We tend to value the timeless over the ephemeral. The ephemeral has a certain stink about it—it’s fleeting and shallow. Of course, both “ephemeral” and “timeless” are adjectives that tend to be thrown around after the fact, usually to explain how a piece of art has lost its power over the years. Still, ephemera holds a certain allure. Because it’s so specifically “of a time,” it possesses an intoxicating, transportive power. The kind of power that could, say, shove a writer in his late 20s down a YouTube rabbit hole of television commercials aired during the 1987 holiday season. These are pieces of art that weren’t meant to last beyond New Year’s Day, 1988, yet they’re evocative enough of a certain time and a certain place to move some kindly VHS hoarders to drop them into the world’s largest digital time capsule—to the eternal gratitude of unrepentant nostalgists anywhere.
For a holiday built on notions that are supposed to be eternal—and based around the birth of a religious figure who promised His followers everlasting life—Christmas sure inspires a lot of ephemera. Marking the end of another year by gathering close with the ones you love is a tradition as old as time, but the Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special? That can be shoved in the CBS vault and/or transferred to DVD and sold for $6 at the local big box store. That’s not to suggest that Pee-wee Herman’s yuletide romp isn’t worthwhile—it’s certainly the most out-and-out fun of all the specials I revisited for our recent Primer on Christmas TV. It’s just very much of its time: the late 1980s, which was seemingly the last time networks made a major push to produce Christmas fare.
1987 in particular was a fertile year for new TV Christmas specials. ABC debuted A Muppet Family Christmas and Julie Andrews: The Sound Of Christmas. CBS rolled out Top Of The Pops: A Very Special Christmas (U2! Run DMC! Michael McDonald!), Santabear’s High Flying Adventure, and, on one magical, Frank’s Place-and-Kate & Allie-displacing Monday night, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration.
All of these specials blended the transitory and the traditional in some manner (be it through The Sound Of Christmas’ already outdated variety-show format or the trend-chasing lineup of the Top Of The Pops special), but none seem to remove themselves from their original context while simultaneously stamping “Made In ’87” over every painstakingly photographed frame as A Claymation Christmas Celebration. And the hands holding that stamp belong to the California Raisins.
There’s only one name higher than The California Raisins’ on Claymation Christmas Celebration’s marquee, and it’s Will Vinton, co-creator of the singing dried-fruit spokesmen, founder of Will Vinton Studios, and coiner of the term “Claymation,” a proprietary eponym now used to describe most clay-based stop-motion animation, but technically only applicable to the unprecedentedly fluid, remarkably expressive technique pioneered by Vinton and his colleagues.
In 1987, the Raisins were making mad bank for Will Vinton Studios, and Vinton probably could’ve made madder bank by selling a half-hour of his most profitable creations lip-syncing to selections from A Motown Christmas. Instead, the Vinton Studios crew (which included 17 credited animators, seven sculptors, and five animation directors working under Vinton’s direction) relegated the Raisins to a single segment—not that that stopped CBS from selling A Claymation Christmas Celebration on the basis of their appearance. The Raisins-fied take on The Temptations’ version of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” was previewed in promos for the special, and it gets a plum, closing-number slot on the special—but it’s just one of the six musical vignettes that compose the bulk of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. As a kid, that drove me nuts. As an adult, it makes annually revisiting A Claymation Christmas Celebration a much more pleasant experience.
Look, I don’t mean for this essay to turn into a space for disparaging what was one of my first pop-cultural loves. I was introduced to the music of The Temps, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown (among others) by The California Raisins, their popular ads for the California Raisin Advisory Board, and the onslaught of merchandise that followed—and that, to paraphrase Brown, is a debt that I’ll always owe. So let’s put it in a more contemporary analogy: Imagine if Pixar announced that it was putting together a collection of Christmas-related shorts, a display of the studio’s staggering achievements in animation that builds to… a musical number starring Larry The Cable Guy’s Cars character, Mater. The children in the audience would go nuts. Their parents wouldn’t feel the same way. And it’s likely the warm feelings those kids would have toward Mater’s “12 Gears Of Christmas” would cool as they grew up.
Viewed as a showcase of an animation house on the top of its game rather than five lesser sequences leading up to OMG THE CALIFORNIA RAISINS, A Claymation Christmas Celebration transcends its wrinkly star players. By the time of the special’s production, Vinton and his colleagues had perfected several techniques and styles of Claymation, including the abstract, painterly psychedelia seen in “Joy To The World” and “We Three Kings” and the broader, Looney Tunes-indebted slapstick of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Carol Of The Bells.” The special acknowledges Vinton’s dueling impulses to awe as well as entertain through its reptilian hosts, genteel tyrannosaurus Rex and his boorish styracosaurus colleague, Herb. Naturally, Herb is the most excited of the two for the Raisins’ number.
In addition to providing a way to frame and introduce the music video-style segments (yet another indicator of 1987) Rex and Herb also provide A Claymation Christmas Celebration with its thematic core, placing the co-hosts in a battle over the proper way to celebrate Christmas. Rex wants to provide the historical context for each carol; Herb just wants to ferret out the song that’s about chowing down with Jesus and Santa.
This extends to the running gag that interrupts many of their introductions, where various beasts of the clay fields wander into “London’s world-famous Christmas Square” to peddle goods and misinterpret the traditional carol “Here We Come A-wassailing.” A pack of dogs clearly descended form Disney’s Goofy thinks it’s “Here We Come A-waffling.” A flock of geese offers up “Here We Come A-waddling.” Threatening to stretch the joke to its very limit, a group of pigs, who’ve possibly escaped from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, insists the tune is actually titled “Here We Come A-wallowing.” All along, stick-in-the-mud Rex attempts to get his visitors on the “right” track, as if all his book-learning has marked him as the guardian of the true Christmas spirit. Even so, he can’t offer the definition of “wassailing” until it’s imparted by a truck-full of drunken Irish elves. (As critics of the Raisins have long noted, Vinton wasn’t one to shy away from ethnic caricatures.) Apparently, wassailing—and by extension, Christmas—is all about engaging in and spreading holiday cheer. And holiday spirits. Lots and lots of holiday spirits.
And it’s in that moment that A Claymation Christmas Celebration earns its agelessness. It may be a product of its time, produced by a studio that never really transcended its ties to one of the ’80s quickest (though bizarre) crazes, but A Claymation Christmas Celebration manages to tap into that quality multiple times during its runtime. It never shies away from the holiday’s religious roots, either, and isn’t afraid to throw a secular curveball at them as well, as in the case of the doo-wopping camels who steal “We Three Kings.” I don’t know if I’ll ever see a better blending of the timeless and the ephemeral as in that segment’s final chorus, where the magi give in to the earthly charms of their obviously Raisins-inspired mounts. But I do know I’ll see them do that every Christmas for the rest of my life—and that watching A Claymation Christmas will forever remind me of overwrought McDonald’s ads and promos for network presentations of the original Footloose.
Tomorrow: Sometimes, the best way to celebrate the season and bring families together is a made-up holiday.