Close Reads

A Muppet Family Christmas Is the Greatest Holiday Gift of All

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and their guests dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. In this Very Special Holiday Episode, Leah meditates on The True Meaning of Christmas Parties, with a little help from The Muppets.

I used to host a Christmas party every year.

When I was a kid, and imagined the parties I would host in the future, they were classy cocktail shindigs with Vince Guaraldi playing softly in the background while hilarious people drank stylish drinks, traded witticisms, and made sure to remark on the fabulousness of my Manhattan loft.

This has not quite come to pass. My friends are hilarious, and when I allow them to make the cocktails, rest assured, the drinks are classy AF. (My own tastes run more to ridiculous tiki concoctions that are, calorically, akin to drinking a whole cake. I am a monster.) But the parties themselves aren’t the kind where people stand around being funny—they are Media Extravaganzas.

Which is my fancy way of saying I lure my friends into a room to sit on a couch and watch Christmas specials. On the surface this seems pretty basic, right? But what if I told you that this party has often lasted three days? That on several occasions, people brought jammies and slept over so we could start watching again immediately the next morning? That every year, I made what can only be described as a cauldron of wassail? And to my unending delight, as the years went by, my friends-with-kids brought those kids! So the parties would be a joyful mix of nostalgia-drunk 30- and 40-somethings sipping spiked wassail, 20-somethings pre-gaming before they headed out to clubs, and toddlers plunked on the floor watching the Grinch or Rudolph, sometimes for the first time ever. If I was feeling nice, I’d take requests. If I was feeling mean, I’d force everyone to watch Alf’s Special Christmas again. (n.b.: I never did this while actual children were in the room. I may be a monster, but I have some moral compass.) Either Die Hard or Scrooged was usually on the media menu. This party was usually the highlight of my Christmas season.

The last few years have been a bit… different. The last few years I have hosted this party virtually, kind of, via Google doc links to Christmas variety specials and copyright-evading sitcom episodes. People can watch at their leisure and text or gchat me as they go. It doesn’t have quite that same warmth of friends gathered together to laugh themselves hoarse at AD/BC and marvel at Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin’s, um, festive take on “Marshmallow World”, but it’ll do until this timeline rights itself.

But there was one Moment, every year, that can only happen when we’re all together. (No, not this moment, though that one’s good, too.) A moment that has been so consistent and delicate and miraculous that I hesitate even to write about it. A moment that can only come during A Muppet Family Christmas.

For those of you who have not watched this classic late-‘80s Muppet special, well, I envy you, because you one of the lucky people who still gets to watch it for the first time. The plot is a perfect convergence of sitcom Christmas, but better because there are Muppets: a found family, a human forced to play Santa, “the worst blizzard in 50 years that snows everyone in”, worry for a character who might be lost in that snow, flashbacks to previous Christmases—seriously the only thing missing is “pregnant woman goes into labor during the blizzard”, or “Santa is revealed to be real” and then we’d have ‘80s Christmas episode bingo.

Fozzie Bear brings the whole gang home to have Christmas with his Ma at her farmhouse. Trouble is, Ma Bear has booked a trip to Malibu, and rented the house out to a man named Doc and his dog, Sprocket. As the three of them reluctantly accept a crowded Christmas at the farm, wave after wave of Muppets descend until that aforementioned blizzard hits. (Except of course for Miss Piggy—she had a photoshoot booked and Christmas shopping to finish, and no amount of snow was going to stop that icon.) If you like Muppets, this is the special for you. We get all the original Muppet Show Muppets, plus the Sesame Street Gang, and a continuity-destroying flashback to the Muppet Babies, and that’s all before Robin and Kermit discover that Ma Bear’s house is built over a tunnel into Fraggle Rock. And it’s perfect because each iteration of the Muppets gently teases the others, as Robin and Kermit are somewhat mystified by the cosmic socialism of the Fraggles, and Doc is bemused by Bert and Ernie’s “small talk”—their practice of naming the first letter of every word Doc says to them. Rizzo meets Oscar the Grouch! The Swedish Chef’s head almost explodes when he claps eyes on Big Bird! Animal and Cookie Monster respect the shit out of each other! Fozzie forms a terrible comedy duo with a sentient snowman, Sprocket and Rowlf are delighted by Ma Bear’s out-of-tune piano, Muppet after Muppet falls prey to the icy patch just in front of the front door, and everyone sings fun renditions of carols that, in contrast to John Denver’s festive Muppet outings, have been scrubbed clean of specific religious references. It’s a platonic ideal of Christmas, and a platonic ideal of a Muppet special.

Every year we’d watch A Muppet Family Christmas, and everyone would fall silent and laugh in all the right spots. My own personal Christmas miracle, which, like all the best miracles, requires no theological underpinning more significant than a love of the Muppets. We were all there together, and we could see ourselves reflected in the magical felt weirdos on the TV screen. Every year, like clockwork, I’d get so involved in watching the special that I’d forget about The Moment.

[Note: duck out now and watch the special if you want to remain unspoiled for this last bit!]

The camera cuts to Sprocket in the kitchen with a human who is not Doc, but is, in fact, Jim Henson. Jim Henson looks out into the living room and says “They certainly seem to be having a good time out there, Sprocket. (Sprocket woofs his agreement.) Yeah, I like it when they have a good time.” And then Jim Henson sighs and says “I tell you what, somebody’s gotta do something about these dishes, Sprocket. I’ll wash and you dry, OK?”

Every single year my guests’ attention to the show would deepen, and become something more like a hush, as all of us held our breath to watch Jim Henson. The scene would end, I would inevitably hear sniffling around me, we would all politely not look at each other.

And then we’d take a brief break to top off cocoa or order takeout and move on to the next thing. I’d usually push for something silly like “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” or AD/BC to get everyone back into safer emotional waters. But every single year there was that hush. The moment where instead of proof of the existence of Santa, or a demand to engage with the True Meaning of Christmas, we would instead be returned to a pocket of time when Jim Henson could show up in a terrible ‘80s cardigan and clean up after his chaotic creations.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing about it? But given the last few years, and given that my Christmas party will likely take a very different form if we ever come all the way out of this, I thought it might be good to share it with all of you. Off you go—watch out for that icy patch.

Seriously, though, where can Leah Schnelbach get that cardigan? Come sing “It’s in Every One of Us” with them on Twitter!

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