Tune in Tonight: "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey"
The thing about Christmas specials is that you can essentially make the same special over and over, and no one will either notice or care, as long as it makes them feel warm and fuzzy. There are exactly two basic Christmas special plots: someone either saves Christmas, or discovers the meaning of Christmas, often overcoming some sort of personal adversity along the way. The platonic ideals are, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and, except for precious few outliers, every holiday special has tried to recapture that same magic ever since, usually falling short. Some were particularly egregious in their “homages,” but none so much as 1977’s Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. One of the last Rankin-Bass stop motion animation specials, it’s a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, only depressing and religious.
Roger “King of the Road” Miller narrates in character as a donkey cheerfully working as slave labor at the North Pole. He tells the story of his ancestor, Nestor, who had a pivotal role in the First Christmas. Nestor lives on a farm somewhere in Europe, relentlessly mocked by his fellow animals and mistreated by his human owner because of his unnaturally long ears, which cause him to constantly trip and fall. Even the lowly mice tease what’s basically the equivalent of a deformed child, but at least he finds comfort with his mother.
When Roman soldiers show up to buy livestock, they’re so outraged by Nestor’s appearance that they steal the other donkeys, leaving him behind. Nestor’s owner blames him for this, and after grabbing him by the neck and throwing him across the barn in this delightful children’s special, forces him out into a blizzard. Nestor’s mother escapes, however, and they journey together to discover the meaning of Christmas and—
Oh wait, sorry, I mean that poor Nestor, who seems to have been born to suffer, is traumatized once more. “The good lord works in mysterious ways,” the folksy narrator says, as Nestor weeps over the snow-covered corpse of his mother, who froze to death while trying to keep him safe. On his own, he wanders aimlessly through the countryside, until he eventually encounters a cherub named Tilly (voiced by Brenda Vaccaro), who tells him that his ears will eventually help protect someone, as his mother protected him, and that he needs to travel to Bethlehem. “I don’t want to go that far away,” Nestor says, even though he’s so far known nothing in life but loneliness and hatred. “He wants you to,” Tilly says, as a flashlight beam appears on Nestor’s head, and, well, that’s good enough for him.
Nestor and Tilly make the journey to Bethlehem mostly on foot, while every creature they encounter points and laughs at Nestor’s ears. As Nestor weeps for at least the third time in ten minutes, Roger Miller sings “Don’t Laugh and Make Somebody Cry,” advice which absolutely no one in this special takes. They make it to the outskirts of Bethlehem, using Nestor’s ears as boat sails at one point, and then Tilly just leaves him there and tells him to wait. Nestor finds shelter in a stable, where we’re treated to a third musical montage of other animals teasing and snubbing him, while humans look at him in disgust. Let me clarify that fully two-thirds of this warm-hearted holiday classic is devoted to Nestor being harassed about how he looks. To put it in perspective, that would be like if more than an hour of A Christmas Story focused on Scut Farkas terrorizing Ralphie.
With less than eight minutes to go, we finally get to the “Christmas” part of the story, when a suspiciously Caucasian looking Mary and Joseph come to the stable and choose Nestor to guide them for the rest of their journey to Bethlehem. The stable owner, who straight up has a dick and balls for a nose, attempts to rip them off, but is overtaken with good spirit and lets them have Nestor for free. A sandstorm picks up, and just as Nestor seems ready to give up, he sees the ghost of his mother, who encourages him to “listen to the voices” and bring Mary to safety.
Nestor, after crying yet again, wraps his ears around Mary to protect her from the elements, and makes the rest of the trip. It’s his idea for them to find shelter in a manger, and well, you can probably guess how the rest of the story goes from there, though you probably won’t guess that, after ensuring that the Christ Child is born in a safe place, Nestor returns to his old stable. You know, the place where he was turned out into a blizzard to starve to death, but hey, he’s a hero now, and all that trauma has been forgiven and forgotten. Merry Christmas!
I don’t know about you, but I generally prefer my holiday specials to have a minimum of animal abuse, let alone messages about how we can never know our true purpose in life without a whole lot of suffering first. Tilly is an angel, so why she can’t simply zotz Nestor to Bethlehem is unknown. The implication is that being forced to make the arduous trip by walking most of the way, while encountering more harassment about his frigging ears, is what God wants for Nestor, for reasons that never go explained, and, frankly, seem a little cruel. He’s not even really rewarded for his trouble; indeed, he simply goes back to where he came from, a place where he knew nothing positive except for his now deceased mother’s love. But hey, two thousand years later one of Santa’s elves finally got around to carving a figure of him to put in the North Pole nativity scene, so I guess that makes it all worthwhile. Happy holidays, kids, and remember: life is suffering, and your sacrifices might not be acknowledged until long after you’re dead.
Original airdate: December 3, 1977