Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to the Second Day of our second annual The Twelve Days of Shitmas celebration. Our first offering this year was an inoffensive, treacly trifle that was just hollow and vapid enough for me to project some of my own innate darkness into it, making it seem just a bit more layered and substantial than it actually was. Today's presentation is plenty dark all on its own. It's only 25 minutes long but it's mean and manipulative like an abusive partner, spending the first twenty minutes relentlessly traumatizing you then gaslighting you in the last five, insisting that it really loves you and never actually did any of those horrible things you just saw it do with your own two eyes. It has two over-riding and equally dubious moral themes, the first being that a congenital deformity is fair game for disparagement and ridicule until it becomes useful to someone else, and the second being that God wants you to abjectly suffer, especially when you're doing everything He wants you to do.

My wife says it all sounds awfully Catholic, and she should know because she is one. Still, we didn't come here to discuss theology, did we? We came to trash a crappy Christmas special, so let's get our little bit of promotional business out of the way and get to it, shall we?

Do they know it's Shitmas?

We're posting a brand new review of a Christmas Special every other day, culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. Some are salty, some are sweet, and some are guaranteed to cause inerasable childhood trauma, but each has been hand-picked by the MMT staff to ensure your 2020 Yuletide pleasure.

When it comes to beloved Christmas specials no company has produced more perennial favorites than animation studio Rankin-Bass. Unfortunately for every The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) there's a Cricket on the Hearth (1967), for every Frosty the Snowman (1969) there's a The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold, and for every Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) there's a Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977).

It's no accident I should pair those last two together. The latter special owes a great deal of its narrative and thematic elements to the former, but lacks the quirky humor, lovable characters and uplifting message that made Rudolph so beloved and essential Christmas viewing for multiple generations of children and their parents. Nestor is a Biblically apocryphal story of how Mary and Joseph got to the manger to deliver the Christ child, but it mostly subverts the essential joy of the Christmas narrative to tell a dire tale of bullying, hardship and loss that's barely mitigated by an abruptly pasted-on happy ending. It's as if you stuck Rudolph, Animal Farm and The Book of Job in a blender, pureed on high and served it as a Christmas smoothie, with a little hillbilly music sprinkled in to add some homespun flavor. Then you poured it all into a 32 ounce mason jar and smashed it over your own head.

That's the logo font for one of my favorite bands.

We open with Santa just taking off on his Christmas Eve rounds and doing a ceremonial flyover of his North Pole homestead/Elf-exploiting sweatshop. Standing amongst the waving Elves is a donkey named Spieltoe who will be our guide for the cruel and disturbing narrative to come.

Spieltoe is voiced by country musician and occasional actor Roger Miller. He had a string of pop-country hits in the mid-1960's, the best-remembered of which is the popular Karaoke standard "King of the Road".

When Santa has flown out of sight Spieltoe turns to the camera and tells us all about his job at the North Pole, hauling Santa's shit around and presumably shoveling the reindeers' shit out of the stable he shares with them. It seems he's a bit of a jack-of-all trades, looking after the place whenever Santa is away.

"I also look after Mrs. Claus whenever Santa is away, if you know what I mean."

Spieltoe takes us inside the stables and shows us the animals' own Christmas tree which he makes a big deal about being a gift from Santa, and a little Nativity set he says was carved by the Elves. He explains that they got every detail of all the figures just right, except for the Donkey, which despite Spieltoe's explicit instructions and detailed 3-D blueprints, they carved with normal-sized ears. He says the real donkey the carving represents was his very own ancestor, and that he had enormous ears that played a enormous part in the enormous story he's about to unfold. He says the Elves were supposed to carve him a more accurate figurine, "but you know those elves."

Oh, I know them, buddy. The pointy-eared slackers.

So Spieltoe shows us the various stalls for the famous flying reindeer, and by way of explicitly reminding us that what we're about to see is going to rip off Rudolph real hard he lingers on that particular reindeer's stall, drawling in his down-home, back-porch, baccy-chawin' way "of course you all know this feller!"

We sure, do...and once we've endured this relentlessly grim, brutalist nightmare we're really going to wish we'd watched his special instead.

Now we get the song on which the special is based, which was written in 1975 as a sort-of sequel but more of an exploitive cash-grab pastiche of the original "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" song from 1949 (originally recorded by Gene Autry, whose work as an actor may be sampled elswhere on MMT). It starts with a rather self-conscious nod to the original, recapping the story we all know and love before veering off into the much-less interesting tale of the much-more-despised Nestor. As Spieltoe sings an Elf brings in the revised Nestor figurine and it magically transforms into the unfortunate little buck-toothed freak himself.

Get used to this face because he spends about two-thirds of the whole damned special crying.

Our story begins, Spieltoe tells us, a long time ago, two thousand years past, in the time of the Roman empire. We open our narrative in the crude stable of "Olaf the donkey breeder," and we can immediately sum up the nature of his character by his wonky eyes, crooked mouth and uneven teeth. What I'm saying is he's not very bright.

That dog he's with doesn't look like the sharpest chisel in the toolbox, either.

Olaf steps up to the stall where Nestor is waiting eagerly with his mother and tells the poor little wretch that he's not going to give him any food at all because he doesn't "earn his keep" but instead spends his days tripping over his ears and breaking shit.

Olaf does feed Nestor's Mother though, and when the big oaf leaves she nudges most of the hay over to his side of the trough, saying "Go ahead. I'm really not hungry."

Maybe she could just eat some of the hay that's literally everywhere and quit being such a goddamn martyr.

So Nestor trips over his ears, then cries, then we get a continuation of the theme song during which we see him trip over his ears and cry some more while being laughed at and bullied by the rest of the animals, including three cheeky mice who like to use his prodigious aural receptors as playground slides.

I thought maybe the mice would turn out to be his only friends, but no, they fucking hate him just like everybody else.

This part of the song pretty much sticks to the Rudolph "reindeer games" formula, with no one ever playing with or trusting Nestor to do chores because he's such a clumsy, maudlin and grotesque aberration of nature.

When the Winter Solstice arrives all the animals leave off mocking and terrorizing Nestor for a few hours because they're having a party and it's apparently traditional to try not to be a dick to anyone on that one day of the year.

Nestor's mother finds a pair of wool stockings Olaf's wife had discarded and gives them to Nestor as a pair of ear warmers, and because the other animals are being a little nice to him for once he says joyfully that it's the best night of his life and he's never going to forget it.

I hope he remembers he said so, because shit's about to get real.

Later that night, when the celebrations are over and the animals are all bedding down for the night, some Roman Centurions burst into the stable and demand that Olaf sell them all of his youngest mules and donkeys as beasts of burden for Caesar's army. The young animals are terrified and screaming as they're mercilessly torn from their home and their families.

I know the Romans were into some weird shit but did we really have to see this?

It seems at first like Olaf is going to make a decent profit from all of this, but when the Commander tries to pull Nestor away the stockings come off his ears and he accuses the donkey breeder of trying to cheat him by selling defective merchandise. Olaf offers to give one of the coins back and include Nestor for free but the Commander cold cocks him, takes back all of the money and leaves him with only the older breeding animals and pathetic little Nestor.

As the soldiers whip and abuse the terrified young animals and drive them off into the blinding snow, Olaf sits crying on the stable floor, complaining bitterly that without stock to sell and robbed of his profits he's a ruined man.

Of course he does what any self-respecting bully would do in this situation...he lets that shit roll straight downhill. He grabs Nestor roughly by the ears, then violently whips and swings and throws him around the barn. It's a shocking display of brutality for what's supposed to be a child-friendly program. Nestor actually gets banged up to the point that he passes out from his injuries.

At least he's not crying again. That shit gets old.

Eventually Olaf decides to send Nestor out into the snowstorm to fend for himself, telling him not to ever come back. He throws him so hard, in fact that he arcs through the tops of the trees, hitting his head on clusters of ice and hard branches as he flies, and ultimately landing in an inert heap in a distant snow bank.

Back in the barn Mama breaks out of her stall and bolts off into the blizzard to find her son. They are eventually reunited, but she knows they can't return to the warmth of the stable. She instead finds an outcropping of rock to use as a wind-break and scratches away the snow beneath it until she reaches the grass. She instructs Nestor to lie down in as tight a ball as he can then lays down on top of him, sheltering him from the cold with the warmth of her own body.

We fade to the following morning to find Nestor crying again and staring from about fifteen yards' distance at a mound of snow, under which is the dead, frozen body of his mother.

It's every bit as depressing as Bambi (1942) but without any of the fun.

That image has haunted me for years, but for the life of me I've never been able to place where it had come from before. I honestly think I'd blocked the bulk of Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey out of my memory, but this one picture of pain and loss made such a powerful impression on my young mind that I couldn't erase it, I could only leave it orphaned like Nestor himself, a stray ghost haunting the wilderness of my psyche without roots or contextual family. When I watched this a few days ago in anticipation of writing this review I experienced a slow, sickening awareness that I had seen it before and that this, finally, was the source of that long-lingering, stark and remorseless image of death I'd been carrying with me for the past 43 years.

I'm glad to have finally put the mystery to rest, but seriously: fuck you Rankin-Bass.

So Nestor heads south through the forest, tripping on his ears and crying and whining, but just as he's about to give up hope of ever finding a single instant of peace or happiness he hears something strange in the distance. Suddenly a little girl drops from the sky and hovers on tiny wings just ahead of him.

"Excuse me, are you Preparation H. Raymond?"

The little girl explains that she's a cherub named Tilly and that she's here to "inspire" him. She also says that whereas angels inspire people, cherubs inspire animals. I had never heard of this particular doctrinal tidbit before so I asked my Catholic wife about it and she immediately called bullshit.

Tilly is voiced by Oscar-nominated, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress Brenda Vaccaro, whose performance here seems to have been read directly off of cue cards and captured entirely in single-takes. She also sounds kind of hung-over and husky-voiced, as if she downed a little hair o' the dog to calm her nerves then smoked about a pack and a half of cigarettes just before entering the recording booth.

Tilly tells Nestor that God wants him to do something very special, only she won't tell him explicitly what it is. She instead recites to him this shitty poem:

"Your ears can do a wondrous thing no other ears can do,
The sounds they hear will guide you on a path that's straight and true,
And you will save another as your mother once saved you."

"Go home, cherub. You're drunk."

Nestor doesn't understand what the hell that doggerel is supposed to mean, but he decides to go ahead and follow the pint-sized lush anyway, being as he's all alone in the world anyway with no family, no hope and nothing better to do. So Tilly hovers above him, holding up his ears and pointing him towards the distant city of Bethlehem.

As they begin their journey our old pal Spieltoe breaks back into the story with his homey narration, telling us that Nestor could tell Tilly was a real friend because she never made him cry by laughing at his ears. I'd call that a pretty low standard, but I guess when everybody else thinks you're a freak of nature you have to take what you can get. This segues into a musical montage for a number called "Don't Laugh and Make Somebody Cry," which features scene after excruciating scene of Nestor meeting various animals who all laugh at him and make him cry.

It kind of undercuts the message they're seeking to impart.

Thus does Tilly lead Nestor through many lands and climes, and even across the sea in a tiny boat, using his ears as sails. Even in the middle of the fucking ocean, miles from the nearest land, he cannot escape insult and mockery, as he gets laughed at by a pair of dolphins.

"Aye, the Sea! She be a harsh mistress!"

Finally they reach Judea, and at a small stone house a few miles from Bethlehem Tilly leaves Nestor to await the proper moment when he will be called to complete his destiny. The sky glows amber and Tilly is swept upwards back to the Heaven from whence she came.

"See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya!"

Nestor walks up towards the house. A shifty-looking desert merchant emerges and roughly drives him back to a stable in a tent, where he throws him to the ground amidst the other animals, all of guessed it...immediately start laughing at his ears. Here Nestor must spend interminable months of wretchedness and misery, being mocked and bullied and abused, never making a single friend, never hearing a kind word, his sorrows and tribulations relentless and his very existence rendered an empty hell of emotional desolation, all in the service of God's divine will.

Thanks, God!

Finally one fateful evening Nestor overhears the Merchant mention the city of Bethlehem. It seems a young couple is going there for the roman census, and since the woman is with child they would like to buy a donkey to carry her there. The couple look over the various specimens on offer and when they come to Nestor the woman is immediately taken by Nestor's submissive bearing and trauma-addled eyes.

"We'll take the freak, please."

The Merchant at first tries to get a premium price out of them, saying that long ears like Nestor's are highly sought after and fashionable in Bethlehem. Mary says they haven't enough money for him, in that case and they turn to go. Suddenly the amber glow of Heaven appears behind her and the Merchant finds himself, against his will, offering Nestor to them for free.

God can do this for Mary but Nestor can just fuck right off.

Next we see Mary on Nestor's back, with Joseph leading them across the desert by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. You'd think that once Nestor is finally doing that vitally important thing God wanted him to do it would be smooth sailing all the way into town, but no! There's one more contrived obstacle, one final trial he must endure before his journey and his task are complete.

The wind suddenly begins to roar and the star is obscured by the virulent fury of a sandstorm. The three travelers are lashed relentlessly by the grit and gale and without the star to guide them they begin to lose their way.

He needed extra shit thrown at him. It builds character.

As Nestor ponders whether or not to leave these two losers and bolt off to find himself some shelter he suddenly hears the voice of Tilly reciting her poem, and at the last line about "as your mother once saved you" who should appear in the sky above him but the spirit of his dead mother.

I don't remember this from Sunday school.

She tells him to listen to the Angels, to follow his ears and let their voices guide him. She fades into the glow and a choir of cherubs appears, singing a song to show him the way to Bethlehem.

Nestor follows the little angel voices to the edge of the desert, and as they reach the crest of a hill the winds cease and Bethlehem lies before them. They wander through the crowded city, but of course they can't find an inn or a house to stay in because everyone else has arrived for the census ahead of them. Nestor suddenly remembers how cozy his little stall in the stable was when he was just a wee little donklet, and he carries Mary to a stable in the center of town.

Okay, so I've been so caught up in how dour and dismal this thing is that I've barely had time to mention how irritating the snippets of song are that carry us from one scene to another. Each segment of the story is accompanied not only by Spieltoe's needlessly explicit narration, but also by a verse or two of the title song, repeating what we've already seen and been told in irritatingly repetitive rhymed couplets. By about halfway through you begin to cringe every time you hear the tell-tale guitar plucking that heralds the song's arrival.

By the end you're simply too worn down by the ceaseless misery of everything else to care about the dissonantly cheerful, spiritually uplifting conclusion.

A child is born, but then you already knew that.

So we cut from Nestor sitting atop a ridge viewing the Biblical shenanigans described in the Gospel of Luke to dumb old Olaf and the stable animals back in Nestor's barren, frigid home cheering as he sleds down a snow bank on his ears...and all the explanation we get is Spieltoe's assurance that "when Nestor returned home he really was a hero!"

The End.

Okay, so I don't understand what just happened. Nestor was bullied and beaten and abused by virtually everyone he'd ever known, except for his mother, of course, but then she died trying to keep him from freezing to death after he'd been kicked out of his home and been told never to return. He traveled for something like a year across countries and continents and climate zones just to get away from them, only to be picked on and mocked and disparaged by just about everyone he met everywhere else, yet after all that heartache and trauma and suffering he went straight back to live with his abusers again as soon as his brief stint as the holy family's taxi service was complete?

Why would the folks back home suddenly accept him back and treat him like a hero anyway? Living just north of fucking nowhere how would they know a goddamn thing about what happened in Judea, or for that matter understand what it was supposed to mean for humanity when Christ's sacrifice wouldn't even happen for another 33 years? Was it Tilly told them? Was it the ghost of Nestor's mother? Was it God?

I guess the biggest mystery of all is why I should even care enough to wonder. Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey is an emotionally scarring, misanthropic pile of steaming donkey shit. It should certainly never have been shown to as sensitive and impressionable a child as I was when it first aired in 1977. It's cruel and sadistic and manipulative, and structured emotionally like a toxic, abusive relationship. No wonder I've spent most of my adult life in therapy.

Now that I've finally remembered this thing I can hardly wait to forget about it all over again.

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 7th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2020.

Questions? Comments? Expressions of disgust? Why not skip the middleman and complain to me directly?

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