"The First Christmas", originally aired in 1975, is the latest of the Rankin/Bass animated specials to make it to DVD. This one has not been repeated as much as the others; I saw it one time in the 1970s and never again until now. The main character is Lucas, an orphaned shepherd boy. While out tending to his sheep, he gets struck by lightning. He gets taken in by a convent of nuns, led by Sister Theresa (voiced by Angela Lansbury) and nursed back to health, but they are unable to help his blindness caused by the lightning. He does learn to herd his sheep without sight however. Sister Theresa tells Lucas about past Christmases she remembered with snow. Since it never snows in the area they are in now, Lucas wishes for it to snow there as his Christmas wish.
The main thing I remembered about this special was the way the characters' eyes are designed. The pupils are snowflake-like, and when Lucas is blinded his pupils appear white instead of black. I think I first learned about blindness through watching this also.
"The First Christmas" is animated in Rankin/Bass's famous "Animagic" stop-motion process (many recent audiences have been erroneously calling this "Claymation", which is a different stop-motion technique using clay figures) and includes music and songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass.
Although Warner claims this to be "remastered", this doesn't appear as pristine as the other Rankin/Bass specials that have appeared on DVD. While it most likely looks better than its initial TV airing, the film source still appears rather worn. It doesn't look awful, just not as good as the others.
Sound is in Dolby Digital 1-channel mono, and also does not sound as clean as the prior specials released on DVD. Overall it sounds muddy like a 16mm film's optical track, with "S" sounds especially distorted ("Chrisshsshtmassh"). There is also a Spanish dubbed track (with the songs still in English) in about the same condition.
Warner advertises this as a "Deluxe Edition DVD", but extras fall very short here. The only extra related to the show is an 8-minute segment showing kids how to make Christmas cards with glue, glitter and other common household objects (since that's a hobby of Sister Theresa in the special), shot recently in 16x9 for this DVD (and much louder than the main feature). If you decide to try your hand at this, be sure you have a grown-up to help you! Other than this, the only material is previews for the "Santa's Magical Stories" set of other specials, the "Peanuts Holiday Collection" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas".
While it's good to finally be able to see this special again, the DVD comes up rather short especially considering its $19.97 list price. The entire disc only consists of 1.37 GB, so including a few more unreleased specials would have been nice, at least in the interest of saving shelf space. I recommend this title regardless for those who love the Rankin/Bass specials, but I expect that it will be purchased mainly by completists, and many will probably want to search out the lowest price on it. (I must throw in a comment about the flimsy Eco-Case this comes in too- I dislike these many times more than anyone ever disliked Warner's much-maligned 'snapper' cases.)
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.