I have come to the conclusion that there are two time-frames when concerning the Muppets. Pre-Jim Henson’s Death and Post-Jim Henson’s Death. Sadly, the latter has not been as rewarding and fruitful in the world of the Muppets since Mr. Henson’s passing. Who or what is to blame? That is a debate for another day.

With a brand new Muppet film in theaters, the exposure generated hopefully will bring a new generation of fans to one of the greatest franchises of all time. But it seems the people behind the Muppets are sleeping on quite a bit of material that they could be capitalizing on in this holiday season, material that this author feels far surpasses anything that has been put out after Mr. Henson’s death in 1990. This multi-part series brought to you by The Podwits, will hopefully shed some light on what 95% of the world is currently losing out on- the American treasures that are the many Muppet Christmas specials.

The first to be discussed is A Muppet Family Christmas, from 1987, a one hour television special which was only aired 3 times, and only once in it’s original cut.

In my opinion, this is probably the best work Mr. Henson had done since The Muppet Movie, from 1979.

The TV special begins with the entire Muppet clan en-route to Fozzie’s mother’s farmhouse, to surprise her and spend Christmas up in the country. Little do they know, Mrs. Bear has already rented her home to Fraggle Rock‘s “Doc” and his dog, “Sprocket”, as she plans to spend Christmas in Hawaii. Those plans quickly change when the Muppet gang arrives, and take up residency in her large farmhouse.

Our subplot begins when we discover that Miss Piggy is stuck at a photo-shoot, and will try to come later. But the plot thickens when a major snow storm hits, snowing in the Muppet gang, and seriously hampering Piggys chances of getting up there. The second subplot, involves a new character, a smart-aleck turkey, who the Swedish Chef wants to cook up for Christmas dinner. In a hilarious sequence, the turkey quickly convinces the Swedish Chef that another bird is present that would be far better to cook for the Christmas dinner: Big Bird.

Just when we think we have seen every Muppet in the Henson vault, suddenly carolers are heard outside and the entire cast of Sesame Street shows up (singing “Deck the Halls”), to also spend Christmas at the Bear family farmhouse.  As the snow begins to pile up outside, the various Muppets start to entertain with various songs (Electric Mayhem sings a swinging “Jingle Bell Rock”, while Fozzie and a Snowman he meets outside share a comedy routine and sing “Sleigh Ride”).

Some 8mm home-movies are found and screened, and we see “The Muppet Babies” playing around their nursery, as they sing “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”.  Bert and Ernie then rehearse for the Sesame Street Christmas pageant, a  reenactment of Clement Moore’s “Twas a Night Before Christmas”.

Big Bird meanwhile, wins the Swedish Chef’s heart by giving him a small present, realizing it must be hard for the Chef to be away from Sweden for the holidays (this theme of gifting is recurring in the special, teaching thoughtfulness and kindness). The two then sing together.

Kermit retreats downstairs with Robin to the basement for some quiet time, only to find a hole in the wall that leads to- what else, but Fraggle Rock!

Robin and Kermit run into the entire Fraggle Rock cast, and share season’s greeting where they all perform “Pass it On!” then they are invited upstairs to join the party.

Kermit gets increasingly worried about Miss Piggy’s safety, so Doc volunteers to go out to search for her. When all hope seems lost, Piggy doesn’t let anyone down and makes a glorious entrance, with Doc en-tow, dressed in a Canadian Mountie uniform, that Miss Piggy coincidentally had on her.

All together and happy, the entire Muppet troupe performs a series of Christmas song melody’s before all the animals outside show up to add to the festivities, caroling away (“Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”)  and like the ending of the classic Muppet Movie (1979), every puppet joins in to sing “It’s in Everyone of Us”, before finally going into “Old Friends, New Friends”.  The entire cast then wishes the audience a “Merry Christmas”.

In the final shot of the special, we see Jim Henson himself, looking out from the kitchen along with Sprocket; he comments on how lovely it is to see them all having such a great time, and that he and Sprocket better get started on all the dirty dishes that have been piled up.

Wow. Where to begin.

Like any great piece of art, there are tons of little nuances to be appreciated. Like any great children’s show, the Muppets work excellently at working on dual levels; one the child who watches and enjoys, and something adults can watch and equally enjoy and laugh at. This special is littered with adult-oriented jokes that are hilarious and never fall flat (there’s a hilarious recurring joke about an ‘icy patch’ at the front door.)

Another thing this special succeeds at, is teaching kids civility, kindness, the act of giving, and morality. These are subjects that I think are greatly needed for children to learn in today’s society, and no one can do it quite as well as The Muppets. In a time where today’s child seems almost robbed of his childhood due to violence and sex that they are exposed to, be it in the media or even in products that are directly marketed towards them, like toys and video games, I think a special like this is a shining example of quality programming that children need to see nowadays, that adults need to hip them to. One example is Miss Piggy. She comes across as a great role model for girls, showing how she can do everything and anything by herself, without anyone’s help.

Now to the most interesting thing about A Muppet Family Christmas, it’s history. Almost as infamous as The Star Wars Christmas Special, this program has as many legends and mythos connected to it as the best of them. This special only aired in it’s entirety once, on ABC, on December 16th, 1987. It was then rebroadcast, slightly altered the next year,  then re-edited slightly and aired on NBC’s The Magical World of Disney on Christmas Eve of 1989.

It was put out on video in 1994 and 1998, then on DVD in 2001. Except there was a problem- the copyrights to the popular songs like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” were only secured for the television broadcast.  They all had to be cut for the subsequent releases. All the edits for the video and DVD releases were from the 1989 Disney cut, which put dissolves in where there were originally fades to black when going to commercials, and where incidental music was removed from certain places.

The titlecard for the special was originally put over the exterior of Ma Bear’s home, but was moved for pacing and time constraints. The entire sequence where Fozzie Bear and the Snowman he meets outside sing “Sleigh Ride” is completely cut due to copyright problems, along with the comedy routines between the two in the scene. The entire Muppet Babies 8mm home movie scene is cut due to “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”. A short 5 second sequence where Elmo and Fozzie light the Christmas was edited out and only appears in the original 1987 broadcast.

The bumper shot that would show up between commercials of Kermit in front of a Christmas Tree and Fozzie playing with 2 stuffed bears, announcing the special would be right back, only appeared in the ’87 cut. All three versions have different credits, due to the changing and omitting of various songs and copyrights.

This special has been out of print for over 10 years in any form. One wonders what the big-wigs at Muppet Inc. are thinking when they release a new movie in the theaters this time of year, and let this masterpiece (and others that we will explore in this upcoming series this month) rot on the shelves. As I said before, I consider this probably one of the best projects the company did (aside from the original movie), before Henson passed in 1990, and I’ll be so bold as to say up until today. With such great specials laying around gathering dust, why not replay them on TV or release them as a Special Edition DVD?

Like any secret club, you’d be amazed to learn how many people actually not only know this special, but can quote it and watch it every year, on crappy VHS copies that they taped the night it aired. I’m sure that every year, someone out there loses the special due to their old tape breaking, a true tragedy for anyone involved.

Much like the other Muppet Christmas Specials that will be covered, The Podwits hope and pray, that one day this will be released in it’s original cut,  completely remastered with all the bells and whistles.

We can hope can’t we? Heck, it’s Christmas, the time of year when miracles happen..