First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

All right. I *think* this is the last stop-motion Rankin/Bass Christmas special we haven't covered. There are a few reasons this took so long, starting with it being hard to track down. We actually tried to watch it last year, but the only service supposedly streaming it for a while had the wrong video connected. The other reason this one eluded us is that this really didn't make much of a cultural impact, and therefore didn't show up on our radar.

With that out of the way, let's talk about what this is. And the short answer to that is... Well... It's weird. This is very weird.

The long answer is it's a Christmas story set in an abbey in the mid-19th century. At the beginning, the nuns are making Christmas cards to distribute to the locals. The cards feature snowy scenes, because the area never gets snow and they want to remind everyone that it snowed on the first Christmas. In Bethlehem.

Okay, am I missing a reference here? I mean, I know the idea it snowed in December in Bethlehem in the year 1 is ridiculous given the climate, and that's before we factor in the fact Jesus (probably) wasn't born in December. But is there some obscure tradition I'm not aware of holding that it snowed when Jesus was born, or did Rankin/Bass just invent this nonsense because you could get away with crap like this in the pre-internet days? Sound off in the comments!

Moving on, their card-making is interrupted by a fierce thunderstorm. Sister Theresa (voiced by Angela Lansbury) sees a boy get hit by lightning in the distance, so the nuns rush out to rescue him.

The boy's name is Lucas, an orphaned shepherd. He's been blinded by the experience, so the nuns bring him, his dog, and his flock of sheep to the Abbey, presumably rescuing them from a pair of ominous wolves who appear several times throughout the special to build suspense, but never do anything other than watch from the woods and occasionally lick their lips.

The priest, Father Thomas, wants Lucas sent to an orphanarium, but Sister Theresa gets him to relent and agree to let Lucas stay through Christmas. They also put Lucas in the Christmas pageant as one of the angels. He befriends a kind girl, though the boys playing the wise men aren't happy with the new addition. They decide to play a joke on Lucas by moving his sheep to a different location. The sheep immediately break out and run into the woods.

The boys rush to the nuns to confess, so Lucas and his dog go to look for the sheep, despite the danger posed by the wolves, who - I'll remind you - do absolutely nothing. The nuns weirdly don't follow or try to stop him or anything. The boys responsible feel bad, so they go help Lucas round up the sheep, including one stuck in a hole. Subplot resolved.

Back at the abbey, they all put on the Nativity play, which includes fake snow at the birth of Christ. Then it actually snows thanks to prayers or Christmas magic or Jesus, or maybe Rudolph did something off-screen: the fuck should I know? Lucas's friend describes how the snow looks, and some combination of magic and faith and kindness cures his blindness. Then the Abbey decides to adopt him, which overjoys Lucas (though honestly, I think he'd be better off in an orphanage).

I guess we should talk about the songs. The bulk of these are written for the special, including one sung by the priest chastising the local kids for decorating for Christmas early. This would have been a good thing to cut in order to free up time to include some actual plot. There are several other songs from Lucas and/or Sister Teresa, most of which are completely forgettable. It's a little harder to ignore the special's one famous song, "White Christmas." The version here is truncated and sung by Angela Lansbury. She doesn't do a bad job (Lansbury is a great singer, after all), but it's completely out of place in a special ostensibly set a century before it was written and even more out of place in a religious context. "White Christmas" is a secular holiday song created by a Jewish songwriter: having it sung by a Catholic nun feels disrespectful to his legacy.

But at least this whole thing is equally disrespectful to Christianity. The "snow on the first Christmas" premise is absurd and reduces the Nativity to a fairytale. That doesn't bother me, but I suspect it's a big part of the reason this has almost completely vanished from circulation.

Not the only reason, though. It's far from the worst thing out there, and probably not even the worst Rankin/Bass special, but it's lacking the limitless imagination that makes their more famous offerings endure. It drags a bit in spots, though the fact it's only 22 minutes means it never becomes aggressively boring. Still, there's just not much here I'd consider memorable.

That's despite including some impressive animation: the studio they contacted this out to was always fantastic, and by 1975 had really gotten the hang of the medium.

But unless you're a huge fan of stop-motion or are a Rankin/Bass completist, there's no need to track this down. It's just not that good.