Commentaries, Nostalgia, Movies & TV


 

When originally posted in 2012, this article received the following comments:

Moviefan12
3:19 PM on December 20, 2012 I love this special, it holds a lot a sentimental place in my heart. The song, Put One Foot in Front of the Other was used to teach me how to walk and it’s also become my hiking mantra to keep going when I’m feeling down on the trail.

Chris Lang
8:41 PM on December 20, 2012

Moviefan12 says…
I love this special, it holds a lot a sentimental place in my heart. The song, Put One Foot in Front of the Other was used to teach me how to walk and it’s also become my hiking mantra to keep going when I’m feeling down on the trail.

Well, ‘Put One Foot In Front of the Other’ is basically a motivational song, saying that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve things that you thought you couldn’t do, whether it be taking a trip or changing your lifestyle. It works on a number of levels, and that’s why I consider it one of the better original songs in the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials.

Has someone done a countdown of the best songs in Rankin-Bass Christmas specials? If not, someone should.

Moviefan12
8:49 PM on December 20, 2012

Chris Lang says…
Well, ‘Put One Foot In Front of the Other’ is basically a motivational song, saying that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve things that you thought you couldn’t do, whether it be taking a trip or changing your lifestyle. It works on a number of levels, and that’s why I consider it one of the better original songs in the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials.

Has someone done a countdown of the best songs in Rankin-Bass Christmas specials? If not, someone should.

I don’t if anyone has but I know Hewy Toonmore and South Jersey Sam have done a countdown of the best Rankin/Bass characters. If I were to do that countdown, Put One Foot In Front of The Other would take number one and We’re A Couple of Misfits from Rudolph would be # 2.

richb
3:10 PM on December 20, 2012 This is a very strong special. The only things I did not like were the Winter Warlock who is built us this big threat but turns into a wimp. I also thought the snowball thing was a little silly, but I guess they had to make something up. What I do love is the speech at the end about how Santa gives a little joy and hope to the world, it’s a great bit and I love it every year.
Chris Lang
3:18 PM on December 20, 2012

richb says…
This is a very strong special. The only things I did not like were the Winter Warlock who is built us this big threat but turns into a wimp. I also thought the snowball thing was a little silly, but I guess they had to make something up. What I do love is the speech at the end about how Santa gives a little joy and hope to the world, it’s a great bit and I love it every year.

That’s the speech I was talking about. I love that speech.

As for the Winter Warlock, he was basically intended to be that guy who seems scary, but isn’t such a bad person deep down.

Oh, by the way, I think it’s amusing how we both ended up posting reviews of Christmas specials almost at the same time.

Les
3:16 PM on December 21, 2012 Hi Chris Lang. Ah…This is one of those Christmas Specials that is dated, un-politically Correct and plain silly…..and it’s magical fun for the whole family. I love this show for the classic it is. Who cares if it takes artistic liberties with the story of St. Nicholas, or creates MacGuffins like crystal snowballs to see who’s naughty or nice? It’s a heartfelt tale to celebrate all the things that are inherently good about Christmas, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Great review, my friend. Peace.

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