Growing up, I always tried to work ongoing entertainment franchises into a cohesive continuity…even if that was never the producers’ intention. Did the Ewok TV movies take place before or after “Return of the Jedi”? How could The Muppets share a nursery as babies but not know each other when they reunite in “The Muppet Movie”? This stuff kept me awake at night!
So even though I know better now, I always wanted to make a timeline for the original Rankin/Bass holiday specials. After recording a podcast episode of Saturday Supercast with Jerzy Drozd, where we discussed “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” in great depth, I knew I finally had to jump down the rabbit hole. So here it is:
My timeline for an imagined continuity for the Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials.
Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
Sort of a cross between Rudolph and Dumbo, this special tells the story of donkey with unusually long ears who is laughed at, but ends up being a part of the first Christmas in Bethlehem. He’s also an ancestor to Santa Claus’ donkey, the narrator of the story.
CONTINUITY NOTES: The framing/narration scenes feature Rudolph and elves that look like Jingle and Jangle from “Year Without a Santa Claus,” but the bulk of the story takes place in biblical, pre-Santa times (which is why this special starts off the timeline).
Even though Rudolph appears consistent with his other specials and Mrs. Claus and the elves look exactly like they do in “Year Without a Santa Claus,” for some reason Santa has creepy dark black eyes.
Santa Claus is Coming To Town (1970)
This is the origin story of the friendly version of Santa Claus that appears in most of the Rankin/Bass specials. We learn that young Claus was an orphan raised by the Kringle Elves, who teach him how to make toys. He meets a schoolteacher named Jessica, the future Mrs. Claus, whom he marries in the forest (after they become outlaws). He also meets the Winter Warlock, who gives him magic feed corn that allows reindeer to fly.
CONTINUITY NOTES: In this cartoon they establish that Santa’s famous red and white outfit is based on the clothes the Kringle Elves wear. But in all the later specials the elves are wearing an alternate uniform. The elves and Santa, also have different facial features in the later specials (though not as drastically as between this and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, so this is only a minor visual nitpick.
Santa is voiced by Mickey Rooney for the first time.
There’s a quick aside establishing that this is long before Rudolph joins Santa’s sleigh team. Rudolph is shown as the full-grown version we see at the end of the original TV special. This is the only other time we see him with his antlers.
Jack Frost (1979)
Tells the story of a sprite named Jack Frost, member of a team of immortal creatures who help create winter. Jack is curious about the human world, and falls in love with a mortal woman. He begs Father Winter (his boss) to temporarily turn him into flesh and blood so he can try to win the girl’s heart. While on Earth, he helps to overthrow a ruthless tyrant named Kubla Kraus and his clockwork Ka-knights.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Jack Frost is a kind-hearted spirit throughout the special. He sacrifices his own happiness for the woman he loves, and ends up with a renewed appreciation of his life and work. It is hard to imagine this Jack would ever become the pesky antagonist in “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland.”
Father Winter is one in a series of winter personifications that appear in the Rankin/Bass universe, and for the most part, is a pretty reasonable guy.
Jack Frost is voiced by Robert Morse only in this special.
DAVE’S RECOMMENDATION: Steampunk horses? A bad guy who talks to a robot puppet on his arm? This is one of my favorites of all the Rankin/Bass specials, so forgive me if I spend a bit more time focusing on Jack Frost’s role in the other specials than any sane person should.
Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980)
A magical wooden boy (whom you may have seen in more famous incarnations) keeps getting tricked into misbehaving. Luckily the Blue Fairy, and eventually Santa Claus, are around to bail him out of trouble.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Santa and his reindeer appear pretty similar to the designs used in “Year Without a Santa Claus,” when Rudolph was not yet part of the crew.
DAVE’S RECOMMENDATION: This special was surprisingly more enjoyable than I first expected. Mainly because of the great animation models and sets that on par with the best from Rankin/Bass and the animagic crew.
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974)
A skeptical mouse pisses off Santa and is eventually browbeaten by his father into joining the flock of believers. There’s also a parallel story about a guy who builds a giant musical clock to get his town back in Santa’s good graces.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Santa Claus has no mustache to reflect the poem that inspired the story.
Seemingly set at the turn of the 20th century, based on clothing styles and technology.
DAVE’S RECOMMENDATION: Despite its questionable attack on reason, I do find it to be one of the more charming Rankin/Bass specials, thanks to its catchy songs and distinctive art direction.
Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
Santa gets sick, so Mrs. Claus gets to take an active role in an adventure. Set in a time where people are starting to doubt the existence of Santa, Mrs. Claus tries to prove there’s still some Christmas spirit left in the world.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Introduces Jingle and Jangle, two of Santa’s head elves. The character designs and clothing for these characters become the de-facto elf uniforms in all later specials (and retcon callbacks), which are different from the Santa-style red and white outfits the Kringle Elves are originally seen wearing in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
The godlike Snow Miser is another in a series of personifications of winter that appear in the Rankin/Bass specials. We also get to meet a personification of summer (Heat Miser) and Mother Nature.
Santa is once again voiced by Mickey Rooney. Rudolph still hasn’t joined the reindeer sleigh team.
DAVE’S RECOMENDATION: Despite a few awkward moments, this one remains a classic for good reason. The Snow Miser/Heat Miser song is one of the best songs in all of the Rankin/Bass specials (or Christmas, for that matter). Shirley Booth is fantastic as Mrs. Claus, even if the scene where she admits to fantasizing about dressing up as her husband is funnier than the producers probably intended. I actually wish the Mrs. Claus-in-drag plotline continued beyond just the singing of “I Could Be Santa Claus”; so much untapped potential!
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Introduces Frosty, a snowman who comes to life with the aid of a magic hat and becomes good friends with a gang of children. To avoid melting at the end of winter, he decides to move up to the North Pole with the aid of a kid named Karen and Hocus Pocus the rabbit.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Santa is voiced by Paul Frees, and is a completely new design from any of the other specials. He only has four reindeer, and no Rudolph.
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976)
Frosty grows bored of living up in the North Pole, so he heads back to town to visit his friends, the nameless children. Since Frosty gets lonely when the kids go into their warm homes each night, they decide to build him a snow wife. All this attention on the magical snow folks makes Jack Frost jealous, until he’s asked to join the wedding party.
CONTINUITY NOTES: We see the creation of Crystal, Frosty’s wife, who returns again in “Christmas in July.”
Jack Frost starts out as a cranky pest who feels overshadowed by Frosty, but is possibly reformed by the end of the special? Visually he has a similar costume to his solo special, but is much shorter and squatter than in later appearances. Here he is voiced by Paul Frees.
Frosty’s pal Karen, a major character in “Frosty the Snowman,” (she risks her life to save him) is nowhere to be seen amongst the kids Frosty specifically returns to hang out with. Hocus Pocus the rabbit is also never seen again.
Since Crystal’s love (and ice bouquet) brings Frosty back to life (after Jack Frost steals his magic hat), you could infer that Frosty no longer needs the hat to stay “all livin’”, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the “Christmas in July” feature film.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The TV special that started it all. You’ve all seen it. You all love it (unless you have no heart!). Showcases the origin of Rudolph for the first time…but certainly not the last! If you are taking this timeline seriously, this is the point in the continuity where Rudolph officially joins the sleigh team and becomes the Most Famous Reindeer of All.
CONTINUITY NOTES: By the end of the original special, Rudolph has clearly grown up (taller and with fully-grown antlers) but in all future specials/movies, he is back to his young buck persona and body type.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has completely different art direction and design compared to the rest of the specials. More UPA style influence, dots for eyes, elves dressed totally mod, and Santa as a skinny jerk most of the year.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
Rudolph is asked by Father Time to go on a quest to track down the missing Baby New Year. He travels through the Archipelago of Last Years, islands where time remains frozen. Along the way, Rudolph meets Big Ben the whale, and a bunch of other interesting (and sometimes uninteresting) characters that have no connection to any of the other Christmas stories.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Rudolph has reverted back to his sans-antlers pre-pubescent self, even though story clearly takes place after the events of the original Rudolph special.
There is an interesting flashback featuring the classic Rudolph song with a 2D animated reimagining of scenes from the original stop-motion special. Santa is drawn in that Paul Coker, Jr. style that is really close to his appearance in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” except he’s got the full mustache along with the beard.
Reindeer Games involve playing with a spotted ball, rather than learning to fly (as was the case in the original special).
Paul Frees is the voice of Santa but the design is pretty much the same as the Mickey Rooney Santa in “Year Without a Santa Claus” (except in the 2D flashback mentioned earlier).
Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)
This full-length feature film that was actually released in movie theaters is where everything intersects. It’s the Crisis on Infinite Earths for holiday specials. Rudolph and Frosty (seen for the first time as a stop-motion puppet!) are established as good friends and we meet his children Chilly and Milly. They all join the circus, and get tricked by a dark wizard named Winterbolt, who wants to overthrow Santa.
CONTINUITY NOTES: Rudolph’s origin is re-imagined with a retroactive continuity about a hidden tattoo and magical justification for his glowing nose that was given to him by the Aurora Borealis (in human form).
During the callback to the wedding of Santa Claus and Jessica, the ceremony is now held in a church (even though in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” they make a big deal about how “no church would have them.” Santa is also sporting a handlebar mustache (instead of just a beard) and is dressed in a fancy white tuxedo. Jessica has a real wedding dress, rather than her schoolteacher clothes. Topper the penguin and Winter (the reformed Winter Warlock) are absent from the proceedings. (I’d like to believe this is not their original wedding, but a renewal of vows a year or two later…but I know that’s probably unlikely.)
Jingle- and Jangle-style elves from “Year Without a Santa Claus” replace the original Kringle Elves seen in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
During the callback to the discovery of Rudolph’s red nose, Donner is joined by other members of his sleigh team. In the original Rudolph special, as well as the callback in “Shiny New Year,” the moment is just between father, mother and son.
We see Santa’s reindeer stall, which previously only appeared in “Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.” The pivotal moment where Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh takes place here, instead of inside Santa’s castle (as in the original Rudolph special).
Winterbolt has access to the same magic feed corn as the Winter Warlock. And even though they are both magical dudes named Winter, dress the same and have similar body types and facial features…it’s unresolved if there’s any connection between their origins. (I certainly want there to be!)
We see a photo of Father Time from “Shiny New Year” on the wall in Rudolph’s trailer. We also see the return of Big Ben the whale from the same special.
Jack Frost also shows up at the end, to help save the day. This Jack is sort of a hybrid of his villainous version in “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” and the romantic hero of his own special—with crazier hair. He’s voiced by Paul Frees (as per his villainous “Winter Wonderland” appearance).
This feature film blowout was the last of the original stories produced by Rankin/Bass featuring Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, and Jack Frost…thus ending the timeline.
Notes about films not included in the main timeline:
Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
This lesser-known special is based on an L. Frank Baum novel that is clearly a separate continuity/origin of Santa. It’s kind of like a pagan Christmas with all sorts of fairies, wood nymphs and mystical beings. I personally love it because of its distinct differences, unique characters and amazing puppet designs. You can listen to me talk about it in depth on this episode of Saturday Supercast.
Frosty Returns (1992)
Despite being shown annually after the original “Frosty The Snowman” and packaged along with it on the DVD, this is actually not a Rankin/Bass special. It was produced and animated by the same people who do the Peanuts cartoons! If you try to connect it to the other Frosty specials (like I did before finding out its origins) your head will explode.
Rankin/Bass films not on the timeline because they don’t feature Santa Claus or any of the other characters that appear in the major Christmas specials:
The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)
The First Christmas (1975)
The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
The Stingiest Man in Town (1968)
The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold (1981)
Non-Rankin/Bass produced sequels that we’ll say shoot off in separate timelines, since they were made way after the fact by totally different people:
Legend of Frosty the Snowman (2005)
Haven’t seen it! But the designs are based on the original special and supposedly there are callbacks to it. It’s probably worth tracking down because Burt Reynolds is the narrator!
Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001)
Despite the confusing title, this is a CGI sequel and not a remake as I first suspected. Rudolph uncovers a plot by the Evil Toy Taker to start a toy rebellion.
CONTINUITY NOTES: This special features the return of Hermey the dentist elf, Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice, and the Misfit Toys!
DAVE’S RECOMMENDATION: This is only worth watching as a curiosity piece. It’s almost like a fan-made film…and there is a lot of potential in the story threads. But the early CGI is extremely dated, the pacing is slow, and the songs are painful.
A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008)
Tinsel, a mechanic elf, creates a new rocket sled for Santa and convoluted hijinks ensue. Santa ends up pulling his back, so Heat Miser and Snow Miser put aside their sibling rivalry to help him out.
CONTINUITY NOTES: This special introduces The North Wind, yet another personification of winter…and brother to Snow Miser and Heath Miser!
Mickey Rooney reprises the voice of Santa, and George S. Irving reprises the voice of Snow Miser.
The designs of Snow Meiser and Heat Meiser are fairly true to their original special, but everyone else is redesigned to look extra cute. Santa is back to having dots for eyes for the first time since “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
DAVE’S RECOMMENDATION: This special is the best of the non-Rankin/Bass sequels. The designs and animation are actually of very high quality.
WHEW! Did I miss anything?
I’d love to hear from other Rankin/Bass fans and will happily add future annotations.
Special thanks to Rick Goldschmidt, author of The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass: A Portfolio, a useful resource in compiling this list.
Tom Krohne, who’s own Rankin/Bass list helped me solidify some of the entries.
Sugary Serials Christmas episodes