Dec 15 2011 4:00pm

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas: A Henson Classic

Jim Henson’s work has been an important part of my life, from Sesame Street to the Fraggles and beyond. It’s no surprise, then, that he also created my favorite holiday movie of all time — Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.

The movie was released as a television special in 1977 based on an illustrated children’s book by Russell and Lilian Hoban (the same Russell Hoban who wrote the postapocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker and who recently passed away).

Though introduced by Kermit the Frog in the original version (rights issues prevented Kermit from appearing in later years) the movie, unlike later adaptations, doesn’t include any of the traditional Muppets. Instead a whole cast of new characters was created for the film.

The story centers on the titular Emmet Otter and his mother, Alice. They live in near-poverty after the death of Emmet’s father, with both Emmet and Alice taking on odd jobs and bartering to make ends meet. But they are happy, for the most part.

Christmas is approaching and neither of them have the ability to buy a gift for the other. But then they catch wind of a talent competition, with a grand prize of $50 (this was 1977, remember), they both get the idea to enter for a chance at the prize money.

What follows takes inspiration from the story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Alice is a singer, but in order to make a decent dress for the show, she has to hock the tool chest that Emmet uses to do odd jobs. Emmet bands with some friends to form a jugband, but he is forced to put a hole in his mother’s washtub in order to make a washtub bass.

They perform at the competition, and, well, it doesn’t necessarily end up the way you’d expect. I would give it a watch if you haven’t seen it already. It’s currently available on DVD and on Netflix Instant Watch.

The music in the film is excellent, written by Paul Williams who later went on to do the music for the first Muppet Movie. Highlights include “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” “Brothers,” and “When the River Meets the Sea.”

Here’s Emmet and the Jugband doing “Barbecue”:

I will admit that despite my love for the film, there is one element that gives me pause. I’m all for small-town values and folk music, but there’s a seemingly anti-rock bias that permeates the movie. True, the Riverbottom Nightmare Band (the hard rockers) are hooligans, but there’s often a conflation between their personalities and the music they play.

Still, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas is charming and endearing and will likely make you smile. I highly recommend it.

Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger whose soul is partly made from felt. His website is

Eli Bishop
1. EliBishop
"Anti-rock bias"? I don't see it. The Riverbottom gang aren't jerks because they play loud music; it's more that the way they approach being a band shows ther jerky qualities, like (a) they like to strike badass poses and sing about how awesome they are and (b) they like having a lot of expensive equipment that no one else can afford. So of course they're not going to have an old-timey band. Their theme song is very fun though, one of the catchier tunes in the show.
Ursula L
2. Ursula
One thing that I struggle with in this story is that it doesn't just take inspiration from "Gift of the Magi." It perverts it.

In "Gift of the Magi", each person gave up something they loved in order to give their beloved something special. Each gift is rendered useless by the other's sacrifice, but both gift and sacrifice are special.

In this story, mother and son each steal the other's ability to make a living, in order to try and win the prize money. It's not self-sacrifice, but taking something vital from the person you say you love in order to be able to give them something they don't really need.
3. BenMech
But Ursala . .That's life . . but more in 2011 than in 1977 I would think (I was born in the summer of 78, so I wouldn't know). Henson and company were well aware of the alterations. O Henry told the tale as he thinks it SHOULD be . . in a fantasy setting. Henson uses fantasy characters to tell you how reality is.
Eli Bishop
4. EliBishop
Yeah, it's kind of weird to say Hoban "perverts" the O. Henry story by telling a different story in which the characters do something inadvisable. Making potentially disastrous mistakes, but being somewhat rescued from the consequences in the end, is a staple of children's literature-- you get to have the "oh no!" moment, and to recognize why that's a bad idea, but still laugh about it (that is, they don't end up starving to death, they succeed in a way even though their plans were misguided). If that bothers you, I hate to think what you made of the Frances books.
Ursula L
5. Ursula
I'm bugged by it mostly because I know too many people who read Jug Band as being the same message as Gift - how much the two people love each other and are willing to sacrifice for the other's happiness.

Bad early experiences, I suppose. I had friends and teachers tell me I was wrong to criticize the Otter's choices, and the point was self-sacrifice for love. I was born in '72, so figuring this story out was something that happened for me over several years, and was part of my moral development. I was probably pretty much the target audience for the Christmas special.

I didn't need to be told I was wrong and too cynical for my age because I reasoned that if they loved each other, they should have considered the consequences of getting rid of the other's tools of survival, and that they should have given up something of their own if they wanted to buy a gift, rather than taking something from the other.

It's perverse because it is a pervesion of love, and the way that you care for someone you love. I also only read the O'Henry story after I knew the Christmas special. So my understanding of the story was that the O'Henry story actually told the story of love and gifts that Jug Band was trying to tell.
Eli Bishop
6. EliBishop
Ursula: Wow, yeah, I can see how that would be bothersome. But I think what you saw in the story was there on purpose, and your friends and teachers got it wrong, or at least way oversimplified it. I mean, it's still true in a way that Emmet and his mom are acting out of love-- they both think it'd be great for everyone if they won the contest, but also, each is aware that the other has a really crappy and annoying job, so on a childish level they might think that sabotaging that job is helpful. Hoban doesn't spell out "BUT THIS IS A BAD IDEA", but I think he trusted kids to get that it was a bad idea, as you did. The same goes for the Frances books and just about everything else he wrote for kids.

(Actually I think you, or your teachers, oversimplified the O. Henry story a little too. It's not just about people who are pure and unselfish; it's about people who make incorrect assumptions about what the other one wants, based on the idea that you have to buy someone a nice present and it has to be a surprise, and the result is that their unselfish gestures totally fail. It ends up being OK because they have a sense of humor and they love each other; that doesn't mean they didn't screw up.)
Paul Eisenberg
7. HelmHammerhand
Regardless of the philosophical stuff, there was some great music in this special, some that stuck with me in those lean years between the early 1980s when it was on TV annually and the late 1990s, when I finally found a copy on VHS.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
Yeah, it is a bit of an oversimplification. The couple in "Gift" could have communicated better in real life, and would have had more of an idea of what the other really wanted and needed. If you're genuinely poor, it isn't difficult to come up with a long list of gifts that would be much appriciated.

My thoughts were more that "Gift" was a story that did what people were telling me that "Jug Band" was doing.

My guess is that my teachers were familiar with "Gift" before "Jug Band" was made, and were focused on the parallels, while I was seeing it without knowing "Gift" first, and without reading in the similarities.
Jenny Thrash
9. Sihaya
@Ursula: "It's not self-sacrifice, but taking something vital from the person you say you love in order to be able to give them something they don't really need."

I dunno, Ursula, fifty follars would have been a mess of groceries and replace the tools with new ones. Both things were very much needed.

I did have your original reaction to Emmett Otter's story when I saw it. But now I'm really thinking about it. What if we're mistaking what's being taken here? To us, Emmett and his mom are each taking away the other's ability to make a living. Perhaps to Emmett and his mom, they each are doubling their own burden to make a living if the scheme fails (and that assumes that they are in demand that much). If Emmet can't do contract work because his mom traded his tools, then she will have to do twice as much washing until they can get replacements. Conversely, if Emmett's mom can't work, then Emmet will have to do twice as much work until he can mend the tub. If Emmett's mom had traded her washtub, instead, she would be risking the possibility that Emmett would have to be the family breadwinner for at least a while. Emmett and his mom have reached the point where just about the only commodity they have left is their time.
10. Charlie Sez
I didn't see the original broadcast, but I've always liked Jim Henson's Muppets.


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