The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985): The OTHER Santa Origin Story

Part 4 of the Christmas Movie Watchstravaganza

Almost Christmas
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
It’s a Wonderful Life

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
The Polar Express

“There is no religion. Friars are bad. Buddha is bad. There are no gods, there is no cycle of rebirth. The only church is the Church of Santa Claus.” So sayeth the Rankin/Bass Santa origin myth we didn’t exactly need.

It’s amazing how much this special co-opts various American and European Christmas traditions to claim that they were invented by Santa or Santa’s magical friends. Apparently, Santa invented the word “toy.” He decorated the first Christmas tree. He even started the tradition of placing gifts in stockings. …Okay, that allegedly was St. Nicholas, so maybe I should give the special partial credit on that one. But should Santa be treated as exactly equivalent with St. Nicholas? When the Great Ak calls Santa Claus “the patron saint of children,” surely he is confusing many Catholic children and dismaying their parents.

Still, what you can’t fault Rankin/Bass for doing when they produced this special is going in such a strange direction. Fifteen years prior to this, they made what has become the definitive Santa-origin Christmas special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Yeah, you can argue that they shouldn’t have even tried to reinvent that wheel by going back to Santa Claus in the first place, but…where else were they going to get decent Christmas-y stories with name recognition for their TV gunk? “The Cricket on the Hearth”? They already did that one!

Plus, this newer special did have a big name behind it: L. Frank Baum of The Wizard of Oz fame. (That explains the name “the Great Ak,” huh?) This special is based on one of his oodles of children’s books, which we could all see clearly if The Wizard of Oz would kindly step out of the way. So the Council of Immortals, their realm beyond the mortal plane, and whatever an Awgwa is supposed to be didn’t just come out of nowhere: Big Famous made them up.

But is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus any good, is the question. Well, let’s get one thing straight: it’s not going to top Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and it’s inevitably going to stand in its shadow. But is it charming, inventive, successful in its own right?

…Also, woah, it’s actually airing on some station this year? I’d never heard of this special growing up because it was always considered one of the B-tier (or under) Rankin/Bass specials. But in 2023, it reran on some AMC marathon. Way to stick up for the little guy! …?

The Rise of the Guardians…Wait, Wrong Council of Festive Immortals

The story opens on an impressive parade of creative, inventive immortals, beings who exist beyond normal time and space governing such things as dreams, wind, and weather. By this point, Rankin/Bass productions don’t look nearly as rough as their earliest and most famous outings. Some might think that removes the charm—I say there’s still enough jank to go around. You’ll see when that overly long and inflexible lion shows up.

…Wait a second, misread my notes there. Apparently, this special actually opens on a michevious sound elf. He is the only character among the immortals who looks actively stained and ragged. He also looks…well, I’ll place his photo below and let you be the judge.

I’ll just call him “stereotypical,” since I’ve used the word “antisemitic” too many times on this blog. Whoops…it happened again. Can media please stop being like this?

Now, this guy is named Tingler. His gimmick is that he speaks in different languages, but not like in a cool way. He does it like a Scooby-Doo would: “Look! It’s a perro—inu—gerkuDOG!” It’s quite annoying. At least he’s nice, doesn’t make mistakes, and never trips and lose important plot items. Way too many annoying companions do that.

Okay, back to our council. My vote for “coolest design” goes to the evil wind-bug guy. I forget what he represents—probably wind or whatever—but the way his body is comprised of dead autumn leaves and black insect carapace is so cool. But the leader of the council is the aforementioned Great Ak, a tall bearded man with branch-like antlers who calls himself the greatest of all woodsmen.

I realize right off the bat that this special won’t be funny. With the likes of Tingler, it won’t even be chuckle-worthy. But I’m fine with that because the atmosphere and gravitas of the Council of Immortals is wicked, with its own imperious theme song, cloak of mist, and clouds of thunder. The characters all speak in simplistic platitudes about how immortals live forever, don’t die, and aren’t mortal. Since this is a kid’s program, I’m fine with that too. Little three-year-olds gotta follow along somehow.

In fact, I’m convinced that many young viewers at this point are like, “Woah! This is the most important program ever! They’re about to decide whether Santa Claus should be the first and only mortal to ascend to immortality!!”

Not-So-Humble Beginnings

The only way the Council can decide whether Santa should live (for eternity) or die is through extended flashback. We learn that he was an orphan left in the snow when the Great Ak found him, then commanded a lion that happened to be nearby to take care of him. I’m not sure lions live in snowy environments, but, sure, maybe in 1500 or whenever this takes place.

Is it weird that a lioness named Shiegra is raising Santa Claus? On the face of it, yes. It’s out-and-out bizarre. Most Santa origins I’ve heard of give him humbler, more mundane origins than that. And wouldn’t it have been so exciting if he had to work his way up, having no apparent advantages as he rose to the top as an immortal at last? Sadly, as we’ll see later, this Santa glides through life the way an overpowered anime protagonist gets reborn in another world with his smartphone: he has every advantage and he even gets raised by a cool immortal and this cool lion.

Never mind. She’s not such a cool lion because she has long-back legs-not-bend syndrome.

But there’s some logic to this origin. You see, Rome is said to have been founded by a boy suckled by a wolf. Simplistically and stereotypically speaking, classical Rome was defined by warfare, cruelty, and not being Christian. And as anyone who’s glimpsed Narnia marketing material knows, lions are associated with Christian virtue (and cooler than the lambs that are also associated with Christian virtue). So why can’t Santa Claus, vanguard of Christmas, be suckled by a lion?

But a complication arises. One of the immortals, a spring/summery-looking wood nymph named Necile, wants to be a mother. She’s curious about what joys mortals feel. But that’s not allowed!

Never mind, yes it is. The Great Ak bends the rules with no trouble at all. Now Necile and Shiegra are co-parents. This plot point seems like it could have an interesting impact if it comes up again—maybe Santa’s mom needs to help the mothers of Earth somehow, or she mourns when Santa has to leave home. Yes, I can’t wait for that development to show back up. Yes indeed. So excited…

Ah, and here’s our first co-opting of language and culture to concoct a new Santa myth: apparently Necile names him “Claus” because in the language of the immortal Forest of Burzee, “claus” means “little one.” Then she goes and calls him “little Claus,” which is ungrammatical, loser.

Santa Claus grows up in an idyll, swinging from cabbage patch to elephant trunk without a care in the world. He’s forever surrounded by immortals until one day the Great Ak interrupts Tingler’s language training (good.) to show him Earth for the first ti—

Wait, can I see Tingler next to Claus again?

Yeah…something about that looks familiar…

Was Tingler the inspiration for Tingle from The Legend of Zelda?

And was this teenage Santa Claus the inspiration for Philips CD-i Link, of all people? He sure sounds like it.

So the Great Ak Superman-flies Claus down through space to Earth. Together they see the nations of the medieval world and how terrible they all are.

First, they visit Probably England, where a fat friar on a suffering donkey is torturing the peasants who pick his turnips. Later he tells his family at castle dinner (wait…a friar who rules in a castle?!) that these uppity peasants are trying to read! Next thing, they’ll be trying to write! Can you believe it???

Next, we go to Buddha…that is, a statue of Buddha looking over a training ground in Japan. Two boys are sparring, training to become samurai and spend their lives fighting. Claus is appalled—at that age, they should be having fun!!

Fast fact: did you know that most Rankin/Bass animation was outsourced to Japan? And did you know that “the Rankin/Bass style” was transmogrified to amazing effect in the stunning Sanrio animated film Nutcracker Fantasy, which would have to be among my favorite Christmas movies of all time? More relevantly, I appreciate the fact that Santa Claus’s global education extends beyond Europe. Too bad it mostly involves how much the globe sucks.

In a Middle Eastern bazaar, we see children begging in the street. Thankfully, as far as I can tell, we don’t get a third religious symbol or figure smiling upon suffering children—we already dissed Christianity and Buddhism (albeit twisted to feudal ends), let’s not go any further. Then we see some knights duking it out.

Having seen all of this, young Claus is deeply disturbed. At first, he was selfish, merely wanting to go back home and stay among his immortal kin. Now, however, he wants to do anything he can to help mortals—in the Great Ak’s words, “to leave this world a little better than he found it.”

I was so hyped for this. Watching Claus travel the whole world to witness human suffering, say the words “die” and “kill,” and make a vow to help people everywhere is way too epic. It’s beyond the scope of what most Christmas specials would dare attempt. It’s amazing. It’s awe-inspiring. The Santa from that 1970 special, that dude with the red hair, he’s nothing. All he helped was a small town. Sucks to be him. Blond Santa’s already got a world to save.

I’m very excited for the part where Santa helps people in at least three different nations. In fact, I’m excited for the part where he does any charitable work at all beyond making toys and, like, reading to kids—the part where he builds shelters and disses The Man.

Yep! I’m super-excited for that to happen in this film, just like the part where Necile being a mother is important again.

Claus is All Alone…With All His Magical Omnipotent Friends

Yeah, so when Claus leaves home, it’s a big moment for me as a viewer because now the real test of his mettle begins. With no one by his side but Tingler, how will he manage? …Okay, no one by his side but Tingler and Shiegra the lion with claws fangs and power to intimidate. But still, that’s just a low-level immortal and a normal Earth animal. The stakes are still high.

Nnnno…they’re really not. As Claus first marches through the frozen fields of Hohaho (guess what element of the Santa Claus myth this is going to inspire), as he spends a night huddled under some random wooden structure, it seems like he’s going to wander and suffer for a while. But then he spots a church! Okay, that’s cool too, he’s going to find humanity and get into some confrontations. Except the church is apparently abandoned, so he just crashes the place and makes it his own. It becomes Santa’s pad, which I’m pretty sure Christians at the time would regard as heresy. Doubly so because he immediately invites dozens of the nymphs and elves from the immortal plane in to hang out with him. No, live with him.

Yes, I know Santa has elves in his workshop, but this is ridiculous. He couldn’t spend one night alone without access to his everlasting friends, because that would be too interesting.

Time elapses, and Santa actually interacts with locals! But only in a montage. He reads books to children. He watches children build snowmen. He reaches middle age and he reads more books to children.

Frankly, he does nothing. Yes, I’ll say it. If he had a Mrs. Claus anything like my mother, she’d be telling him to get a job. This Santa is extremely bad at doing good deeds, despite having every advantage and every single cheat code turned on. It’s like if he had a million dollars and every day he donated one cent.

Is this what happened to the hippies? Did too many of them come of age seeing endless causes they vowed to support and then do mostly nothing? (This is a joke and an exaggeration; hippies please defend yourselves in the comments?!)

But one day, Santa (already fifty, by the looks of it) finds a child in the snow. To me this child looks weirdly like the kid picking turnips in England, but apparently has no relation. (To make the timeline more confusing, Santa at some point mentions wanting to give gifts to the child we saw eating with the friar in that castle because “every child deserves toys”…but she would surely be an adult by now. Or does Santa still live in a bizarre immortal time vortex?)

This is his first chance to do a good deed! Yeeeeeah! The hype is back again, only this time my expectations are substantially lower so I can’t be hurt again!!

Dammit, I was still hurt. He does take the boy in, but after hearing that he came from an orphanage that sounds like it might be crummy, he never goes there or asks about it. He just makes the kid a toy and, the next morning, sends him on his way.

The kid never appears again, but he does inspire Santa to make way more toys! That’s about the saddest point of inspiration Santa could have taken from that, considering how vast his immortal connections reach. If he were an ordinary person, making toys to give downtrodden children some spark of joy would be valiant. For him, it feels like a waste of time AND he started doing it decades into his Earth career.

But that alone isn’t really enough to make this unpardonable. What pushes it over the top is that he’s in the running to become the first-ever mortal to assume the Mantle of Immortality—and the last-ever. There’s only one mantle. They’re not making another. The Great Ak is fully prepared to give it to Santa Claus, and I think that’s just because he’s practically his son. There is no religion, except the code of the Council of Immortals, which is nepotism.

They could’ve waited five celestial minutes and given that mantle to any winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Supernatural Hijinks Finally Add More Spice

After the children sing about cats and Santa puts his workshop in full swing, he receives a letter. A threat letter. It warns that if he doesn’t stop making toys and delivering them to the local kids, “we’re coming for you.” Signed King Awgwa.

Who is King Awgwa, and who are his fellow Awgwas? (Is there a “King Human”?) They’re gorilla-monster-men who can turn invisible. They wear horned helmets and their teeth are sharp fangs projecting in all directions. They wear championship belts. They may turn out to be generic baddies, but they look amazing.

You know, I’m wondering if they’re supposed to look like witch doctors…but I choose to believe instead that they are big fans of the band GWAR. Actually, GWAR wasn’t formed until this special was already in the production pipeline…which can only mean that GWAR anonymously co-produced this special and helped design their outfits. It makes more sense than you think. It makes more sense if you don’t think.

Family portrait

Their first move: invisibly tie Santa and Shiegra up with rope, then knock them out and take them away. When Santa comes to, he’s in a cave, confronted by a big evil snake and a big evil spider! But right away, he calls out for the help of the Knooks, nature spirits who live in nooks and crannies anywhere and everywhere in nature. They can command animals to do their bidding. Problem instantly solved.

How does Santa keep losing? After this, he keeps going to the same village dragging his same toys, insistent upon delivering this specific stuff in this specific way. I mean, he tweaks his plan, sure, but his creativity is rather limited due to decades of disuse. He doesn’t have to keep doing this! Every single time, the Awgwas just show up and invisibly take his lunch money!

He loses so hard that he realizes it’s time to use some real brainpower. Using what Tingler has taught him of the reindeer language, he gets the nymphs to distract the Awgwas while he sneaks out to the forest and negotiates with the King of the Reindeer. Together they…

Sorry! That’s just my Life and Adventures of Santa Claus AU fanfic. How embarrassing that it had to leak this way. Anywho, Santa’s daddy the Great Ak steps in and does all the hard work. He digs out his silver axe of dreadful war and tells King Awgwa that a conflict is unavoidable.

This is like the exact opposite of how I’d hoped this special would go, but…if a zany and unique battle is up ahead, who am I to argue? Show me what you got!

So the two armies meet at the rocky mountain. There’s like eight gorilla guys on one side and an entire gang of immortals (and no Santa Claus) on the other. In no way does this look fair…but that’s when they bring out the dragon.

Did you know that Rankin/Bass would go on to produce Dragon Ball? Did you know I’m just kidding? Wait, why is a mythical creature from East Asia involved in this conflict in an unnamed European nation? We’re not as far east as, like, Russia, are we?

War is waged. The first piece to act is that towering dragon, who comes forward and breathes an unimpressive fire effect. One of the wood nymphs steps forward with a hilarious smile and stick. She holds up the stick, looking very proud of herself.

Turns out she should be, because the moment the fire hits the stick, it just flies back up and kills the dragon. That’s pretty metal, if you ask me.

One hero shrinks an Awgwa. Another deals a much more horrifying demise—they poke an Awgwa with a twig that makes him melt, sprout into a flower, and then instantly wilt. Was that really necessary? Isn’t that cruel and unusual punishment disavowed by most nations of the world? Well, I guess there’s crimes against humanity but no crimes against Awgwas. What a wonderful anti-war special this is!

Anywho, the Greak Ak raises his Great Axe and shoots a laser at the final enemy, sizzling him up. He declares to the still-standing king that this battle is over. King Awgwa has no choice but to surrender and promise never to torment Santa Claus again.

Yay! The Great Ak’s pathetic, underambitious son has another shot at his dream: to deliver toys to this specific village.

Shit, we spent too much time on the Awgwa war. Now we have to pack in a few other details about the Santa Claus mythos! One of the Knooks gets ahold of eight reindeer to help him take gifts into town (uh, that was never his problem, but okay, thanks). But when Santa enters the town at night, the doors are locked and no one will answer. How to get in? Why, what about the chimney…! And look, children have hung their stockings out to dry. What a perfect place for tiny gifts!

When the children wake up, they and their parents are overjoyed! They exchange very stiff dialogue about how this must have been left by that wonderful man Claus, “for no other toys exist in this world.” And the parents cheerfully note that he must have found a way to circumvent the lock on the door and come in as he pleases. Just like the CIA!

The parents call him Saint Claus, but their loser son calls him “Santa Claus.” The legend complete…

He always looks so sad.

It’s settled: Santa Claus will have access to the reindeer to deliver his gifts, but for undisclosed or nonexistent reasons, only once a year.

An Existentially Terrible Ending

After doing this for quite a few more years, he’s officially long in the tooth. Santa Claus himself decorates the first Christmas tree “to remember me by.” First of all, what a pretentious asshole. Yeah, thank you for forcing upon me a yearly tradition to remember YOU AND ONLY YOU by. Though considering the lack of good he’s done throughout his life, no doubt he can’t expect anyone to memorialize him but him.

Except his dad! The Great Ak successfully convinces the rest of the Council that Santa should be made immortal.

I’m not even convinced Santa wants this. His last words as an aging mortal are to the effect of “this was inevitable, I’ve made my peace with mortality, it is time, please let me die.”

Heck, as far as we know, the Great Ak isn’t doing this because Santa asked to be immortal. He’s doing it because he “deserves” it. In other words, he wants his boy to go back to work and keep delivering happiness to humanity at large. Something he himself never could be assed to do, and has never provided a reason for not doing.

If Santa is given the Mantle of Immortality—no, if it is forced upon him—he’ll be forced to shuffle back onto this mortal coil. And do you remember that cool imperious immortal song from earlier? It makes immortality sound like a raw deal! The lyrics proclaim that immortals will exist until the final trumpet of doom. So yeah, they do get to hang around, but only until the inevitable heat death of the universe. That’s just delayed death with guaranteed horror.

They would dare give Santa Claus this mantle without his permission? Then his burden is heavy indeed.

Merry Christmas!

“Ho ho ho! My value is limited and my life is pain!”

Final Thoughts and Lingering Disappointment

My interest in this take on Santa Claus went from “tentative” to “hyper-high” to “total nosedive.” I’m sorry, but it’s hard not to call him an inferior follow-up. Not only that, but his story loses the momentum and intrigue it had for me the moment he establishes a home base.

At first, I appreciated the special’s more sedate tone. It went hand-in-hand with the serious themes it started out establishing, and reminded me of other atmospheric children’s films like The Sea Prince and the Fire Child. But with the scope contracting so thoroughly and the main character being so ineffective, more levity than just Tingler’s gimmicks would have at least given me something to chew on.

Either this special was severely hamstrung by its source material (in which case they should’ve tweaked it to hell and back), or, bound by time and TV constraints, it didn’t take enough from the source material. So much potential gone to wastoids.

This was Rankin/Bass’s last Christmas special and their last stop-motion production. It’s a technically impressive note to go out on, with enthralling sets and character models—and for that alone, it’s worth a look. But the story is a whimper. Know what you’re getting into.

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

For more bafflers, check out my thoughts on that fantasy-story trope where the world “can’t know” about magic (which I always thought was total bullshit). Or ask yourself why an incredible super robot manga co-created by Stan Lee was so mismanaged. If all else fails, witness some more Christmas shenanigans:

Almost Christmas
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square
It’s a Wonderful Life

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
The Polar Express

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