Favorite Fictional Characters, #353: The Fifth Day of Christmas: Winter Warlock
Of all the classic Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday specials, my undisputed favorite is 1970's Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. I'm a sucker for a good origin story, and this one delivers. As Fred Astaire's natty mailman tells us up front, all of our questions about Santa are answered in this folklore-drenched biopic. The red suit, the beard, the stockings, the chimney, the flying reindeer, it's all there, complete with Mickey Rooney and disturbingly changeable pupils. But it's the non-canonical components that are my favorite parts: the relentlessly humbug Burgermeister Meisterburger (who was a contender for this list in his own right), the Teutonic underling Grimsley, the ginger hot-for-teacher Jessica, who discovered Christmas cookies and promptly became the plump Mrs. Claus. But of all the secondary characters, the one who makes this show for me has always been the Winter Warlock.
Initially a fearsome and mysterious villain, the Warlock is framed as an icy wizard of magical prowess and touchy temperament. His mountain loomed astride the trade route from the Kringle sweatshop and the child-dense hamlet of Sombertown, and to begin his career as the subversive toy guy, our hero had to brave the frozen passes of power. Of course, Kris wins over the evil Warlock with the offer of a choo-choo train, and we are treated to one of the truly wonderful scenes in all the child holiday oeuvre, as Winter decides he's had enough of being the bad guy and decides to enlist among the forces of light. The "One Foot in Front of the Other" song may appear to be silly standard fare, but there's a layer of deep wisdom in the lyrics. At one point Kris acknowledges that while journeys of personal growth can be daunting, the key is to get started:
"If you want to change your direction
If your time of life is at hand
Well don’t be the rule be the exception
A good way to start is to stand"
And Winter, bless his melting heart, suddenly realizes his true power isn't in frosty winds or chill terror, but in his own inalienable agency:
"If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
You mean that it's just my election
To vote for a chance to be reborn"
In the midst of all the prancing deer and misplaced penguins and juvenile flippancy, there's a priceless lesson. You don't have to be the bad guy. You can be whatever you want. It's entirely up to you. So the Warlock lends his slowly eroding powers to the emerging Claus enterprise, contributing to the enchantment of the big guy's reindeer and morphing into a sort of McGandalf eminence grise to the North Pole set. But he's got one last scene that secures his prominence in my pantheon of favorites, a moment that never fails to bring a little dust into the room for me. When Mr. and Mrs. Claus become Mr. and Mrs. Claus, the Winter Warlock prays quietly that just a little of his magic remains, just enough to honor his friends in their moment of joy.
As we age, and the endless reservoir of magic of our own youth recedes, my fervent hope is that when the time comes, there will be just a little magic left. The secret, I think, is that he called on that last shred of power on behalf of others and not for himself. In so doing, in making that act of selfless sacrifice, he reignited his powers. There's a magic in giving, a magic in putting others first. That's what it really means to choose good over evil, to choose service over greed. That's why the Winter Warlock will always be one of my favorite characters, Christmas or otherwise.