Jeff Lagasse

Jeff Lagasse

Maybe you’ve never heard of the old Rankin/Bass television production studio. Nobody could fault you for it. Not only is it not a household name, but it could never become one, seeing as how it sounds like someone’s description of a particularly smelly fish.

But if you’re within a certain age range – say, between 20 and 80 – then the good folks at Rankin/ Bass have probably made your Christmases a little jinglier. And ring-ting-tinglier, too.

They’re the ones behind a glut of TV specials that have become annual staples, most of them made with stop-motion animation techniques. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” The hand-drawn “Frosty the Snowman” (one of my personal favorites). All of these are Rankin/ Bass productions, and all have become, to borrow a tired cliche, timeless classics. Airing year after year for decades, they’re as much a part of the fabric of the holiday as roasted chestnuts and discounted Old Navy pants.

These Rankin/Bass people were clearly geniuses. Not calculating the-density-of-dark-matter geniuses, or inventing-the-Snuggie geniuses, but geniuses nonetheless.

Because what they recognized is this: Television can become tradition.

And tradition, of course, is what Christmas is all about. Consider all the rituals that are resurrected every December. The stockings filled with shaving cream and scratch tickets. Plastic manger scenes gobbling large tracts of lawns, with one toppled wise man eating a faceful of snow. Heavilyornamented pine trees, eggnog with cinnamon, turkey and Santa and drunk relatives singing “Deck the Halls” in the key of justshoot me. These occur with such clockwork regularity you’d think society was suffering from a mass epidemic of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

When TV became ubiquitous in the 20th century, it was uniquely situated to become a part of these wintry shenanigans. It’s a communal activity, after all. Instead of gathering around the fire, families now gather in front of giant flatscreens, rooting for Charlie Brown and his flaccid little tree. It’s nice. It adds to the spirit of the season without requiring us to actually do anything.

In a house in Lewiston, tucked away in a basement next to old snowshoes and sixth-grade science projects, lies a weathered box marked “Christmas specials.” Inside it are moldy VHS tapes packed tight with Christmas cheer. My mother is to thank for this. During the early ’80s, she went through a phase in which she recorded pretty much anything on TV that was worth saving, and more than a few things that weren’t, including old soap operas and at least one production of the Ice Capades. She taped a bunch of Yuletide programming for posterity, perhaps sensing I’d rather spend my snow days watching tube instead of streaking down hills in a sled and picking ice from my nostrils. She was right.

Relatives would frown and fret over the time I spent in front of our weatherbeaten set. “You should be outside with friends, making memories,” bemoaned an aunt. “You can’t make memories in front of a TV.”

Wrong, auntie. I can and did. Older relatives saw my cousin and me watching movies and playing video games and scratched their heads, contrasting our chosen pastimes with their own childhood activities, which likely involved things like eating lead and repairing stagecoaches. It’s understandable that they wanted me to be more grounded in the real world, and I did on occasion chase down real-world pursuits, riding bikes and burning expletives onto wood beams with a magnifying glass. But there were times when the coziness and comfort of the living room beckoned. Winter and the warm tidings of December were prime for this, and I did make memories, without the inconvenience of feeling my toes gradually fall to the temperature of frozen cow carcasses.

A lot of those memories centered around my favorite holiday specials. Sure, I’ve got plenty of fond reminiscences of things that actually happened. Uncle Roger and his acoustic guitar, wailing on “Love Potion No. 9” in the paint-peeling squeals of a burning pig. That’s one. Tugging on a mall Santa’s beard and thinking he was the genuine article, despite the nicotine stains on his mustache. That’s another.

Those only happened once, though. “Rudolph” happens every year; that’s why many of us can quote lines from it by heart. “Didn’t I ever tell you about Bumbles? Bumbles bounce!” Thanks, Yukon Cornelius.

Maybe it’s corny, this infatuation with kids’ specials, but we’re allowed to be a little corny this time of year. That’s why I’m giving these TV specials another go- ’round. I can’t watch VHS tapes anymore, since my last working VCR has gone the way of He-Man action figures and slap bracelets, relegated to a musty attic. Technology, however, gives a lot of this ancient programming new life. Many of my childhood favorites are now streaming on video sites, preserved digitally for my viewing enjoyment, and I don’t even have to fast-forward through commercials for Tootsie Pop and My Little Pony. One click, and I’m watching Jon Arbuckle’s grandmother relive past Christmases with housecat Garfield nestled in her lap. Frosty’s innocent exclamation of “Happy Birthday!” is just few keystrokes away, and somewhere, the California Raisins are riffing on funkified carols on an endless loop, from now to eternity.

It’s comforting that they’re all still there, sweetened and made more potent by time. Later in life, Christmas becomes an aggregate of all you’ve seen and experienced, lending it a richness and texture, if you’re lucky.

I used to do the bah-humbug thing. Now I do the Rankin/Bass thing. Call it an homage to their particular brand of genius, but if they can make the holidays a bit brighter, then bring on the reindeer games.

— Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company who encourages anyone and everyone to Google “Mr. Bean Christmas” – they won’t be disappointed. Contact him at [email protected]