From the 1960s into the 1980s, Rankin/Bass Productions made more than a dozen bizarre stop-motion Christmas specials. Their most famous was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which still appears on television every December. You'd think Rudolph and all the other seasonal classics created by Rankin/Bass would be pretty tame, harmless stuff - a fun and innocent way for a kid to pass a couple of hours around the holidays. But when you look beyond the jerky animation and Technicolor costumes, you'll notice that these shows were actually pretty weird. And surprisingly dark for holiday stories intended for kids.
Rankin/Bass stopped production in 1987, but their bizarro Christmas specials live on, both on the internet and in the memories of those who grew up watching them. And, in some cases, in the nightmares of those who grew up watching them.
The biggest Rankin/Bass headscratcher has got to be The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold. It can't really decide if it's a Christmas or St. Patrick's Day special, but that's not the most baffling part. There's a very loose and threadbare story - about an Irish sailor unleashing a banshee on an island full of leprechauns - yet the majority of the movie is a long-winded explanation of life in Leprechaun Land.
It goes on at length about all the laws and customs the leprechauns must adhere to, even though this information has exactly zilch to do with the story.
Despite the presence of Rudolph and Frosty, this is not really a Christmas special. It's more of a Fourth of July special - despite first airing in November - and there's a couple of oddball plotlines going on in this one.
First, a mad sorcerer named Winterbolt is trying to best Santa, forcing Kris Kringle to summon Rudolph for help. Second, Rudolph and Frosty are inexplicably trying to prevent a circus from closing due to unpaid debts. Happy holidays?
On the Rankin/Bass weirdness scale, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town falls on the calmer end of things, but there are two standout moments that deserve mention. First, the villain, Burgermeister Meisterburger, is a walking stereotype. Also, Jessica - who falls in love with Santa - has a song about how head-over-heels she is for Kris Kringle. As she's singing, she seems to go on an acid trip.
Creepiest of all is what isn't in the film. Rumor has it there was a song that ABC removed before air that centered around the pleasure Santa gets when kids sit on his lap. Some of the alleged lyrics went:
If you sit on my lap today
A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay
When you tell what you wish for
In a whisper
Be prepared to pay
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was the last stop-motion animation Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass. And, boy, does it deal with some weirdly heavy subject matter for kids' programming.
Based on the L. Frank Baum book of the same name, this special makes no bones about the fact that Santa is a mythical being. In fact, he's living in a mythical world full of nymphs and fairies and fantastical creatures. There's a whole good-versus-evil thing going on, but the story mainly centers on whether the mythic folk who inhabit Santa's world will make him immortal.