When I was a kid, I never missed a single Christmas special. It was a religion. I had it coordinated with the TV Guide and remote control. Sure, we had videotaped copies of the specials sitting in a box in the basement, but there was something spiritual about watching it live on television. I felt like I was watching it with every other kid in the world, anticipating Santa Claus. He was coming. He was. He was!
Over the last few years, I’ve been spotty in catching the specials on TV. I might have caught the end of Rudolph or flipped past Peanuts. I don’t think Claymation Christmas or Garfield even come on anymore. But this year, I made a point to watch each of the classics, and it put me in some hardcore holiday spirits, too. Watching Peanuts, Frosty, Rudolph, Mickey, Garfield, Grinch and Claymation was a solid dose of mistletoe and eggnog and tinsel that I needed.
We’ve all had the experience of watching shows and movies as adults that we saw as children and realizing that they went way over our heads. This reminds me of the time we went to see Piranha 3D at the movie theater and over half the audience were children. And I realized there were a couple of things I never noticed in the Christmas classics. These are my fifteen.
Let’s dig in.
1. Santa Claus sure is moody and bitchy in these specials.
Santa is always freaking out over whether he’ll be able to pull off Christmas, which is essentially the plot of every Christmas special. Dude flips out, dramatically cancels Christmas, and barely pulls himself together in time. You’d think everyone would get sick of his act, but fortunately there’s no shortage of children and woodland forest creatures willing to help Santa save Christmas.
And when he’s not losing his shit, he’s kind of a dick. For example, in Ruldolph, Santa can barely disguise his disgust when the elves sing “We Are Santa’s Elves.” And I don’t even know how it’s possible to hate baby Rudolph, who is freaking adorable, but Santa is a total jerk the first time he sees that red nose.
Only after Santa has cancelled Christmas for the umpteenth time, does he come crawling back to beg Rudolph to guide his sleigh. All I have to say is, what the fuck, Santa?
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas is Charles Shultz’s overt criticism of commercialism.
Wow, I guess this one was way over my head, because I don’t remember that at all. I do remember Charlie Brown getting laughed at for picking out a dumb tree. I remember Snoopy decorating his doghouse. That Snoopy, what a kidder. And I remember Linus giving that speech that was like three hours long. I don’t remember Charlie Brown agonizing over depression and commercialism.
First, Charlie Brown throws his hands up when Snoopy decorates his doghouse in attempt to win cash. Next, he can’t believe it when even his little sister Sally requests “tens and twenties” from Santa, stating, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” Then Chuck has a conniption fit when the kids try to modernize the play with smooth dance moves and hip music. Everything is becoming commercial. How did I miss this? How did I sit through it? Was I simply drawn to the colorful moving pictures on the screen, just like our dog?
And yet, I do believe that children can understand the feelings behind things, even when they have no idea what’s going on. Any child can understand the beauty and melancholy of Vince Guaraldi’s score. There’s a feeling of truth in that music. It evokes something eternal about Christmas—the memories of childhood, a nostalgia, a knowledge that time is passing, a sadness, a joy, all at once. I didn’t know any of this as kid. But I knew that one day, I would grow up.
3. The Peanuts gang really are like miniature adults. Which I think, in some way, is related to miniature ponies.
Starting with Charlie Brown, this kid is suffering from severe depression, as evidenced in his many monologues. Well, supposedly, he’s talking to Linus, but who knows if he’s listening. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” he says. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” He continues on, “I always end up feeling depressed.” Next, when he’s pissed about not getting a Christmas card from anyone, Charlie passive-aggressively thanks Violet for sending him one. Whoa. Seriously, whoa.
Later in the episode, Lucy diagnoses Chuck with pantaphobia, a fear of everything. Where did these kids get such freakishly large vocabularies? But here’s an interesting side fact: pantaphobia is not the fear of everything. In fact, it’s actually the fear of nothing. Fearlessness. This could be a mistake by Schultz or it could be a hidden joke.
But I say never get psychiatric advice from a miniature pony.
4. I want this.
Perhaps this isn’t actually an “adult” observation, given that I also saw this thing as a kid and also wanted it bad. This mechanical Santa machine is featured in the intro to A Garfield Christmas Special, when Garfield is dreaming of his most perfect Christmas morning, ever. It starts with Jon waking him up with a hot tray of lasagna. In fact, Jon brings several trays, which Garfield eats one by one, leading him down a ricotta-cheesy path toward a big Christmas gift, this Santa machine that produces whatever he thinks of.
Again, I want this. Also, a path of lasagnas.
5. The children didn’t even know Frosty that well.
Okay, so the kids build Frosty, and debate over what to name him. Oatmeal is nixed, but I always thought that would have been a great name. They join hands and merry their way around him. That’s about to be all there is, but then the hack magician loses his hat, which magically lands on the inanimate snowman’s head. Suddenly, Frosty comes to life. “Happy birthday,” he says.
The kids gasp. The hack magician realizes his hat contains magical powers and promptly snatches it back. All of this happens in about fifteen seconds, but the kids freak out, proclaiming their forever love and devotion to Frosty. “You can’t take that hat! It belongs to Frosty,” they scream. They’re about to pull out the pitchforks.
Hell, I guess when I was a kid, I fell in love with things over a lot less. But the thing that’s problematic is the running off with strange snowmen. Karen hops right onto that boxcar with Frosty, and she barely knows him. And she almost pays for it with her life when she nearly freezes to death. Luckily, Frosty finds Santa and all ends well, but I think this special provides a good talking moment for families about snowman abductions.
6. The boring parts aren’t really that boring after all.
First, I used to hate when Clarice sang “There’s Always Tomorrow” to Rudolph. Boring. Girl song. Polka-dotted bows. Yuck. But now I think it’s my favorite part. It’s just so damn pretty. And the rabbits and chipmunks join in on the refrain, bobbing their heads along gently.
Um, HOW DID I NOT LOVE THIS? Oh yeah. Polka-dotted bows.
Then for me, there’s the most famous boring part of all, the Linus speech. I seriously thought Linus’ speech about the true meaning of Christmas on A Charlie Brown Christmas was at least five minutes long. At least. I used to dread when he called for the lights to go down on the stage. Ugh, get back to Snoopy, or even Lucy. Anything but that four hour speech.
But I was shocked to re-watch the special and see Linus’ quote from the Gospel according to Luke only lasts a few seconds.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.”
I’m slightly tempted to go into a mini-rant about how I hate that the right-wing loonies have pounced on this part of the Peanuts special to point out whatever it is they’re trying to point out. Only Glenn Beck could ruin A Charlie Brown Christmas.
But I don’t have any point to make. I simply appreciate the lyrical and poetic quality of those words. Those words might mean absolutely everything or they might mean absolutely nothing, but either way, they were written beautifully.
7. Claymation Christmas is creepy.
The 1960s Rankin/Bass specials are the Christmas canon, but I believe there is a second tier of classics in which the 1987 Claymation Christmas belongs. Will Vinton coined the term Claymation, using clay and stop-motion animation to create many famous characters and sequences, including the California Raisins, the Domino Pizza Noid, and the dancing rabbit in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.
Claymation Christmas has a very distinctive style, but boy is it kind of freaky looking. The shifting gobs of clay create distorted and grotesque faces, singing those traditional Christmas songs with soul twists. The colors are faded and muted throughout, lending to a very dark feel. Claymation Christmas is creepy. It always was. But now it’s also noticeably dated with a weird, old 1980s vibe. And that’s awesome.
For me, Christmas was always about weird, old things with strange vibes. The things my grandmother pulled out of the attic were full of weirdness: impish elf figures and strings of plastic plums and a bird ornament that chirped. And chirped. And chirped. These items felt like they came from a black and white world, taken out of that old box and suddenly dipped in the Technicolor hues of the 1980s. And now Claymation Christmas feels the same way, warm and fuzzy and muted, now dipped in a world of high definition.
8. There are a lot of characters we never noticed were gay.
And by gay, I mean fabulous. Sure, Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, is a parable for all outsiders, but he’s also fierce with that perfectly-coiffed blonde hair. He confidently declares himself a misfit, which you’ve got to admire. Hell, it’s rock and roll. He’s the one that first shows Rudolph it’s okay to be out and proud, singing “we may be different from the rest, [but] who decides the test of what is really best?” While the other elves are dim sheep, Hermey is bad ass. You go, girl.
Then there’s Herb, who plays the comic foil to the straight Rex in Claymation Christmas as part of the Jurassic Odd Couple. With the over the top hand gestures and drama in his voice, I have to think the animators were having a bit of fun with Herb queening it up. Herb is a welcome contrast to stuffy, dull Rex. He’s also a bit of lush, indulging in food and drink throughout the show. In fact, Herb is pretty much a hot mess, but that’s why we love him.
9. Forget Bumble in Rudolph. That guy wasn’t scary at all. Disney knew how to give us nightmares.
It’s actually kind of funny how the name Disney has become a word to describe something vanilla, saccharine, or safe. Actually, from what I recall, Disney movies had some of the most fucked up scary scenes I can remember. I’m thinking of the Sleeping Beauty dragon, the Snow White poisoning, and definitely Pink Elephants on Parade in Dumbo. Jesus.
But nothing was scarier than when Scrooge McDuck gets visited by the third Christmas spirit, and gets tossed into own freshly dug grave, where the fiery depths of hell wait for him below. That’s enough to scare Scrooge straight into loving Christmas, and it’s enough to make me cry myself to sleep at night. Bumble, the abominable snowman, might as well have been a giant puppy.
10. What’s the deal with these hosts?
Why are they here? That snowman talks forever. He’s like an old man that just keeps going on and on telling the same story we’ve heard a million times. And that guy in Frosty. Who the hell is he? Where did he come from? The more I think about it, the more I think Frosty is filled with creeps. The magician, this guy, even Frosty himself. No one is really trustworthy, except for Santa.
11. Somebody needs to do this.
Clark Griswold has nothing on Jon Arbuckle. Nothing. Look, Jon has got to be one of the most depressing characters ever created. His favorite things are decaffeinated coffee, chocolate-chip cookies, and unleaded gasoline. According to one episode of Garfield and Friends, some of his “fun” ways to cure boredom are buying new socks, clipping his toenails, or playing “Guess the Burp” with Garfield. Not to mention Garfield, the only thing he has to talk to.
But when it comes to decorating his house, Jon is obviously a beast. Look at it. Just look at it. It’s beautiful. There are no less than three blinking neon signs, a candy cane lane, a scrolling marquee that says Merry Christmas, a ginormous tree fully lit, and a freaking rollercoaster on the roof with Santa and his reindeer.
Jon, dude, I aspire to your greatness.
12. The misfit toys rule.
‘Nuff said. They just do.
13. I hate this part.
For starters, Fireball is an asshole. He’s totally Rudolph’s BFF, until he sees his red nose, and then he loses his shit. Literally. His eyes get all stupid and he can’t see straight. I hate it. He looks so dumb.
14. I still think of Tim Curry in Home Alone 2 when I see this.
This observation may mean absolutely nothing to those of you over thirty. Let’s get one thing straight—the original Home Alone is a true Christmas classic. Great movie. The sequel, Home Alone 2, is not perfect, but it’s actually decent. What’s best about it is that they didn’t mess with the formula. It’s basically the same movie, set in New York. It’s also one of those rare sequels where the entire cast came back, and they didn’t try to pull one over on us like having a different actress play the Mom and hoping no one would notice.
Anyway, I’ve watched Home Alone 2 about as many times as the original, and I can’t help but think of the scene where Tim Curry smiling is superimposed next the the Grinch smiling. I can’t get it out of my head every time I see the Grinch. It’s weird.
15. Nothing will ever beat the classics.
I almost think of the 1960s specials as something my mother handed down to me. Those Rankin/Bass specials, The Grinch, and Peanuts are classics that will stand the test of time. Likewise, the second tier of 1980s classics—Garfield, Claymation, and Mickey are the ones I will hand down to my own kids. Other Christmas specials will come and go. I’m looking at you, Shrek and Madagascar specials that came on this year.
But nothing will beat the classics—and I haven’t seen anything that could even stand up next to them yet. In some ways, it’s because of the hours of work that went into these old specials. Each cell was hand drawn; each piece of clay moved ever so slightly. Today, cartoons can be crapped out on a computer on a lunch break.
And now I’ve clocked in another year of Christmas specials. It is religion, again. Until next year. For now, we must wait. Because Santa is coming. He is. He is!