On it's surface, the 1970 Christmas classic Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is a origin story for the titicular jolly elf. Like the other Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated holiday classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy) of the era, Santa Claus uses a popular mid-century Christmas song as a jumping-off point for a kid-friendly story about Chirstmas cheer, magical animals, and overcoming adversity.
But Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town is also a parable about prohibition, black markets, and the awful consequences of arbitrary laws enforced by nanny states. It casts Santa Claus as a heroic individualist who disdains nonsensical regulations, operates by his own moral code, and ultimately chooses to exit a society that views him as a threat to its enforced order.
It is, in short, the most libertarian holiday special ever made.
For those who haven't seen it in a while, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town opens (after a brief scene introducing the Fred Astaire–voiced postman who narrates for the story, which is told in flashback) in the vaguely Bavarian hamlet of Sombertown. The town is governed by the portly, short-tempered Burgermeister Meisterburger. After tripping over a child's toy and tumbling down the steps in front of City Hall, Meisterburger issues a strict edict banning all toys. "Either they are going or I am going," he declares, "and I am certainly not going." Chuck Schumer would be a fan.
The official statement sounds all too familiar in an age of moral panics and tough-on-crime policies: "Toys are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful, and anyone found with a toy in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown into the dungeon. No kidding!" Almost immediately, agents of the state swarm into the streets and begin confiscating toys.
The boy who will grow up to become Santa Claus starts out as an orphaned baby abandoned in the mountains outside of Sombertown. He is rescued by a family of toymaking elves, the Kringles, who name the boy Chris. The elves are too small to make the perilous journey across the mountains to the village, and so they have no way to deliver their meticulously crafted gifts to the boys and girls who live there. Once he's older, Chris volunteers to take a sack of toys to the town.
Kringle (and his penguin sidekick, Topper) arrive to a particularly somber Sombertown. When he opens his sack of toys in the town square, the kids are thrilled—until an uptight schoolteacher named Jessica interrupts the fun by reminding the kids that "toys are against the law!"
"Gee, that's kind of a silly law," says Kringle. He immediately disobeys it (and wins Jessica over) by giving her a doll.
The Burgermeister spots kids playing with the new toys and is infuriated. When he orders the arrest of some of the children, Kringle intervenes and offers the Burgermeister a yo-yo. It immediately improves the mayor's sour mood, until his top law enforcement officer reminds him that he's breaking his own law—but the distraction gives Kringle an opportunity to escape arrest.
After getting back home, Kringle launches a guerrilla campaign to smuggle toys into Sombertown. He adopts the conventions that we now associate with Santa Claus—arriving under cover of darkness, entering homes through unconventional means, hiding toys in stockings hung by the fire to dry overnight—as a way to supply Sombertown's demand for toys while avoiding law enforcement.
Santa Claus, the movie tells us, is essentially a heroic bootlegger.
Predictably, a crackdown comes. Unable to stop the flow of toys into the town, the Burgermeister's soldiers adopt more aggressive tactics. They burst into homes unannounced, seize private property, and subject violators to clearly excessive punishments. "If you find so much as one marble or half a jack, the entire house is under arrest," the Burgermeister bellows before a half-dozen armed agents carry out one such pre-dawn raid.
All of which strikes a little too close to home in an age when American citizens can be sentenced to life in prison for carrying half an ounce of marijuana. If the Burgermeister had known about asset forfeiture laws, the poor residents of Sombertown may have ended up homeless.
The story's climax comes when the Burgermeister manages to snare Chris—and the rest of the Kringle family, who are charged with being accomplices to his lawbreaking. They're tossed in the dungeon and a bonfire is held to destroy the remaining illegal toys. But Jessica recognizes the moral failure of the Bergermeister's prohibitionist policies and busts the family out of prison. With the help of some reindeer and magical corn, they make a flying escape from Sombertown.
Meanwhile, Chris grows a beard as a disguise, renames himself Santa Claus, and proposes to Jessica. Their marriage again reinforces the libertarian message of the movie. "No town would have them," so they are wedded in a simple woodland ceremony that doesn't require any pesky government-issued license.
Then they go full Galt, moving to a secret location near the North Pole to resume their toy-making activities—bestowing the fruits of their labors on those children who live by a moral code that's based on natural law rather than any rules sanctioned by a state.
Eventually, we're told, the Meisterburgers died off and were replaced. "By and by," Astaire says, "the good people realized how silly their laws were."
It's an unconventional happy ending, but one that resonates with fans of freedom. The oppressive government loses, and the revolutionary outsider wins public acclaim for violating unjust laws. And parents get a convenient way to keep their kids in line.