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Looking Back at ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

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This year, as with every year, I find myself watching many a Christmas special.  I tell you, I could watch Scrooge McDuck get the bejesus scared out of him by Pete as the Ghost of Christmas Future three or four times a year, but sadly these specials only come around once a year.  Or, at the very least, one season a year – because goodness knows that they're now shown over and over again every year.

The one that still delights me more than any other though is one I always feel like gets short shrift – 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.  I know that I've talked in the past about my great affection for this piece of Bass/Rankin genius, but I don't feel as though I've ever truly given the show its due.

As with many a Christmas special what the producers have done is taken a tale that probably takes around five minutes to tell, or, in this case read, and expanded it to roughly 24 minutes.  In the case of something like How the Grinch Stole Christmas it was done by taking the basic premise and more fully exploring each situation.  For 'Twas the Night Before Christmas such an approach couldn't really work.  Clement C. Moore's poem is absolutely brilliant, but it doesn't necessarily lend itself to an expansion of what is contained within.  Consequently, this special is more of a wholly separate story being dropped onto the poem. 

The basic story of the animated show is pretty simple – Santa is angry at a town because one mouse, Albert, dared write that Santa was a "fraudulent myth."  Santa has decided that the town in question – Junctionville – will not be getting a visit this year.  A human clockmaker, Joshua Trundle (voiced by Joel Grey!), figures out how to get Santa to forgive the town – he creates a clock which will sing a song to Santa as he passes overhead on Christmas Eve. 

Trundle's plan ought to work, except that Albert breaks the clock.  That doesn't happen out of malice, just because Albert is curious.  The entire question then in the show – which is told as a flashback – is whether or not the clock has been fixed and if Santa will come to Junctionville.

The special contains a few great songs, including one of my personal favorite Christmas songs ever – "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand."  The song that Trundle puts into the clock, "Calling Santa," gets a better position in the story, but "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand" puts forth a set of ideas I like better.  Sung by Trundle, the song comes forth at a moment when his children are terribly upset by the notion that Santa won't be coming and he tells them as he does what he can to fix the situation, "You hope and I'll hurry/You pray and I'll plan/We'll do what's necessary/Cause even a miracle needs a hand."  It's a powerful idea and I think that's why it resonates so well.  Trundle is telling his kids that there are two different aspects to making what you want come true – hoping as hard as you can hope and taking constructive action towards accomplishing the goal.  For me, it's that song that make the entire special work.

Stylistically, rather than being claymation, Rankin/Bass produced this as more of a traditional animated piece.  Stylistically the choice works – while focused on the same holiday, it doesn't feel like part of the same line of stories as Rudolph, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  The entire story here may revolve around whether or not Santa is going to come, but Kringle himself is, until the very last moments, an idea who casts a shadow over the proceedings, not a full character.  Those other tales have Santa in a much more central location, so the difference doesn't make it feel as though they've changed their intrinsic notion of the holiday.

That being said, the one issue I have with the show itself is the actual depiction of Santa himself.  It may be true to the notion as put forth by Moore – that of a "right jolly old elf," but he's not Santa as I choose to see him (or, if you prefer, as the media has decided we should see him).  It may sound like a small quibble, but for a show which works so perfectly to that point, the depiction of Santa is something of a letdown.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas doesn't get the same sort of respect as Rudolph or Frosty or The Year Without a Santa Claus, but it's going to be on ABC Family for their "25 Days of Christmas" at least twice on the 24th, so find it and watch.  You won't regret it.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • Josh Hathaway

    Josh, I owe you a debt of gratitude. I had forgotten about this episode and not only did this article remind me of it but you gave me the best kind of non-psychedelic flashback. I remember those songs and I can picture this special in my head again and I haven’t seen it in probably 25 years or more. Amazing. This was one of the great ones. This is really well done.