Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part I: The Santa Claus of Rankin/Bass

Because we spend so much time on Christmas here at The Jade Sphinx, I was recently asked by a waggish fellow if I believed in Santa Claus.

Well, to the disappointment of many of you, I have to confess, that, yes, I do believe in Santa Claus.  Always have, always will.  Deal with it.

Let me be clear here – this is not errant whimsicality, nor is it a touch of seasonal madness.  No, I emphatically and completely believe.  I believe in the North Pole workshop, the elves, Mrs. Claus (a shadowy figure, though), and in his Christmas Eve ride.

Before some of my more conservative readers call for the local giggle wagon, let me point out that eight in 10 Americans believe completely and absolutely in angels.  Personally, a belief in Santa Claus makes infinitely more sense.  There is less dogma, fewer conscriptions and, frankly, the message is more positive.  I have a Santa pin on my lapel, much as many sport an angel at this time of year, and I cannot help but think I am ahead in the game.

Of course, the belief in Santa offers a variety of interpretation.  Just as the Gospels contradict themselves, so the story of Santa and his origin differ depending on who is telling the tale.

While nursing a cold this weekend, I spent several hours in the delightful company of my DVD player, re-watching many of the Christmas specials produced by Rankin/Bass.  Surely you remember them – they were animated puppets, often with charming musical numbers, and a sense of interwoven mythology.

The puppet animation was called AniMagic, but actually is was stop-motion animation, much as it was practiced (more expertly) by the late Ray Harryhausen.  The Rankin/Bass animation was always a mixed bag, but the charm of the story and the communal sense of holiday cheer did much to improve it.

I was thinking about their representation of Santa Claus after watching two of the best Rankin/Bass holiday specials, Santa Claus is Coming To Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).  Santa Claus is Coming To Town was narrated by the great Fred Astaire (1899-1987), with Mickey Rooney (born 1920) providing the voice of Santa.  The second, The Year Without a Santa Claus, was narrated by Shirley Booth (1898-1992) as Mrs. Claus, with Rooney returning as Santa.  Many of the other voices were provided by a single actor, the great voice actor Paul Frees (1920-1986).

In Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Santa is a foundling, left in the care of the government; specifically local official the Burgermeister Meisterburger.  But Meisterburger has no interest in the people under his care, and has the child sent to the orphan asylum.  Fortunately, the baby Claus is lost in a storm and ends up in the home of elves, the Kringles, who raise him as one of their own.

The Kringles are toymakers, and their isolation from society is a great thing for the baby, whom the name Kris.  He is taught by the Kringles, but also by the forest animals.  When he travels to Sombertown to distribute toys, he has no idea what he is stepping into.

Because years ago, the Burgermiester Meisterburger outlawed toys.  When Kris comes to Sombertown to do good, he is actually breaking the law.  During a run-in with school-teacher Jessica (who later becomes Mrs. Claus), he cautions about a toy, “careful, that toy is a hardened criminal.”

Of course, the Burgermeister Meisterburger does his best to keep Kris from distributing his toys.  Corrupt officials and an out-of-control police break into homes without warrant to search for toys.  Fortunately, Kris invents new stratagems (leaving them in stockings) to avoid detection, but eventually he, the Kringles and their friend, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn – another star from the MGM-era), are all arrested and thrown into prison.

Jessica breaks them out of stir with some flying reindeer engineered by the Winter Warlock, and Kris becomes an outlaw – with wanted posters everywhere.  He grows a beard to escape detection.

In time, Kris becomes a beloved figure of children everywhere, and the Burgermeister Meisterburger, and his laws, are relegated to the dust heaps of history.

This is, of course, a radical telling of the Santa Claus origin story – and one that could only have been possible after the tumultuous, anti-establishment 1960s.  Santa’s nemesis is not a figure of fantasy or magic, but government control run amuck, unjust laws and political leaders who have broken their covenant with the people.  While watching it, I found the whole thing eerily prescient, as if I were looking at a parable on the ruinous and unjust US “War on Drugs (Terror/Whatever),” or a fantasy version of the New York City Police Department under Ray Kelly (born 1941).  It is not too huge a leap to see Santa as the heroic Edward Snowden (born 1983) and the Burgermeister Meisterburger as our current Imperial President.

In The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa and Jessica are now quite elderly and secure in their fame and position in the world.  However, the older Santa has come down with a bad cold and his doctor tells him that no one cares if he comes or not, and that the Christmas Spirit no longer exists.

Mrs. Claus then sends two elves, Jingle and Jangle, down to the American South (Southtown, to be precise) to look for holiday cheer to convince Santa to make his annual Christmas trek.  They are promptly given a ticket by an overzealous cop (for, among other things, dressing “funny”), and their reindeer is carted off to the dog pound.

Of course Santa must don his civilian clothes (a fetching red bowler hat, deep red vest and red-and-white striped pants) and set things right.  At the same time, Jingle and Jangle manage to get the Mayor of Southtown to declare a national holiday for the ailing Santa by – essentially – bribing him with a snowstorm.

What is fascinating here is that Santa often rails about conditions “down there,” meaning the real world of ours.  What both specials tacitly imply is that Santa Claus is a figure that cannot function in the real world.  His heart is too warm and too open, his point of view too alien, and his sense of right-and-wrong often at odds with laws, regulations and political ambitions.  It is not that he could only function in a fairyland; no, indeed, he can only successfully function in a world of his own creation.  Santa’s home in the North Pole is alternately seen as a castle, a factory, and a nascent city of his own design.  In his own element and at a remove, without the taint of the everyday world, Santa can continue to do good for the children of the world.
The Santa of Rankin/Bass is a Santa too good for this world of ours, one who must butt heads against authority, unjust laws, callus cruelty and down-home stupidity simply by being who he is.  It is, of course, a late 20th Century construct, and the Santa of my imagination is very often the rebel of Rankin/Bass.

Tomorrow: Santa goes anti-corporate in Miracle on 34th Street.

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