A Muppet Family Christmas: Why You Haven’t Seen the Most Important Holiday Special Ever Made
The Muppets, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock and Sesame Street came home for the holidays in 1987, and it was gloriousTV Features The Muppets
The Muppets were already the unofficial patron saints of Christmas before they released a litany of holiday specials, starting with Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas in ’77 and more officially with John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together two years later. The variety show icons remain, at their purest, a family of co-dependent anarchists. Jim Henson’s world offered a parallel reality where archetypes like the conservative, patriotic Sam Eagle could thrive alongside a filthy long-hair jam band called Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s where a pig and a frog could conceive of romance, where chaos reigns and nobody—not even type-A constructivists like Kermit or backstage manager Scooter—fights the cacophony. The show remains a manifesto against class stratification, a rallying cry against the most basic semblance of organization. And because of this anti-modus operandi, the Muppets can work with almost anyone, and they have. The Muppet Show combined the different tonal palettes of guest stars ranging from Julie Andrews to Vincent Price and the classic Star Wars cast into delicious entertainment during its five-season run.
But the beauty of The Muppets is how little conflict exists within this perpetual shit show. These innocent, felt souls could never conceive of a perspective besides harmony. They are family distilled—and that innate joy and empathy lie at the very heart of the holiday season, no matter what religion comes associated with it. But the best Christmas special in Henson’s holiday repertoire, and we’re here to argue of all time, took that core concept of unbridled empathy and upped the exponent by four. A Muppet Family Christmas not only starred the titular caravan, but also combined The Muppet Babies (a cartoon that ran from 1984 to 1991 featuring baby versions of the Muppets), Fraggle Rock (another puppet serial about a commune of underground-dwelling creatures that ran from 1984 to 1987) and the denizens of Sesame Street, who shouldn’t need an explanatory clause. Written by Henson veteran Jerry Juhl and directed by Pete Harris and Eric Till, the hour-long special debuted on December 16, 1987 on ABC. And it is perfect.
The plot witnesses hapless jokester Fozzie surprising him Mom, Emily Bear, at her idyllic farm house. Unbeknownst to Fozzie, Emily has a flight booked to Malibu, set to take off three hours before he and a rusted pick-up truck full of Muppets ruin her plans. Doc and Sprocket—the human actor played by Gerard Parkes and his puppet dog from Fraggle Rock—rent the house for the holiday, their plans for a quiet respite destroyed, much to their chagrin. This is the only moment the show teeters on drama that can best be described as psychologist Erik Erikon’s “intimacy vs. isolation” stage (with more fabric). The special’s remaining 40 minutes introduce a new “family” at 15-minute intervals, the Muppet Babies portrayed in puppet-form in an old projector film dug up for nostalgia’s sake.
And speaking of: This show is nostalgia crack. On premise alone, watching these childhood fantasy gods interact will release a torrent of yesteryear dopamine that makes Stranger Things look like a Belgian infomercial. This is a rare opportunity to watch Swedish Chef hug it out with Big Bird; hear the Fraggle gang jam with Kermit and his nephew, Robin; and witness Grover, Burt and Ernie perform “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” together. But A Muppet Family Christmas isn’t just a clever remix; it’s a grand culmination of the altruism that stands at the foundation of Henson’s oeuvre.
Other Christmas staples, including Elf, Christmas Vacation and Arthur Christmas, first posit family as friction. The different—the elderly, the cold rich corporates, the white trash cousins, etc.— ruin the bliss of a contained nuclear family. Only after tears and Santa visits do the protagonists realize that relatives are precious despite their differences. The Muppets don’t even bother with that query; as described before, family is precious because of its differences, and the more family, the better. Any conflict that arises immediately abates as these characters empathize and accommodate. As Robin explains to the Fraggles, “You don’t have Christmas? That’s when you gather together with the people you love, and you wish each other peace on earth.” Big Bird gives chocolate-covered birdseed to Swedish Chef as he’s preparing to cook him for Christmas dinner. Overcome with guilt, the unintelligible cook opts to serve cranberry and shredded wheat. Doc, who had dreaded the cascade of weirdos ruining his getaway, volunteers to look for Miss Piggy as a blizzard consumes the sound stage. “We never met any of you a little while ago, and now we’re friends,” he says. “Sprocket and I were going to spend Christmas alone, but this is better.” The special answers the question why the Muppets were so qualified to teach Scrooge the beauty of caring six years later in A Muppet Christmas Carol, which is also excellent yuletide fuel. Yes, A Muppet Family Christmas is a kids’ show with puppets, but it’s filled with Christ-like acts of benevolence that are shockingly absent from most holiday fare.
But this gem of benevolence isn’t ubiquitous. It’s a memory instead of a tradition, and that’s not a coincidence. The 47-minute runtime offers 21 different songs, and all those songs were licensed specifically for TV. Five songs, however, never passed the American and Canadian legal hurdles to VHS or DVD, and the special has yet to grace Blu-ray or streaming services. Those five omitted tunes include Fozzie and a Snowman singing “Sleigh Ride,” the near-entire Muppet Baby segment featuring “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Miss Piggy and the Muppets performing “Home for the Holidays,” Kermit and Piggy dueting on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Statler and Waldorf croaking out “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Excising a fourth of the tracks takes out a hefty amount of the narrative, especially the carols in question. Missing the two armchair curmudgeons sing about bells is forgivable, but other songs prove integral to the story—“Sleigh Ride” introduces Fozzie’s new comedy BFF snowman and the Muppet Babies’ omission removes an entire family from a special that promises multiple Muppet clans.
The ensuing edit still works, and can be found on VHS releases in 1994 and 1998, as well as a DVD from 2001. The European version didn’t suffer those song exclusions, but is very, very hard to find—the U.S. versions start at $50 on Amazon. The special’s future isn’t much more promising; Disney bought The Muppets in 2004, but The Jim Henson Company still owns Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. We’re not holding our breath for the two companies to collaborate on a new, full cut of an old television special—but it would be a Christmas miracle if they did. And though they’re extra-legal, complete, quality versions of A Muppet Family Christmas can be found online with marginal hassle.
Sean Edgar is a passionate Muppet lover. Everyone who’s read to this point should click on this link. Mahna mahna.