Here We Come A-Waffleing: Will Vinton’s “Claymation Christmas Celebration” (1987)

By on December 20, 2017

One of our favorite primetime Christmas TV specials is Will Vinton’s “Claymation Christmas Celebration,” a stop-motion clay animation special which originally aired on CBS in December 1987.

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Vinton — who passed away earlier this year — directed the half-hour special, which earned him one of the two Emmy awards of his career (the other was for his 1992 “Claymation Easter” special).

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Ralph Liddle’s teleplay is set in what we’re told is London’s world-famous Christmas Square.

We meet two dinosaur hosts — “Rex” (Johnny Counterfit) and “Herb” (Tim Conner) — who introduce stand-alone video presentations of popular Christmas carols, discussing the origin of the songs and how people around the world have embraced them as part of their holiday traditions.

That’s about it for plot, as the main point here is presenting a revue of classic Christmas songs sung by stop-motion characters, including Vinton’s famous California Raisins.

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We should mention that Rex and Herb — recurring reptilian characters who’d previously appeared in Vinton’s Dinosaurs! A Fun-Filled Trip Back in Time! — are often compared to movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, based on their body types.

Rex is the taller, well-dressed and intellectual Tyrannosaurus Rex character, while Herb is a sloppily-dressed, glasses-wearing Styracosaurus in a Santa suit.

Herb has a voracious appetite, and is constantly bringing up the topic of eating throughout the special.

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Much of the time Rex and Herb are used in a running gag that interrupts many of their introductions, appearing as erudite know-it-alls who correct other characters when they have their facts wrong.

The first example of this is the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” sung by a pack of dogs who actually sing “Here We Come A-Waffleing,” because they really love waffles.

Rex realizes he doesn’t really know was “wassail” is, which gives the hosts the opportunity to learn as well as teach about the old Celtic song of celebration and drinking.

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We next hear “We Three Kings,” sung by characters named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.

The real stars of this serious segment, however, are the backing trio of groovy, be-bopping camels wearing sneakers.

Co-host Herb uses the opportunity to talk about the seasonal bell-ringing ceremonies, which we’re told are actually rooted in pagan ceremonies which attempted to ward off evil.

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Next up is “Carol of the Bells,” performed by the Paris Bellharmonic at Notre Dame Cathedral, conducted by Maestro Quasimodo, based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame (Herb jokes that he doesn’t know the conductor, but “his face rings a bell”).

Members of the Bellharmonic strike their own heads with mallets, each playing a different musical note.

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Then, a gaggle of wild geese (actually, “flock” is the correct generic term, but we wanted to type “gaggle”) sing “Here We Come A-Waddling,” because they too have no idea what a “wassail” is.

Rex distracts us by tossing to a stunning performance of “O Christmas Tree,” a real visual feast for the eyes.

In one of the show’s best sequences, we see children decorating their tree while the camera zooms in on tree ornaments, taking us to a scene in a Candyland, Santa’s workshop, and finally into Santa and Mrs. Claus’s North Pole home.

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When we come back, the dinosaur co-hosts have looked up “wassail” in a dictionary.

Herb: “Says here that wassail is derived from the Celtic word for lamb’s wool. Must be an old sheep-sheering song!”

Rex: “It’s not a sheep-sheering song, you bonehead! Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wassail,’ which means be in health.”

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Next up is “Angels We Have Heard on High,” presented as an ice ballet performed by two enormous but graceful walruses named “Dame Margot Pontoon” and “Rudolf Nerves-on-Edge.”

Their names are a play on English ballet star Dame Margot Fonteyn and Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who at the time was director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

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Then, once again, we’re treated to another mondegreen mishearing of “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” this time by a cart full of hungry pigs singing “Here We Come A-Wallowing.”

Will anyone ever get this song right?! (The bombastic tuba playing is by Jesse Graham, then a member of a “heavy metal tuba band” in Eugene, Oregon).

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An abstract, psychedelic “Joy to the World” is up next, providing an nice distraction from the argument that has broken out among the various wassailers.

Then, we finally get to our headliners the Streetcorner Singers — a.k.a. the  California Raisins — who are seen hanging out on a street corner after having just missed the last taxi.

“Not to worry,” says one Streetcorner Singer, adjusting his sunglasses, “the next reindeer is due any moment,” which leads them into singing a very Temptations-ish version “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” complete with fancy choreography to show off their sharp shoes.

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Then, a bunch of obnoxious drunk Irish elves arrive on the scene — we’ll leave the commentary about ethnic stereotypes aside for a moment — who are seen drinking cider and explaining to us the real meaning of “wassailing.”

For the big finale, Rex and Herb join up with the rest of the cast to sing the actual proper song “Here We Come A-Wassailing” as well as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which brings the special to a close and a fond farewell until next Christmas season.

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Animator Tony Merrithew

Speaking of fond farewells, Vinton relies on a hoary old homage to an old Burns and Allen routine.

“Say goodnight, Herb,'” says Rex. ‘”Goodnight, Herb,'” comes the inevitable reply from the Ebert-like host, who has eaten so many “Christmas snacks” in the past half-hour that he has doubled in size.

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We should probably mention that while Vinton’s name is the main draw here, the animation was mainly done by animators at Will Vinton Studios, including Tony Merrithew.

“Claymation Christmas Celebration” was released on the Hen’s Tooth Video DVD in 2003.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.