My favorite Christmas special of all time is Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas. If your immediate response is, “what’s that?” then you have that in common with about 40% of people I tell this too. Then I mention the California Raisins and as long as you’re older than 28 I get nods of recognition.
Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas first aired on CBS on December 21, 1987, and in subsequent years became a must see special for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love nearly every Christmas special. Rankin and Bass? You bet. A Charlie Brown Christmas? Not my favorite, but I appreciate it more as an adult now that I realize how sad it is. T’was The Night Before Christmas? Heck, if you need a miracle I’ll lend two hands. Garfield? Sure, why not? Little Drummer Boy? Holy crud have you watched it lately? What the Hell was that? Why did I like this as a kid?! No, kill it with fire.
But do you recall, the least famous Christmas special of all? If not, you will when you’re done reading this. I think that the reason I liked Claymation Christmas so much was because 1) it has a very different tone than most Christmas specials in that for the most part there’s a focus on humor, and 2) It’s not one narrative. It’s a bunch of disparate narratives inspired by traditional Christmas songs, linked together by dinosaur co-hosts Rex and Herb. It’s like a sketch show, and it’s great because if you’re not into one of them (and there’s one in particular I wasn’t) there’ll be a new one in a couple of minutes. With that, here’s a round up of the segments grouped based upon my enjoyment of them. Don’t worry, if you’re not into one of the reviews there’ll be a new one in a couple of minutes.
The Star at the Top of the Christmas Tree
“Carol of the Bells”
Man I love this so much. Carol of the Bells is still laugh out loud funny, 22 years after I first saw it. If you don’t know it and haven’t watched the clip above yet, it’s a concert at a pre-fire Notre Dame Cathedral conducted by Quasimodo, featuring a bunch of bells playing “Carol of the Bells” on themselves. The star is the dumb bell. He’s clearly an idiot, and as an idiot he’s not overly self-aware and therefore not overly serious. He plays his mallet like a guitar, he forgets he even has a mallet and smacks himself openhanded instead, he kills a fly on his own nose with his mallet and then discards it, only to attempt to steal a neighbor’s mallet a moment later. He also provides the final note of the performance, as he’s shot off his perch by a projectile fired with a slingshot by Quasimodo. My love for this vignette is so obvious I wear it on my sleeve.
The Good Ornaments That Mom Puts Out of Reach Near the Top
“We Three Kings”
I love a good dirge. Growing up under the humorless, unblinking eye of the Catholic Church, every Christmas season was spent in church singing a bunch of minor key songs in between the hooray Jesus is here songs, because Catholicism is about sacrifice, fear, and guilt, oh that sweet sweet guilt. The cream of the minor key crop were “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel” and of course “We Three Kings.”
This segment is ideal for Catholics and people who can experience joy, because not only do you get the droning, traditionally presented portion of the song from the Magi, you also get their camels doing a doo-wop rendition of the chorus. It creates a wonderful contrast. There’s nothing funny about this vignette unless you’re amused just by the sight of singing camels, and honestly at 7 I probably was, but it’s a nicely animated segment and a great performance of the song.
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”
There they are. The stars. The meal tickets. The Raisins. Even if you weren’t perviously familiar with this special and I hadn’t mentioned the California Raisins at the top by this point you’d be saying to yourself “this animation looks a lot like the California Raisins.” That’s because Will Vinton invented them, specifically for an advertising campaign for Sun Maid Raisins. I’ll get into actually talking about this segment in a minute but I wanted to take a quick detour to talk about the weird 1980s fame of the California Raisins. Did you know until just now that the California Raisins were supposed to be advertising a specific brand of raisins? I sure didn’t. I thought that they were part of the odd trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s of running an ad campaign to remind people of a type of food, like “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” “Pork: The Other White Meat,” and “Got Milk?” The difference between the Raisins and those foods is that Pork never won an Emmy. The California Raisins became a legitimate cultural phenomenon for a short period of time, after being created as an ad for raisins. I’m as baffled by that today as I was a fan of theirs in 1987.
On to the segment! Straightforward and good. The Raisins are singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” in the style of The Temptations as they always do, while performing the dance moves they always do. It’s not broken so it doesn’t need to be fixed. The Raisins are just fine.
The Movie Tie-In Ornaments You Got From McDonald’s and Burger King That You Appreciate Even Though You Know They’re Not Really Anything Special
“O Christmas Tree”
I have three takeaways from this segment. The first is that it’s a beautiful song, one of the best Christmas songs in my opinion. Second, it reminds me of the day when we would decorate the tree at home. It was usually on a Sunday, because the 4:00PM NFL game would be on. The way it typically went was that my dad would set up the Nativity scene in the TV room after putting the lights on the tree, then my sisters, mom, and I did the ornaments. Sarah, Melissa, and I would grab all of our favorite ornaments and hang them, then we’d all go play while my poor mom was stuck doing the rest of the less beloved (to us. They were usually the kid made ones so I guess my mom probably appreciated them) ornaments. Now my wife and I live in a shoebox of an apartment, so we plop our two foot tall fake tree with attached lights on the end table and then Amy puts some other decorations up around the apartment. Final takeaway from this segment is that it’s a cool idea, sort of a Russian nesting doll where the children’s ornament houses sweets who are decorating their own tree containing an ornament with elves making toys in it and they have an ornament with an elderly couple sitting next to their tree, and then it goes back to the original kids. It’s a good segment.
“Angels We Have Heard On High”
In theory this should be one of my favorite segments. It’s two walruses ice dancing to the songs while inadvertently terrorizing penguins. It’s cute and it’s supposed to be funny but it falls a little short. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good as it should be.
Bottom of the Box Ornament That Doesn’t Make the Tree
I feel kind of bad that I don’t care about this segment at all because it’s an African heritage segment with a joyful, inclusive message, but I don’t. The reason I don’t is that it doesn’t feel like it belongs with the rest of the segments. It’s not claymation, and it’s impressionistic whereas the rest are straightforward scenes. If it were a video on Sesame Street I would have loved it, but here it’s tonally and stylistically wrong.
When I first revisited this special a few years ago I didn’t even remember this segment existed, and full disclosure I now skip it.
Ornament Box That Turns Out to Be Empty
For each of the segments in this article I’ve embedded the corresponding clip from YouTube, and while it’s great that it’s available there for people to rediscover, if you’re thinking about making this special part of your Christmas season from now on I recommend buying the DVD. I picked it up last year and it also includes Halloween and Easter! (neither of which I’ve watched)
The other thing that’s included on the DVD and I haven’t been able to find on YouTube is the complete set of interstitials from the special. I mentioned the hosts Rex and Herb earlier. Rex is a snooty Tyrannosaurus Frasier Crane and Herb is a lovable slob/Charles Nelson Reilly Triceratops. Throughout the special Rex introduces the segments with the utmost seriousness while Herb tries to get to the bottom of Wassailing. There are variations on “Here We Come A-wassailing” played for comedic effect. Only part of this is available on YouTube, so if you want to get the full experience definitely buy the DVD.
That’s Claymation Christmas! If you were previously unfamiliar I hope you’re into it now.
Were you a fan of Claymation Christmas? Which segment was your favorite? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
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