I will be the first to admit that when it comes to almost all Christmas media, you might as well call me Scroogey McGrincherson. I loathe almost all of it. I can think of maybe 5 Christmas songs that don’t make me want to shove an electric drill into my ear, just to stop the screaming. Quality “Christmas Specials” are fewer and farther between. I can tolerate some of the old stop-motion specials. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is decent enough. I’ve been known to enjoy the movie “A Christmas Story”, and I’ll acknowledge the existence of some absolutely amazing Christmas episodes of NBC’s Community. Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy is also fantastic. But there is one golden egg, one diamond in the rough, one sparkling jewel of Christmas joy amongst the media-stocking that is otherwise full of Christmas Coal. That piece of greatness is “A Muppet Family Christmas”.
A Muppet Family Christmas is the 1987 ABC Christmas Special that unites all brands of Jim Henson’s Muppets for the holidays. Muppets from The Muppet Show and movies, Sesame Street‘s Muppets, and the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock all meet up at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house. Along the way, Fozzie makes himself a snowman that turns out to be an excellent stage partner. The Christmas Turkey convinces the Swedish Chef to prepare Sprocket the Dog, and later Big Bird, for Christmas Dinner. Rolf & Sprocket exchange a doggy greeting. Doc, Bert & Ernie engage in some Sesame Street-style small talk. Robin discovers a Fraggle hole, Miss Piggy overbooks her Christmas Eve plans and ends up trapped in a snowstorm, icy patches go unwatched and everyone sings dozens of Christmas songs.
The story is pretty basic, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Fozzie has invited almost every Muppet, and their friends, to stay with him at his mother’s place for Christmas. He neglects to tell his mother this, thinking she’ll enjoy the surprise. In fact, she’s decided to rent out her home to Fraggle Rock‘s Doc and his dog Sprocket, who were looking to spend a “nice, quiet Christmas alone”. When Fozzie and company start showing up, it becomes clear that neither Ma, nor Doc, with be getting anything close to what they bargained for this Christmas. Of course, in the end everyone has met everyone else, discovered that being together as a family is the true meaning of Christmas, and they sing of peace and harmony and good will towards men.
Not only is this my favourite Christmas special, it’s arguably my favourite piece of Muppet-related media. I’ve watched this multiple times–almost every year–for at least 15 years. Probably 20. There’s a running gag in the show where as characters arrive they slip on an icy patch in Ma Bear’s doorway. After they’ve fallen someone suggests they “Watch out for the icy patch.” I still laugh at more than half of the falls. I can’t think of anything that I still find as funny as this special, other than the classic Looney Tunes shorts, after so many viewings. Sure, it gets sappy, but with this many Muppets interacting together for the first time, it’s like a Marvel/DC crossover, except it’s actually good. Perhaps a better comparison would be ketchup and french fries… No wait. Beer and Pretzels… A Reese Peanut Butter Cup. Anyway, they’re two great things going great together. Insert a comparison that fits your own tastes.
The sad and frustrating thing about this particular special, is that it seems to be kind of Holy Grail for Muppet and/or Christmas Special fans in North America. You see, when the rights for the music used in this special were secured, they were only secured for broadcast on television. Certain songs and pieces of background music were either too expensive, or otherwise too difficult, to reobtain for future broadcasts or video releases in North America. Because of this, Fozzie doesn’t sing and dance with a snowman. Miss Piggy never finds the icy patch, the Muppet Babies don’t sing Santa Claus is coming to town. These edits along with others were made after the 1989 re-airing on NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney.
Adding to this crazy distribution rights nightmare is that now the Sesame Street gang and the Muppet Show gang are now wholly owned by two separate companies, Sesame Workshop and Disney. The Fraggles remain owned by The Jim Henson Company. The Canadian Broadcasting Company must have done a better job securing its broadcasting rights, because CBC has been able to air the special since the 2004 sale of the Muppets to Disney & Sesame Workshop. Things may have changed on that front, however, because they didn’t seem to air it this year. Also the DVD (and VHS, obviously) of this special is out of print, with slim-to-no chance of a re-offering any time soon. What this means is that unless you’re able to both use and obtain a European PAL copy of the existing VHS or DVDs, you’re not going to be watching several key entertaining pieces. If you can’t find an existing North American release, or that particular VHS you taped it on 25 years ago, you’re probably not going to be (legally) watching it at all.
The good news is even if all you can find is an old VHS editted copy this special is still absolutely fantastic. Sure, there are some good jokes, songs, and classic moments editted out, but the stuff that’s left is still solid gold. I’ve watched both recently, and even the editted version of this special is still, for me anyway, miles ahead of any other Christmas movie/special/video/classic out there.
My favourite moment of the entire special comes at the end. With just about as many different Muppets as you can cram into 640 x 480 pixels singing away about Christmas and Doc dressed as Santa Claus handing out presents, we cut away and see Jim Henson standing in a doorway, with Sprocket the Dog.
Afterwards he and Sprocket start into the Christmas dishes. I can’t quite put my finger on why I love this little cameo so much. I think it has something to do with Jim being like a father to all these characters, and how proud he looks and sounds. It just wraps up everything this special tries to convey and sums up everything I feel about the good, happy squishy feelings Christmas eventually brings around in me. Once I get far and away from any retail-related burdens I might have to endure, that is.
Another part of why this scene is so special has to do with the fact that, at least as far as Muppet Christmases go, this was Jim’s last. The next time the Muppets visit the subject of Christmas is in “The Muppet Christmas Carol” which was the first film to feature Steve Whitmire taking the reigns of Jim’s characters.
Anyway, this is my little family’s Christmas Special to end all Christmas Specials with. Watch it and enjoy… if you can find it.