It’s time again for that most beloved of holiday traditions: scrutinizing beloved Christmas specials for hidden messages. In previous years, we’ve put Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman under our microscope. This year, we’re sticking with Rankin-Bass but looking at a somewhat less beloved special: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
A weird little take on the famous poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is about as loyal to its original text as Rudolph is to the song lyrics — which is to say, not very. The cartoon aired for 20 years on CBS before leaving the network for the murkier pastures of basic cable in 1994, where it has been forgotten — perhaps rightfully so.
Ah, but what can we learn from this relic of the mid-’70s?
Even Christmas Special Producers Decline
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aired a full ten years after Rudolph first appeared and five years after Frosty the Snowman. In that decade, Rankin-Bass produced a whole mess of Christmas specials, random specials, animated series, and films. By 1974, they were burned out and ‘Twas the Night… reflects that. Rankin-Bass’s fastball had abandoned them by this point, and they weren’t able to pull an R.A. Dickey and come up with a new pitch to remain effective. They just kept throwing 84-mile-per-hour heaters right down the middle. The animation — done in the style of Frosty rather than in Claymation — is lazy as can be, as the Father Mouse character looks and acts exactly like the magician’s rabbit from Frosty itself. The plot hangs on the laziest of threads, as a family of humans and the family of mice who lives beneath them, Stuart Little style, must rally together to save Christmas when it looks like Santa Claus will not visit their town. The songs are work and shoehorned in at odd moments. And there’s no real reason to include mice in the story at all, except as a desperate attempt to link the special to the poem. There are like two mouse-related puns in the dialogue and nothing else at all rodent-specific. This is what going through the motions looks like for a Christmas special.
Santa Claus? Still a Dick.
In Rudolph, Santa is notably and memorably an asshole, leading the way in bigotry when it comes to the treatment of the titular reindeer. Well, he hasn’t evolved much in the ensuing decade. Here, Santa plans to forsake visiting an entire town because he gets one letter claiming he doesn’t exist. (This special is particularly brazen when it comes to the questioning of Santa Claus’s existence, especially for 1974.) He only changes course when the town erects a giant clock/monument to him that plays a special pro-Santa song as he’s flying overhead on Christmas Even. What the fuck? How insanely petty is that? I don’t know what issues Rankin and Bass have with their god or gods, but I suggest they have it out with their priests/rabbis/clergymen instead of infusing their portrayal of Santa with all their religious doubt and animosity. (Santa also looks super creepy.)
Rankin-Bass Doesn’t Believe in the Reality-Based CommunityAs if anticipating the culture wars between faith and reason that would occur some 30 years after its airing, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas hinges its plot on one disbelieving mouse. But while teaching doubters to believe is a facet of much children’s entertainment, Rankin-Bass take it over the top. The aforementioned letter to Santa doubting his existence came from one Albert Mouse, the son in the main family of mice. And this mouse is a fucking nerd! He quotes scientific facts and laws of physics in his argument that Santa isn’t real. Ha ha ha ha! Nerd mouse who lives in his mother’s basement, probably. Seriously…look at him:
What a brainiac, am I right? Probably a mathlete! Look how smug and self-satisfied he is in that picture. He thinks he’s better than you! Albert is devised like a cross between Nate Silver, a baseball sabermetrician and Stephen Hawking. And he’s roundly mocked for his intellect and his efforts to understand the world using knowledge and analytics. He’s told, “you only think with your head.” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas comes across like a pro-Sarah Palin screed. Best of all, Albert isn’t just taunted — he’s completely demonized. He’s taken to a children’s hospital that has now fallen under hard times because Santa won’t be visiting and told that it’s his fault. And his father — one of the two heroes of the tale — tells him, “You ruined Christmas with your opinions.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Yessssss.
Basically, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is a facist brainwashing tool for parents who want to teach their kids not to question anything and to accept everything they’re told by an authority figure as absolute truth even if it doesn’t make sense.
Rankin and Bass are Not Comfortable with their Own Mortality
Rankin-Bass’s obsession with time is most prominent in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, but it plays a big part here too. The clock being built for Santa dominates much of the action, and there’s more ticking than in an average season five episode of Breaking Bad. Rankin and Bass feel something gaining on them as they leave their prime and begin the march to irrelevance.
The Shadow of Watergate Hangs Heavy
Even Christmas specials weren’t immune to the ennui and cynicism gripping the United States during the ever-unfolding Watergate scandal. The town of Junctionville is run by a back-room cabal of cigar-chomping white male power brokers and they have final say into what does or doesn’t happen. The idea that average citizens are powerless in the face of bureaucracy pervades the half hour. Of course, Santa Claus himself is the biggest bureaucrat of them all.
The Animators Had a Pretty Messed Up Idea of What Human Children Look Like