The holidays have always been a special time for television. It’s the time when TV series break out the Christmas carols and tell holiday-themed stories of redemption and togetherness. But the TV studios also produced a number of Christmas-themed, animated specials they rolled out every year and marketed toward kids. Growing up in the 1970s, I loved curling up in front of the TV set in the living room to watch such Rankin Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without Santa Claus (1974), featuring the funky Heat and Snow Misers.
One thing I’ve noticed in many of these cartoons, even as a child, was how each of these animated specials tended to be about outsiders. Every single special seemed to find endless ways to approach this theme. The more popular and famous of these specials was A Charlie Brown Christmas (1964). Written by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Charlie Brown special to be produced for television. It cleverly attacked the crass commercialism of the holiday. But one theme that unites A Charlie Brown Christmas with many of its genre is how Charlie Brown, the lonely little outsider among the Peanuts cast, is chosen to question how Christmas has been turned over to marketing. Throughout the episode, Charlie is disturbed by how his friends so easily give in to crass consumerism. When Charlie is chosen to direct the Christmas pageant, he is given the task of finding a Christmas tree. Instead of picking out one of the garish plastic trees so popular with his friends, he chooses a little, sickly plant. The little tree, like Charlie himself, is unwanted and unwelcome by the other children, and Charlie is mocked for his efforts. Demoralized, Charlie wonders what the real meaning of Christmas is. He knows instinctively that it has nothing to do with the commercialization of the holiday, but he is lost as to its real meaning. Charlie’s cry for meaning and depth also becomes a cry against how the holiday has strayed from its true religious meaning. The fact that Charlie is given this search for real meaning is the true outsider of the group is significant. If Charlie had been more assimilated within the clique of school friends, would he have been just as blinded by the commercialism? Since Charlie was unable to enjoy the perks of belonging to the group, his ability to see them from the outside and what they stood for allowed him the chance to attempt asking the questions which brings the episode to its epiphany.
Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (1964), like Charlie Brown, is the ultimate outsider. Born with a glowing red proboscis, Rudolph isn’t, as the song goes, allowed to play any reindeer games. His red nose marks him as an “other,” one whose difference puts him outside the homogeneity of the group. The “mainstream” attitudes in this group sets Rudolph up to be discriminated by the others. His father disguises his nose with mud and teaches him that to be accepted by the group he must conceal his true identity. The ruse helps for a little while when Rudolph joins his reindeer friends, but when his true nose is revealed he is summarily rejected. Even Santa Claus, who ought to have known better, shares the same biases as the group. Rudolph’s rejection forces him into exile. He finds solidarity with an elf, Herbie, who is likewise marked as an “other” for his unwillingness to follow expectations. Herbie wants to be a dentist, not a toymaker, but unlike Rudolph, who is made to feel ashamed of his otherness, Herbie embraces it even in spite of social disapproval. Herbie embraces it so much he convinces Rudolph to do the same. The two decide to strike it out on their own to seek a place where they can be accepted for who they are. During their travels, they come across a Yukon who accepts them without question and land on the Island of Misfits, where unwanted and unloved toys are banished. Throughout their adventures, they come to realize how the world divides itself between those who are loved for “fitting in” and those who are not. But Herbie and Rudolph’s willingness to reject this paradigm forces others to recognize their prejudices after the two rescue Rudolph’s family from the Bumble, a snow beast that terrorizes Rudolph and his friends. After a fierce snowstorm nearly cancels Christmas, Rudolph’s nose comes to good use when he helps guide Santa through the blizzard. Here, Rudolph’s “otherness” is accepted through the pragmatic purpose it poses; but more than that, Santa and the other reindeers come to recognize that their own biases blinded them from seeing Rudolph’s potential and true value and the contributions he makes to society. Even the Bumble, once feared by the residents of Christmastown, is accepted and assimilated into the group, suggesting just how far they’ve come along. Here, the theme of acceptance becomes a part of the values associated with Christmas.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), narrated by Boris Karloff, also deals with themes about outsiders, but with differing results. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch is determined to ruin Christmas for the Whos of Whoville by stealing everything associated with the holiday. But the Grinch’s efforts are thwarted only when the Whos continue to be deeply devoted to the day’s spirit. Based on the Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is ostensibly a tale about the true meaning of Christmas. But an argument can also be made that perhaps the Grinch’s willingness to ruin the holiday for others has as much to do with his outsider status in Whoville. The Grinch lives in a mountainous cave with a long-suffering dog as companion. He is completely unassimilated from the group. But unlike Charlie Brown and Rudolph, the Grinch’s “otherness” is more by choice than by forced exile. In fact, the Whos gladly welcome him into their group after he learns the errors of his ways. The Grinch becomes a member of humanity when he realizes the spiritual meaning of the holiday and is thus able to embrace that humanity within himself. In this case, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an argument against misanthropy and isolation. The Little Drummer Boy (1968), unlike most Christmas specials, took its themes directly from biblical sources. Based on the classic Christmas carol, The Little Drummer Boy is about a young boy whose drumming pleases the young Jesus Christ. Like other Christmas specials, this stop-motion animated special dealt with issues of outsiderness, as the little boy is ostracized by others in his group after his parents are killed. His skill as a drummer and his belief in Christ are what unites him to the Christian community. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, recounts the story of Santa Claus’s beginnings. Again, like other animated specials, Claus is shown as an outsider living among elves in the North Pole. But Claus, like Herbie in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, embraces his outsiderness with a rebellious streak. He breaks the laws of the Burghermeister Meisterburgher, a tyrant who bans toys in the town he governs, when he delivers toys to the towns’ children and thus develop his legend. The special shows the various ways in which Claus breaks the rules, making Santa a revolutionary figure against authoritarianism.
The 1999 special Olive, the Other Reindeer, featuring the voice of Drew Barrymore in the title role, follows the same route as previous holiday specials. Based on the popular children’s book, Olive, the Other Reindeer plays not only on the notion of outsiderness (other characters think Olive crazy for thinking she’s a reindeer), but on the slippery nature of identity. Olive is a special little dog who thinks she is one of Santa’s reindeers. When she decides to go to the North Pole after mistakenly believing that Santa needs her help, her faith in herself and her identity never wavers and she soon finds herself heading Santa’s sleigh. Olive’s differences as a dog and the fact that she really can’t fly doesn’t stop her from following her heart.
Other animated specials like Frosty the Snowman (1969), Nestor the Long-eared Christmas Donkey (1977), A Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977) and others likewise deal with the same themes with varying results. Otherness, whether brought about by biology (Frosty and Nestor), or through poverty (A Fat Albert Christmas Special), become a familiar theme associated with Christmas and the ideals it represents to those who celebrate and observe it. Since Christmas is about togetherness, brotherhood, and acceptance, revolving stories around cultural or social ostracism is a natural way to approach these themes. These specials have an enduring quality with audiences precisely because, whether as children or adults, we recognize these themes and find something with which we can relate to in our own lives.