Written by: Mark Hurley, CC2K TV Editor
CC2K’s Mark Hurley casts a jaundiced eye on the greatest Christmas specials from his youth.
Reports of my political defection to the Sandanistas have been greatly exaggerated. After two years of self-discovery and teaching in Central America, I have returned to the United States, temporarily gracing my mother-in-law’s Las Vegas abode with my newfound pura vida outlook and ability to subsist solely on rice and beans – just in time for the frenetic hellscape that is the American holiday season. I find myself out of whack: variety on store shelves, holiday gatherings to fatten me up, The Man’s system to re-insert myself into, with all the licensing, tax documenting, and health care acquiring that entails. I need grounding, and this time of year that means the time-tested, acclimatizing television Christmas specials of my youth. Homey, humanity affirming, nostalgic on a nuclear level, and airing three times a week on basic cable. What I don’t need is an obstacle, so predictably life has handed me one, in the form of my step-father-in-law… is that right? My wife’s mother’s husband. That guy.
It is a week post-Thanksgiving, Hanukkah is drawing to a close, a pervasive family atmosphere fills the kitchen as dinner preparations conclude. Latkes are in the pan, a menorah stands begging to be lit, and Mitch reaches for a beer. From my own stash, I hand the man a Sam Adams’ Old Fezziwig Ale from their winter sampler collection. He studies the label as if he had just unearthed some heretofore undiscovered cuneiform. “Fezz – Fuzzy –”
“Fezziwig, dammit!” I lose it. In my defense, this is the latest in a long line of offenses on the part of Mitch’s holiday cognizance. “The character from A Christmas Carol?” I prompt forcefully.
His 17 year-old son chimes in with the now common domestic refrain, “No, see, my dad doesn’t know anything about Christmas.”
I know this. From Charlie Brown to Spongebob to Sinbad vs Arnold, when it comes to a cultural aside involving Christmas, Mitch has a disease that produces immediate disinterest in joy inducing, heart warming, brain chemical-manipulating, happiness broadcasting. But this particular instance will not stand. “Christmas doesn’t enter into it!” I yell. “It’s Charles fucking Dickens! Literature! It’s about generosity of the human spirit, care for your fellow man, the dangers of greed. This is universal stuff, here. It could be set on a background of Satanism and the story would still be a treasured ratsin-fratsin classic!” I immediately made a mental note to write an enduring Dickensian ode to human dignity starring a grumpy old man who discovers the joy of devil worship.
My wife’s side of the family is Jewish, and none more so than Mitch. Being Jewish isn’t like being wet. Once you’re soaked, you can’t get more wet, so more water on your person isn’t a factor in your overall wetness. You can always be more Jewish. When choosing a husband, my mother-in-law decided to augment the baby blue paint of the family culture with a powerful midnight navy. The family isn’t hasidic or anything, they are reform, but even in that subsection you’ve got different levels of devotion. And where your regularly practicing Catholic, say, will have gone to church in the past month where you haven’t – an addition to their lives proving their Catholicness – apparently being more Jewish means actively, doggedly abstaining from anything even slightly evocative of Christmas. At least according to Mitch.
What all of that means is, despite having three children and ample amounts of television viewing time for more than fifty years, this man infuriatingly will not recognize a reference to How the Grinch Stole Christmas if you make one. The worst part about it is that he is so pleased in his ignorance, he takes it as a point of pride. “Why would I know anything about The Grinch?” he asks. “I’m Jewish.” As if that settles the issue. The whole family acts like that last statement isn’t the single most ironic sentence they have ever heard uttered in person.
Why do you care? you might ask. He’s so happy this way, why are you harshing the dude’s lifestyle choice? There are so many answers to that, this article could be a few thousand words longer. I have to be around him. Let’s just leave it at that. We won’t even mention his kids’ wasted childhoods. As Adam Sandler points out, Ebenezer Scrooge is not a Jew, but for last couple of decades, the Grinch has been one, and he lives in Summerlin, Nevada. It is December. I have to be here. It’s his house, so he has to be here too, I guess. It is his happiness or mine. So I have to fix him.
So the objective here is to expose Mitch to holiday specials without throwing him into a sacarine bliss-out seizure. I’ve also got to studiously avoid the overly Christy ones that will send him running for the restorative Manischewitz IV drip, so Linus, you are the hell out.
“If I could just –” No, you shut up, you walking awkward clinical study.
Full disclosure: he hasn’t given me permission yet. He is a proud man, however misguided. I know he won’t enlist my holly jolly sherpa guidance through seventy-odd years of yuletide commercial excess willingly. I may have to Clockwork Orange his stubborn ass, but if I am to jingle bell rape him, I first need a game plan.
I broke out the sacred Hurley VHS, the bootlegged recordings of the most important specials aired during the holiday seasons of 1989 and ‘90, complete with the old school commercials. This tape has seen more use in the Hurley household than a clitorectomy knife in a backwards African village. I would even watch it in June and July when my tolerance level for people in general was nearing a hard E. Breaking out a VCR in this top-of-the-line house of Blu Ray-era modern crap was a more difficult task, but an old lady living down the street traded me one of her collection of a baker’s dozen for a kiss on the cheek and we were in business.
The tape dependably opens with the old Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978). The retelling of the Gift of the Magi story with Ernie and Bert, with decidedly elevated consequences, by the way, would be valuable in itself, as I am convinced that the objectively important tale would be a new one to Mitch, who would have avoided it on priggish principle.
How on Earth could this story of selfless giving and the desire to make others happy have anything to do with my own life?
Rewatching the special for other secular appeal, however, the core plot mover of faith in Santa Claus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary might be a tad Christian for a modern Jewish audience. However the end result hinges heavily on the togetherness of family and friends, which is the kind of thing we’re looking for in getting this guy into the spirit of a holiday he isn’t technically obligated to observe, you know, outside of basic cultural curiosity. Outside of simple contextual content, Oscar the Grouch’s gleeful, methodical mental torture of the young Big Bird (he’s supposed to be, like, three years old in the show) is a delight for the cynical adult viewer, and predates Eric Cartman by two decades. Also, spoiler alert, Cookie Monster eats a friggin’ fully decorated douglas fir in a matter of minutes. Worth the price of admission, right there. The fact that this is, after all, a Sesame Street offering is going to throw up some additional mental blocks for the skeptical middle-aged Jew in your life, so put this one somewhere in the middle of the list this holiday season.
Next on the list is A Garfield Christmas (1987), a special I already knew I was going to have to force down Mitch’s throat. Those lucky enough to have caught it while it was still a mainstay on holiday TV will remember that this is the perfect addition to my Force Xmas on a Jewish Man Campaign. The special is 100% secular, not a damned crucifix in sight. As an atheist who considers comedy the highest form of art, this is one of my very favorite Christmas offerings. There’s none of your pat “I hate Mondays” pseudo-comedy from the comic and accompanying cartoon here. Jim Davis, Phil Roman, and George Singer really pulled out the stops to make this enjoyable for everyone. Garfield, in this special, is the perfect hilarious vessel for addressing the prevailing attitudes of laziness, gluttony, and greed that other holiday movies try to flatly sermonize on. As a guy who has spent the last decade living the dual Hanukkah/Christmas existence, I know these are subjects that are not imprisoned in one culture’s celebrations. I am still burping potato pancakes, so don’t you tell me overeating is a strictly Christian thang.
Brisket is brisket, no matter how bland it is.
Here’s one you forgot because you’re a terrible excuse for a citizen of the world: Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987). Alright, admittedly, this one is chock full of gospel junk. Why is this special essential viewing for any Xmas enthusiast, no matter the subscribed creed or lack thereof? Fool! Off the top of my head I can yank three reasons. First, it serves as a fun history lesson, and for Mitch should serve to quench that burning thirst I know he has simmering deep inside himself to know why Xmas is so prevalent for three months out of every year in the States. The second reason is the bitchin’ soundtrack. The California Raisins make an appearance, and their soul inspired inflections wind their way through most of the special, tying it together with music’s greatest genre, adding an heir of rock irreverence to the solemnest of Bible moments. Is “We Three Kings” boring old hat now? How about a group of jivey camels ruin the wise men’s holy times. Sounds like fun.
Also, ice-skating walruses in cartoon violence hijinks with a crèche of put-upon penguins. ‘Nuff said.
The final reason I’ve included the Claymation special in the list is the excellent message that the plot’s through-line builds to. The stodgy, stuffy dinosaur (oh, yeah, it’s narrated by dinosaurs) and the slovenly, gluttonous dinosaur learn that it doesn’t matter how you celebrate the holiday, as long as you do it inclusively, and you have a spectacular, drunken time. Really, this special will be Mitch’s centerpiece, as inclusive inebriation is the True Meaning of Christmas we are trying to get across to him here.
For research purposes we can old-timey fast forward through the tape’s more obvious offerings. Mitch will have to watch Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), because it does not seem to have occurred to him, as it has to everyone else, that Rudolph was invented by Macy’s to sell plastic crap to kids in the ‘50s, and has about as much to do with religion as drinking Coke with polar bears on the label. Also, he needs to be exposed to Yukon Cornelius, one of the greatest cartoon characters ever conceived that side of Butters. If the whole Xmas experiment takes, and happiness and togetherness are allowed in the house, I will hesitantly present A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) because while Linus’ little speech is obnoxious and historically false, the anti-capitalist message rings true, and the little bundles of serious adult psychopathy that are the Peanuts’ characters, magnified exponentially by adult holiday stress, really should not be missed by anybody with a sense of devilish humor.
I said sit the hell down Linus, we’ll call you if we need you.
Also, Mitch really needs to see them once, simply to function in a world where they are inescapably ubiquitous, right? I mean, how is this guy existing right now, going to Starbucks, watching TV, Hanukkah shopping, going out for dinner and drinks, when this shit is all around him? Is it like living on an alien planet? It’s all in English, it’s all entertaining. Why wouldn’t you want to be in on the joke, man?
For Mitch, rather than ask him to wade through a Dickens novel, I’m going to give him the Albert Finney and Alec Guinness Scrooge (1970), mostly because it was the one I grew up on, but also because it offers one of the harshest, cruelest, catchiest musical numbers ever written:
I feel pretty justified in skipping both iterations of Miracle on 34th Street this year. I mean, I have already watched both by press time, because they’re still great. But let’s not send Mitch into faith-ish overload by insisting he digest a story about a little girl learning to believe in something his kids have gotten along just fine not believing in, thank you very much. Not true for It’s a Wonderful Life, however, which I do not believe is as strictly an Xmas movie as they try to market it, but which I will tie Mitch to a chair for just so I can watch a grown man cry, which is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Alright, if you won’t let me lick those delicious tears straight off your face, will you at least save it in a thermos or something?
This year, I will close (as does the Hurley Fujifilm tape) with A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), the greatest Christmas special of all time (objectively), and the Muppets’ finest film as well (subjective, I guess, but I am an expert). Outside of an annoying intrusion by the Fraggles (fast forward buttons exist for a reason), this special is non-stop delight, and if it does not win Mitch over to hanging a stocking under the Shofar on the mantel, I will admit defeat. It’s got everything: puppet versions of Muppet Babies, Sesame Street characters free from the shackles of educational programming, a crotchety old man scared witless out of curmudgeonly Xmas-hate by rock and roll and a hundred-odd monster intruders, holiday stress resignation, Swedish Chef’s finest moments, a glorious paucity of Miss Piggy, and enough groaner gags to fill Andre the Giant’s stocking. The best part for the Save Mitch From Himself Project is that it is effortlessly secular. The inclusiveness is strong with the Muppets, and even in the ten minute (!) final carol medley, that features at least 20 songs (you count them), Henson manages to find a mess of great Christmas classics with the least intrusive lyrics possible.
Muppets are the nuclear option, though. I know that if I can’t get him to at least smile during that special, the whole operation is beginning to look a lot like failure, because he has no soul. That being the case, I can’t lead with it, because then I won’t have an (allegedly) human guinea pig to pa-rum-pum-pum-probe and prod. The experiment has to be run this year, for his sake as well as the rest of our’s: Hanukkah came and went with Thanksgiving, this side of the family has nothing to look forward to except a bleak, gift-less December. There’s no tree, no lights, no feast, nothing to distinguish this month from the doldrums of February, the worst month of the year (sorry, but that’s why we gave it to you, black people, hope that compensatory Friday in November fixes it). Without the fixed-schedule merriment of Xmas, all you’ve got is the death of 2013, and the promise of having to do this whole life thing over again for another year, and that is grim sauce, my friend. Save Mitch, save the world.