Holiday specials peaked with 1974’s ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus’

Late 2018 has been a weird time for pop culture. Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is now classic rock. The years don’t stop coming, indeed. If that excites you, I’m guessing you’ll also be thrilled to hear that this year’s big Christmas movie stars Kurt Russell as the sassiest Santa ever put to screen.

Unfortunately, I can’t enjoy either of these developments. I don’t have Netflix, so I’m shut out from “Big Trouble with the Little Saint Nick,” or whatever it’s called. As for Shrek’s unofficial theme song, I’m still wrestling with whether I genuinely like “All Star,” or whether a general appreciation for memes has snuck it into the part of my brain that enjoys music.

Without those options, how am I supposed to pass the time until winter break? I have cable TV, but years on YouTube has ruined my patience for watching advertisements. I can’t bring myself to sit through any new holiday television specials, so I dug an old one out of my basement. Every year, as soon as I have 51 minutes of free time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I watch “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” This year was no different.

What is it that remains so charming about a 44-year-old, made for TV, claymation movie? Well, the clay medium certainly helps. “The Year Without a Santa Claus” was released by Rankin/Bass Productions at the height of their powers. 1964’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” remains the studio’s biggest hit, but they learned a lot about animation in the following 10 years.

The classic Rankin/Bass movies were animated in stop-motion, meaning that everything that appears in the film is a miniature set, all the people are little clay dolls. Considering the budget a 51 minute television special would have had, the level of detail built into everything is incredible. You can see the improvement in character design when comparing Rankin/Bass Movies from ‘64 and ‘74. While the titular reindeer of “Rudolph” is adorable, the humans in his world are beady-eyed, with heads, it wouldn’t be unfair to call “onion shaped.” This design contributes to that film’s gloomy feel.

“The Year Without a Santa Claus” has no such problem. Though ironically, the film’s conflict centers around saving Santa from depression, its characters and sets seem more joyously rendered than those of a decade earlier. Not only is every doll lovingly created, but the characters they portray are all given their moments to shine.

Many of those high points are the musical numbers. There’s not a bad track on the list, and I’ll say it, the Miser Brothers’ songs are as catchy as “Hooked on a Feeling” or “Kung Fu Fighting,” both of which came out that year. So why didn’t “The Year Without a Santa Claus” spawn any hit singles? I think it’s actually a testament to how well-constructed the movie is; the songs are too specific to the plot.

In comparison, there are two songs that endure from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The titular song doesn’t count, it was a hit before the movie was made. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” definitely owes its success to “Rudolph.” It was a brand-new song at the time, and its lyrics don’t connect to the plot of the movie. It was seemingly put in to give Burl Ives a platform, and it worked. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” is one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time.

“The Year Without a Santa Claus” doesn’t take any comparable detour, and I think the film is better for it. There’s a sweet and wholesome charm throughout, which pairs well with the script’s mostly timeless humor. It’s all you can ask from a Christmas movie, and it’s the perfect length to watch while your sugar cookies bake. This season, give “The Year Without a Santa Claus” a shot. But no, you can’t borrow my copy. I might want to watch it again.