Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
A Stellar Santa
It can be a challenge to find Christmas specials for the family that don't feel depressing, heavy-handed, smarmy, or dated and insensitive. Family favorites of yesteryear can often find the youth bewildered by willfully tone-deaf jokes and inappropriate situations, and yet the 1970 classic Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town circumvents the usual nostalgic nastiness. Year after year, it provides us with 60 minutes of timeless tunes and perpetually relevant messages, mixed with an unexpected amount of action and snappy quips.
What keeps this special eternally young are a few important touches that most people overlook on repeat viewings with the kids.
A Blended Family
Right from the start, the special introduces us to the concept of a blended family.
The story of this slammin' Santa starts with a baby boy with bright red hair and beautiful, deep blue eyes being abandoned on the doorstep of the wicked Burgermeister Meisterburger. The baby is left in a basket with a note from his birth family, asking for whomever finds him to raise him with love.
Burgermeister Meisterburger scoffs at the note and instructs Lawkeeper Grimsley to send the child to the orphanage.
But the child ends up tumbling far away from Grimsley's grasp, and after barely evading a nasty incident with the Winter Warlock's foot, the local animals whisk the baby away to the home of Tante (Aunt in German) Kringle and her family of elves, who immediately adopt the baby and name him Kris.
It never dawns on anyone to treat Kris differently. The matter of his adoption is only brought up one time near the end, when Tante Kringle informs Kris of his birth last name being Claus. As far as the Kringles are concerned, Kris has always belonged to them, and for children who come from similar homes, this version of Santa Claus's story is relatable, necessary and welcomingly inclusionary.
As the story goes along, the Kringles also welcome the Winter Warlock into their makeshift family, and Kris finds himself with extended family in the form of animals, quietly showing children that family isn't just who is related to you, it's also a mixture of folks who love you unconditionally.
The Freaky Deaky Fight Against Fascism
Most Baby Boomers grew up and reached adulthood during a time in which plenty of television programs and theatrical films were poking fun at Nazis and general fascists. It's not hard to see why when you consider that, when Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town first aired on December 13, 1970, it had only been 25 years and three months since the end of World War Two.
Silent Generation Traditionalists who had vivid memories of lost loved ones during that war, along with their "Greatest" G.I. Generation parents who themselves had some pretty dark memories of life during World War One, intentionally wrote out scripts that lampooned their enemies from Germany, but they also warned future generations about the dangerous world of fascism.
Enter Burgermeister Meisterburger, militaristic ruler of the gray, gloomy, and appropriately named Sombertown.
Adorned with mock-German medals and ill-fitting lederhosen, he rules over the Sombertown natives with an iron fist, a stark contrast to the warm and loving Kringles, who are also German, yet nowhere near as abrasive as the domineering Burgermeister.
Town natives are not allowed anything resembling joy under his watch. Children barely old enough to walk are put to work in the Christmas special, and when Heir Burgermeister slips and falls on a toy, he not only bans toys from the town outright, he also threatens to jail and physically assault anyone found with a toy, regardless of age, even if they didn't even buy it.
Abusing his power, he barges into peoples' homes at all hours of the day and night with a fully armed team of soldiers behind him, and at one point, he even commits arson and forces the town's children to watch.
Kris Kringle is not amused in the least.
Ever defiant, Kris not only continues to break the law and deliver new toys, he springs to action, coming up with clever ways to outsmart Heir Burgermeister.
And on occasion, Kris also finds himself clubbing a few of those soldiers while escaping capture.
The special makes it clear that totalitarianism should not be tolerated, not just in government but in society in general, but it does it in such a light and fun way that small children can digest the message without being traumatized.
While on the lam evading Heir Burgermeister and his army, Kris falls in love with a schoolteacher named Jessica, who eventually finds herself opposing the evil dictator and helping Kris and his family escape imprisonment.
The spirited couple decide to wed on Christmas Eve, but as our narrator Special Delivery "S.D." Kluger points out, no church will accept them because Kris is considered to be a fugitive for delivering toys in Sombertown.
Because church after church has shut their doors to them, they wind up getting married beneath a Christmas tree in the woods. It is assumed here that the Winter Warlock and the animals are serving as ministers here, as they aren't even able to find a justice of the peace in the snow.
It was absolutely radical and forward thinking for a family special in 1970 to openly address when a church denies services or sanctuary to people for any reason.
In previous decades, outwardly talking about such things in animation would have been considered scandalous, and some TV markets have off and on censored the lines about church from reruns over the decades, but it's mentioned so softly, so subtly, that most people don't even give it more than a passing thought.
Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is still a breath of fresh air long after its original airing. Sprinkled with humor and magic, the special slides messages of goodwill and charity into an exciting story that humanizes Santa Claus and makes him feel timeless and relatable.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard