Rankin/Bass Retrospective - The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow
The year was 1975, and the Rankin/Bass studio was in the process of shifting to a new phase in their history. Gone were the string of TV shows they had churned out across the early 70’s, and it would still be a few years before they would dabble briefly in live-action series. The mid 70’s then were primarily focused on continuing the annual holiday specials that had put them on the map, and annual they were, as between 1974 and 1981, Rankin/Bass would produce an average of one special a year (sometimes more).
The previous year’s offering, 1974’s “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, would endure as a lasting classic worthy of bearing the Rankin/Bass branding. 1976 would later bring a trio of specials continuing the adventures of their three most popular characters from the 60’s. However, in the middle, a special aired which may have slipped through the cracks for many.
The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow
December 19, 1975
The special opens with a group of nuns making Christmas cards, with the eldest nun Sister Theresa reminiscing when she used to live in the mountains and saw snow every Christmas, while the valley their parish resides in never has any. Suddenly, a storm breaks out, and Sister Theresa sees a lightning strike in the distance hit someone. The nuns rush over and find a young orphaned shepherd named Lucas, struck by lightning and unconscious. They take him back to the church, and when he awakens, they discover he has been blinded.
As the rest of the children in the village practice for the Christmas pageant, Lucas gradually recovers with the help of his dog Waggles, but his eyesight still lost. A little while later, he walks in on Sister Theresa making Christmas cards, she tells him about the wonderful Christmas snow she saw as a child. A white Christmas soon becomes Lucas’s wish, as he’s never been able to experience snow before.
The parish priest, Father Thomas (who had been away when they rescued Lucas), tells the nuns that Lucas can stay at the church through Christmas, but will be sent off to an orphanage after. Lucas thinks on this, uncertain of what will become of his sheep if he’s sent away. Later, one of the children from the village, Louisa, asks Lucas what he’s thinking of getting Sister Theresa for Christmas. Lucas hadn’t really thought of it, initially just telling the girl that it’s “a surprise”. But as he thinks about it, he begins to wonder if he should give Waggles and the sheep to her, so that they can remain safe at the church.
A trio of village boys find out about this, sneering amongst themselves over what a “dumb” present a dog and a bunch of sheep would be. It’s then that they decide to play a trick on Lucas, hiding his sheep inside a tool shed so he can’t find them. As Lucas worries about his sheep, the boys lose the flock as they burst out of the shed and rush into a forest full of wolves.
Lucas, hearing his sheep, goes into the woods with Waggles, one by one finding his sheep, until only the black sheep Wooly is still missing. The three boys who did the prank find Lucas and apologize, offering to help. They find Wooly inside a deep hole, and form a human chain to rescue the sheep.
Later that night, the children perform their Christmas pageant, with Lucas playing the part of an angel. During the pageant, Lucas feels something wet land on his cheek, and asks Louisa if it’s raining. She looks out the window and exclaims that it’s snowing, and begins to describing the snow to Lucas as he wanted her to. Her description touches Lucas so deeply that his eyesight comes back, and he can at last see the snow with his own eyes.
At their celebration after the play, Father Thomas has a change of heart and offers to let Lucas stay at the church, allowing him to remain with Waggles and the sheep. Lucas is elated, declaring this as the first happy Christmas of his life.
“The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow” has much of the usual production crew behind it, directed by Rankin and Bass themselves, written by Jules Bass (under a pseudonym), music being done by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, and "Animagic" animation production supervised by Akikazu Kono and Ichiro Komuro.
The main voice of note in the special is Angela Lansbury as Mother Theresa; Most of the other voices come from actors who had previously worked with Rankin/Bass, such as Father Thomas being voiced by Cyril Richard (who had previously been in the Rankin/Bass movie “The Daydreamer”), as well as Sister Catherine and Sister Jean being voiced respectively by Iris Rainer and Joan Gardner (both of whom were in several Rankin/Bass specials throughout the mid 70’s). Lucas (David Kelley) and Louisa (Dina Lynn) are voiced by relatively unknown, likely child, actors who were primarily only in a few holiday specials (though notably Louisa’s actress was also in 1970’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town as a child, and would several years later be in 1979’s “Jack Frost”).
One interesting factoid to note is the centerpiece song of the special, “White Christmas”, which plays when Sister Theresa hears Lucas’s wish. Reportedly, according to Arthur Rankin in later interviews, the song’s writer Irving Berlin was apparently against the song being included in the special. Though the actual reason for why doesn’t appear to be clear.
Unlike previous Rankin/Bass outings, “The First Christmas” is a much more down to Earth story, that focuses more on the religious side of the holiday rather than the magical elements. It could be argued though that the special doesn’t have much in the way of a story, with the third act’s focus on finding the sheep acting more as padding to fill out the 23 minute length than adding to the narrative.
Regardless, while the special didn’t set the world on fire, it has had a long life on television, initially premiering on NBC in December of 1975, where it aired for a number of years before moving to CBS where it would usually run towards the end of the Christmas season, and then later airing with most of the other Rankin/Bass specials on ABC Family until the early 2010’s. Most recently, it has made the jump with most of those specials to AMC as part of their annual Christmas lineup.