‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Original Air Date: Dec 8, 1974
Skepticism nearly derails the holidays, but eventually guilt and blind faith save the day for humans and mice alike…
The Rankin/Bass production company owns approximately 17% of your Christmas memories with the one-two punch of classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. And since those were so successful, they just kept on making new ones, each with speaking parts of notable stars of the time, such as Mickey Roonie Angela Lansbury, and Buddy Hackett. They were the Dreamworks Animation of their time, in that they kept making celebrity-fueled works that were small variations on the same story.
By 1974, Rankin/Bass was pretty into the swing of things, and for that year’s X-Mas cartoon jubilee, the team looked to one of the earliest works of popular American prose. The poem is titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” no matter how much popular perception thinks it’s “‘Twas the night before Christmas,” and it basically solidified our perceptions of who Santa was. It gave a detailed description of what we all know about Santa now, his sleigh flying in on eight reindeer that were named in the same poem; it describes how one lucky guy witnessed the magical man pop into his home, friendly as could be, to give toys out of his sack to everyone.
Don’t be afraid, it’s not offensive
Heck, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” could even be called the first American Christmas special even if it wasn’t animated. Every Santa-based Christmas cartoon you’ve seen owes so much to that poem and what it started that it seems only fitting to make a special based around it. But first we’re going to need a family of talking mice and a Broadway actor.
It all starts simple enough. We pull in on an American, pre-Civil war home on a snowy night. We hear Joel Grey, who’s most famous as the host in the Oscar-winning Cabaret and for fathering Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing fame (and here you thought he was gay), recite the beginning of the poem. Here’s what kids look like dreaming of sugar plums:
Why show us their dream sugar plums? It’s not like this is a cartoon or anything
And Ma in her kerchief while the father reads a multi-page bound book used that holds a 56 verse poem.
So in their world the poem exists and yet it’s about to happen to them too? Plus, the book has the wrong title
But that simple premise is quickly thrown out the window to introduce some cute mice into the picture. Yup, this human family lives with a matching mouse family that owns small furniture and everything.
They even have tiny mice editions of the same book
It’s stupid to question the reality of something that climaxes with the eventual appearance of Santa Claus, but this is just silly. This special is only 25 minutes long and you immediately clutter it with two separate families and plotlines? So anyway, things are dire on X-Mas Eve for the mice and the humans. In a slightly creepy way, Father Mouse calls the human father “the boss,” which conjures a kind of agreed upon slave/master situation in this society.
Just because you dress like your oppressor doesn’t make you guys friends, Father Mouse
By the way, what kind of name is that, Father Mouse? Anyway, the troubles began two months earlier, when some mail got delivered to the families in the fictional town of Junctionville.
Does everyone in this world walk around with their mouse doppelganger? So many questions about this strange earth
Every person in town gets their letters to Santa returned to them, and I mean every person, kids and parents alike, sent Santa their usual letter asking for stuff and now it had been returned to them unopened. Everyone in Junctionville is sad and confused by this seemingly unwarranted passive-aggressive action by Claus, but Father Mouse is gonna get to the bottom of it by calling up the North Pole.
Nobody writes jokes for the person-to-person phone operator anymore
Seriously? Mice not only have a complex, clothes wearing society, but they have their own phone companies that in the mid-1800s can call the North Pole? The Christmas mouse on the other end explains to Father Mouse that Santa is pretty mad at the town because of a letter published in their newspaper that called into doubt his very existence. So the giving spirit of Christmas turns on an entire town of believers because of one doubting letter? This Santa is pretty Old Testament.
Confused protesters attack the government because of superstitions
Meanwhile in the human world, the lazy bureaucrats that run the town want to fix things but don’t want to put any work into doing so (what a comment on our society!). Eventually Father Human, or Mr. Trundle as he’s sometimes called, shows up and explains that he’s got a plan to make Santa love them again: making the town clock sing a song praising Santa.
“And the imprisoned singing children would go inside…”
That quick fix is okayed and tons of taxpayer dollars are thrown away on a whim to impress St. Nick. At the same time the mouse family pours over their collection of old, human-sized newspapers to find the offending letter.
And where and how do they store all those newspapers?
The letter in question, signed “all of us,” calls out Santa as a dangerous myth and the reindeer as phony. After thinking it over, the family realizes that the use of long words in the letter could only lead to one person, apparently the only individual in town that reads… the mouse family’s own son, Albert. The family confronts Albert, accusing him of hurting Santa’s widdle feelings, and Albert is proud to have done so and stands by his words still.
Nerds before the internet
I’m all for not believing in stuff, and Atheism is probably the easiest belief system there is. But if I wrote a letter saying God is a superstition and then everyone I knew got stamped letters back from God saying I was a dick, I think my doubts would waver a tad. Regardless, Albert still believes Santa is a lie, perhaps the root of some global conspiracy, and is then chewed out in song form for thinking too much and believing too little. It’s one of the least Christmas-y songs ever to be in a Christmas special, which is probably why it’s usual cut for time in most TV airing.
But the guilt trip isn’t over. Father Mouse takes Albert all over town Ghost of Christmas Present-style to show him all the pain his lack of belief caused. Actual line: “Here’s our first example of how you ruined everyone’s Christmas with your opinions.” Jeez Rankin/Bass, did your kids just come home from their first semester of college or something?
“See Albert, just do what we tell ya and the orphans will stop crying”
Albert still persists that grown-ups don’t believe in Santa, so Father Mouse proves him wrong by showing Al the clock Mr. Trundle is making for Santa. But instead of shutting the unbeliever up, he’s instead fascinated by how the complex machine works. A little too fascinated…
Ain’t no party like a clock starting party!
There’s a big party to celebrate the clock’s completion, but once Mr. Trundle cuts the ribbon that somehow starts the clock, the whole thing falls apart to the shock and dismay of everyone. The mayor probably has the best reaction:
The public embarrassment ruins Mr. Trundle. People don’t want his clocks anymore and he’s forbidden from fixing the broken town clock. Pretty soon his whole family is starving to death, as are the mice that depend on their crumbs.
The whole family is ready to give up and die on Christmas Eve, until Joel Grey bursts into the most memorable part of the whole special, the song Even a Miracle Needs a Hand. Taking a message similar to the recent Princess and the Frog, he sings about how you can wish and hope, but you’ve gotta work your ass off to get something great done.
Here’s the song in case you’ve never heard it
It’s a really swell song and is the best part of the whole thing. Also since you just watched the clip, it’s worth noting that many of these old specials were animated by some Japanese artists who went on to become part of Studio Ghibli, makers of Totoro and many other esteemed anime classics. And while the animation is pretty sub-par most of the time, you occasionally see flashes of what they could really do:
Here’s the most Ghibli-esque scene in the cartoon
But not so much, this:
Of course the real point of the song is to poor just a little bit more guilt on the too-smart-for-his-own-good Albert. Him seeing the Trundles happy in the face of adversity, he admits to his dad through tears that he wanted to see how the clock worked and in doing so broke it, as his damned inquisitiveness nearly killed his entire family. He says he’s sorry but that’s not good enough for Father Mouse, so Al decides he’s going to fix it all by himself in the matter of hours left before Christmas. His dad just lets him walk off on his own into this dark, snowy night to work with machinery that’d be too big one for one man, let alone a child mouse. I’m just saying he’s a great dad is all.
Hahaha, he almost died!
As Albert runs off, Father Mouse goes to apologize on behalf of his son. This was the part that just breaks the whole special for me. They had set up that while they knew of each other’s existence the mouse and human world’s were pretty separate. Now all of a sudden they can talk to one another with no explanation. “Oh did we forget to mention that mice talk and converse often with humans? Oh well, no time to explain now.”
“Thanks talking mouse, your words are of great comfort. Also, stop chewing holes in my walls please.”
That brings us back to before, as it is still the night before Christmas, but only for a few minutes longer. Then the last comes and goes, breaking the timed honored rule of a countdown ending at the last second. But a couple seconds later Albert gets the clock going and the song praising Santa strokes his ego enough to have his pull a u-turn in his sleigh and head back.
Not the usual R&B Santa. No mustache!
Then comes what the audience had long been waiting for as Joel Grey reads the rest of the poem in it’s entirety, including “the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave the luster of midday to the objects below.” Once that starts the ending is pretty rote, as families both mouse and human watch Santa get down to business.
A short, filthy stranger gets to work
It’s off-putting at first, but I give R/B credit for making this Santa more of an enigma. Because he has so few lines he isn’t their normal talkative Santa who explains plot points while hugging lost children and elves. He’s just a weird, diminutive creature that people can only watch in amazement. He speaks with actions, whether winking:
Somebody think of the children!
And laying a finger aside of his nose, a seemingly random act that continues to confuse children to this day:
Totally different from “thumbing your nose” at something
That dealt with, Santa rides off, and doesn’t even apologize for doubting Junctionville’s heart.
Meanwhile Albert’s learns that maybe all the answers aren’t in books and we can assume Mr. Trundle’s business gets back on track, but honestly you’ll never know, because the cartoon ends immediately after the last line of the poem.
Wait, has anybody seen my pocket watch?
No real references to religion, save for a line about pleasing your maker in the Miracles song. Still it gets slight credit for spending so long attempting to make non-believers feel bad.
Santa is pretty central to the plot here, even if you don’t see him till the end. And I give R/B credit for not recycling an old design. Still, Santa acts like a real jerk in the beginning then just shows up smiling and giving just seconds later. Can you say manic-depressive?
This one felt like it was an hour long special cut to 25 minutes. There’s barely any time to build any spirit, and the amount of time spent making a kid feel bad for having opinions seems counter to all the warm feelings Christmas is supposed to bring. Still, it’s hard to argue with an unabridged reciting of one of the most defining works of Christmas cheer doesn’t bring some spirit to the whole thing, so I’ll just say it breaks even.
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Shop Amazon through us – it helps!)
Although ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas never gets top billing, it appears as a bonus on numerous Rankin/Bass DVDs, the cheapest being bundled with Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. However, you’ll get a bigger bang for your Christmas buck purchasing it in the Classic Christmas Favorites set, as it comes also comes with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey and a slew of others making for a total of 10 specials! These Rankin/Bass collections are tricky since they come in and out of print every holiday, but the aforementioned set is a ridiculously good value and I feel this is the last Christmas it’ll be available. Having said that, even though it doesn’t contain ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Original Christmas Classics DVD box set packs in a bunch of different Rankin/Bass favorites the other sets don’t such as Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Frosty the Snowman.