"A Christmas Tree" is the Christmas episode of Rankin/Bass' short-lived syndicated animated series Festival of Family Classics, aired as the show's ninth episode. As the title suggests, it is based on the story by Charles Dickens. Since it was part of a syndication package and not a special in and of itself, it is not typically shown alongside other Rankin-Bass specials around Christmas.
The tale begins in a town or city square (perhaps London itself, the narrative is not specific) on Christmas Eve night, as siblings Peter and Mary exalt in the sights, sounds and smells of the season, in the company of their Christmas houseguest, the noted author Charles Dickens. Lauding the time of year and all its unique and special properties, he finds himself pummeled by Peter and Mary's questions about Christmas in times past, in particular when he was a boy. He agrees to tell them a story about this after they have all gone back to their family's house - but he stipulates that not only must they hear it, they must also live it, to which they gladly agree. They ask if there will be a Christmas tree in it, and he assures them that there is.
Dickens, upon being seated before the family Christmas tree, states that, when he was a boy, the trees seemed much larger and laden with toys all about, and a sense of adventure. As the story begins to take over, Peter and Mary see and play with toys, one troll and one a figure (Horatio the Giant, said to be Jack's giant), among others. Each toy and decoration is given a name, including an evil wizard named Mantu with an ornament being his crystal ball, a snow-breathing dragon, and the troll-looking one coming to life and saying he was Peter Piper from the old fable and poem, confirming that he ate the pickled peppers as written, though not all that many. He warns that the essence of Christmas has been stolen by Horatio, who has taken it to the top of his beanstalk, which the Christmas tree transforms into. Peter and Mary vow to get it back, with Dickens emphasizing this as they climb the beanstalk.
At the top, amidst a forest of Christmas trees, Mary grows fearful, but Peter insists they need not fear Horatio. Mary spots a creature, the well-attired Percival Mouse, who hates being called Percy, and Peter asks him if Horatio still lives in that land. Percival tells them that his castle is at the end of the road before them, and tries to warn them off. Thanking Percival, they make for the castle. A kindly but worried housekeeper (or perhaps Horatio's wife?), a human-sized woman, warns them that, ever since Jack got away with so much treasure, Horatio hates children. She invites them in to taste some of his Christmas dinner while he is asleep. She laments that she never gets to use her great oven, as he only eats fried foods. As he awakens, she bids them to hide in it, where they won't be seen and will be safe since she never is able to use it. As Horatio approaches with his usual chant of "Fe Fi Fo Fum", the woman, whose name is Esmerelda, chastises him for using that same old tired rhyme. He apologizes, but his efforts at mixing it up go over no better, which Esmerelda uses to keep him from talking about the intruders he has sensed. However, he is still suspicious, and orders the oven fired up to heat the place. Peter and Mary escape from it with Percival's help, and he guides them up the flue (a very large oven), but the noise alerts Horatio, who forces them out and traps them in a corner. Thinking quickly, Peter throws a pepper-grinder (made for Horatio) at his nose, causing him to sneeze and fall while they run for it. Despite Esmerelda's urging, he chases after them as they attempt to get back to the beanstalk. Peter bids Mary and Percival to keep going, using a branch to trip Horatio in his pursuit. Mary thanks Percival, who indicates he would not be understood if he climbed down with them. Esmerelda delights Peter and Mary got away, but Horatio cries and laments that he will be disgraced before the M.G.o.t.W. (Mean Giants of the World). Esmerelda tries to comfort him.
At the bottom of the stalk, Peter and Mary lament their failure to get the essence, only for Dickens and Piper to say that, in fact, the thief is a powerful evil magician named Mantu, who had stolen it from Horatio. Piper reveals Mantu lives in a castle to the east, and that three obstacles await Peter and Mary: the River of the Gaddywine, where elves have been corrupted into trolls by Mantu; Orlando, The Snow-Dragon of Okabar, and Mantu himself. Dickens reveals that the star at the top of the tree will become their transport, and it enlarges to carry them. At first, the River of the Gaddywine looks like a long piece of ribbon candy, but rapids cast them off, where they are found by the trolls. The King of that land demands to know why they are there, and they reveal their quest. Fearing Mantu, he imprisons them. Fearing they have nowhere to go, they despair until they sight the star-transport by the shore. Overpowering the guards (which they resisted doing until they had sight of the star). Peter exclaims how a close a call it was, while Mary finds adventure less appealing than she once did. Just then, a snowball knocks them and the star out of the sky, confronted by Orlando, the Snow-Dragon, who traps them in a cave, where his breath increases the cold and his claw pokes about for them. Peter remembers he has a Christmas candle and some matches on him, and asks Mary to grab twigs, branches, and holly from the sides of the cave. They work to build a fire to melt Orlando. Wrapping the kindling around his claw, they endeavor to give him a hot foot, which causes him to first yelp in pain, and then evaporate. Reboarding the star, they realize that the greatest danger, Mantu himself, lies ahead.
Indeed, Mantu sights them in his crystal ball, and bids his guards set up a carpet, his own flying transport, along with a magic icicle. Confronting Peter and Mary in the air, he identifies himself and warns them of their impending doom at his hands, after which he launches the magic icicle. Like a homing missile, it pursues its target relentlessly, nearly knocking Peter off the star. Instead, he uses his momentum to launch himself at Mantu, holding him with the candy-cane staff they took from the guards. This forces him to destroy his own icicle as it pursues Peter who holds Mantu in front of him. He steals back the bottle containing the essence, tossing it to Mary who smashes it upon the star, releasing the essence to Mantu's dismay. He wanted the power to do evil, yet after he begins to feel good and the land around them improves and brightens. Bidding Mantu goodbye and Merry Christmas, they find themselves waking up next to Dickens, who says they fell asleep while he told his story. They insist that they had a great Christmas adventure with him in it. They are glad this was in the Christmas past, and think that Christmas with him and his stories is the best Christmas. He counters that "this Christmas" will always be the best Christmas, as long as there is Christmas and children to love it. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is sung while the story comes to an end.
- In the original short story, the adventure is based not on Dickens' own recollections, but on an unnamed older man, although he could be implied to be Dickens. Also, it involved a bit of ghost story in its narrative.
|Billie Mae Richards||Peter|