WILL COLLIER: Into the Santaverse. How a couple of New Yorkers teamed up with Japanese animators to define Christmas specials for generations.

During the first several decades of their existence, Christmas specials were, for their intended audience of pre-teens, very special indeed. They aired once and only once a year, and with no VCRs or DVRs or streaming or rerun-happy cable channels, if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, you were out of luck until the next December, sidelined while your classmates debated whether the Abominable Snow Monster would beat the Winter Warlock in a fight.

Sixty years after the first animated Christmas special (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, originally airing in 1962), the genre is as much of a holiday staple in the United States as Black Friday sales or Mariah Carey songs, and almost as ubiquitous.

The paragon of the form is of course 1965’s timeless A Charlie Brown Christmas, the sublime excellence of which is so well-documented that we can acknowledge its place at the head of the line—the bright star on top of a gaudily decorated tree, if you will—and move on.

The silver medalist of Christmas specials is a split decision between Chuck Jones’ wonderful 1966 adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a colorful stop-motion confection based on a popular song.

The latter special shares a theme with Charles Schultz’s understated masterpiece: both A Charlie Brown Christmas and 1964’s Rudolph are about the little tragedies and unlooked-for joys on the emotional rollercoaster of childhood. But unlike the Peanuts special, Rudolph eschews any mention of the Biblical origin of the Christmas holiday, opting instead to build on a much more contemporary foundation: an American child’s conception of Santa Claus.

From that basis, two New Yorkers, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, with the incongruous assistance of a Japanese animation studio, constructed a whimsical modern mythology that grew—and simultaneously diminished—in the telling, one sequel and rerun at a time.

Neither Rankin nor Bass nor anybody else knew it in 1964, but their creation would presage today’s popular entertainment world of shared universes and interlocking stories and even an over-the-top team-up movie.

But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s have a look at where this Santaverse came from.

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