Christmas Eve on Sesame Street: Through the Eyes of a Younger Generation
Joseph Scarbrough – For the past several years, one of my favorite things to do during the holidays is pop a VHS into the VCR, and enjoy one of my all-time favorite Christmas specials, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.
I was born in 1989. Twenty years after the premiere of Sesame Street; although I’m fortunate enough to have grown up during what is considered the tail-end of the classic/old school era (before 1993), I never really saw any true old school Sesame for quite some time. As a matter of fact, when I was a baby, in addition to television episodes of the time, the oldest I had seen of the show was the My Sesame Street Home Video series from the mid and late 80s… that is until a long-distant friend of mine sent me a wonderful present for Christmas 2002–a VHS of the 1978 special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.
The special opens with the Sesame Street gang (of that time) enjoying an ice skating party at the skating rink, and it’s an interesting opening to say the least, as we get a rare glimpse of various Muppet characters, such as Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and Count von Count in full-bodied appearances, with skaters in full-bodied costumes of the characters. Admittedly, half of the time, I do tend to fast-forward through the opening, but there is one part that I’m particularly fond of, when a young girl wants Big Bird to skate with her, but he appears to be nervous about falling down–to see this little girl saddened at Big Bird not wanting to skate, but very happy that he did skate with her after all is a reminder that you just don’t see such genuine emotion from the young visitors on the show anymore.
After an accident playing Snap the Whip, Oscar (in his can) tumbles down flights of stairs, through walls, and out the main entrance. Big Bird and his little friend Patty come to his aid; Big Bird is glad Oscar is okay, because he wants everyone to be happy on Christmas Eve, that is until Oscar hits a sour note with him: “How’s a guy like Santa Claus, whose built like a dump truck, gonna get down all those skinny chimneys?” Neither Big Bird, nor Patty, are sure as to just how Santa does it, but they are determined to find out, otherwise, Oscar tells them, no one will get any presents for Christmas. The gang starts heading for home, singing a touching song that describes the wonder of the season, “True Blue Miracle.” When I grew up, after 1992, Sesame Street always looked so clean and bright and colorful, but here, the street seemed so dirty and grungy, as if Oscar was in charge of sanitation, but that was before I learned the true intentions of the street setting, and now when I look, I see the realism of a lived-in inner-city street… and, of course, the set does look truly beautiful covered in snow.
Next, we see the Muppet icon himself, Kermit the Frog, waiting for Big Bird and Patty in his nest area, where the two relay the discouraging news about Santa to him; Kermit ponders on the subject himself, and decides that those who could answer that question best are those who understand Santa more than anyone: kids. So, Kermit goes to round up some of the neighborhood kids and ask how they think Santa leaves presents for everyone, though he already gets one answer from Patty: “I’m a kid, and I don’t know.” Back in those days, it was easy to take Kermit’s appearances on the Street for granted–Jim was alive, still had legal ownership of the Muppets, and as such, Kermit could make crossover appearances in whatever show he was involved in; just seeing Kermit in this special, during these days when Disney is in control of the Muppets, is such a big plus.
While Kermit and Grover embark on asking kids faces about how they think Santa is able to get into people’s houses, Bob returns to his apartment to rehearse the classic Sesame Christmas song with a group of the neighborhood kids: “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” not realizing the surprise that awaits him. Before Bob arrived, Linda had dropped by and was teaching the kids how to sign the lyrics to the song, as her Christmas present to Bob–proving that sometimes the best gifts aren’t materialistic at all. The first version I heard of this song was from Elmo Saves Christmas, even though it has a more upbeat and catchy sound to it, this version has a much more mellow, soothing sound, like what carolers would sing around a warm fire; I have to say, I do like both versions very much.
Next comes my favorite moment in the special: Mr. Hooper. When I grew up, I only heard the name Hooper whenever referring to the famous store, I don’t think I ever even made the connection to the portrait on Big Bird’s wall to the man behind the store. I only learned about Mr. Hooper during a special aired on A&E in 2001 about the history and behind-the-scenes moments of the show. At last, I was meeting the street’s grandfather figure for the first time, and, needless to say, the moment was both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as both Ernie and Bert had decided that they were running out of time to buy each other a present… and out of money as well. Ernie had decided to get Bert an empty cigar box, as a practical gift for him to keep his paper clip collection in, but was short on cash, so he proposed a trade with Mr. Hooper–his beloved Rubber Duckie for the cigar box. When Bert stepped into the store afterward, he decided to get Ernie a pink soap dish to keep Rubber Duckie in, and also being short on money, offered Mr. Hooper his paper clip collection in exchange for Ernie’s present. Mr. Hooper asked both Ernie and Bert if they were sure they wanted to do this, and they both said they were. Such a wonderful scene, I think it illustrates Bert and Ernie’s true friendship more than anything that they’re both willing to give up their most prized possession to get a present for one another for Christmas, no matter how much it hurts.
There is much more Muppety fun throughout, including Grover’s role-playing with a young boy named Billy. Grover pretends to be Santa trapped in Billy’s house, and asks for his help in how to get out. This leads up to a funny scene with Cookie Monster writing a letter to Santa, but as he tries to decide what kind of cookies he wants Santa to bring him, he eats his pencil without realizing it. Classic Cookie! Back with Kermit, Big Bird, and Patty, Kermit goes over the list of answers kids had given him as to how Santa gets down the chimneys. None of the answers satisfy Big Bird, who’s growing even more restless to find out how Santa gets down the chimneys. Meanwhile, Cookie Monster tries writing to Santa again, as Cookie wonders what kind of cookies Santa would bring him, his appetite gets the better of him again, until finally, he devours the entire typewriter. Even funnier than the previous scene.
Next came a scene where Big Bird conducts an experiment: Snuffy represents Santa, while one of Big Bird’s oil barrels is a chimney, and the experiment is that Snuffy will step into the barrel and will show how Santa gets down a chimney. So Snuffy ascends a makeshift staircase of wooden crates, and steps into the barrel, before facing a problem… Santa doesn’t have more than two feet, so Big Bird suggests that Snuffy pretend Santa’s bringing one of his reindeer down with him. Snuffy squeezes all four of his legs into the barrel, and it seems as if Big Bird may have finally solved the problem, until Snuffy presents a new one… can they explain how Santa gets OUT of the chimney?
The sun sets, and Oscar watches his cheerful neighbors embark on visits to friends to deliver Christmas presents, including a moment that would probably have been forced on today’s show: Bob wishing Mr. Hooper a happy Hanukkah. A simple gesture like that is fine for 1978, but today they probably would have to do an entire subplot or so addressing Hanukkah, even though it’s not a bad idea. The cheerfulness around the street is enough to make Oscar sick, so sick, in fact, that he expresses his disdain for Christmas in song – “I Hate Christmas.” He strolls around the street showing it too, by giving presents full of sludge, taking presents back from others, ripping the EL out of NOEL, etc. In fact, when it’s over is when he cheers, he’s glad it’s only once a year, he hates Christmas. Boy, Oscar could give the Grinch a run for his money.
Bert and Ernie get ready for bed, but they’re so excited about their presents, they decide to go ahead and open them on Christmas Eve; Bert opens his cigar box and is thrilled to have it… until Ernie mentions that he got it for him to keep his paper clips in. When Ernie asks to see Bert put his paper clips in, Bert changes the subject by suggesting Ernie open his present; Ernie opens his soap dish and is thrilled until Bert tells him he got it for Rubber Duckie. Just when Bert asks to see how Rubber Ducky looks in it, they receive a visit from Mr. Hooper, a rare moment to see a human on a puppet set. Mr. Hooper drops by to give Bert and Ernie presents for Christmas, but when they open their presents, they find that Mr. Hooper has given them the paper clip collection and Rubber Duckie back. Bert and Ernie are so happy with their presents, but then realize that this isn’t a very fair exchange, because they didn’t get anything for Mr. Hooper, until he tells them that just seeing that they got exactly what they wanted for Christmas is the best present he could ever have. Mr. Hooper wishes them a merry Christmas, and leaves, while a touched Bert and Ernie sing a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This is perhaps my favorite moment out of the entire special, and it’s moments like these where you realize who your friends really are.
Just when Cookie couldn’t get any funnier, he decides since Christmas Eve is too late to mail a letter to Santa, and tries to call him instead, that is until while thinking about cupcakes, Cookie ends up eating the receiver… just as his call to Santa goes through. “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Hello?” echoes from a befuddled Cookie’s tummy. “Gee, maybe me better send telegram.” As the night wears on, and the snow begins to fall, Big Bird is more disheartened than ever about Santa. Big Bird is on the verge of tears at the thought of nobody getting any presents, until he finally figures how he can find out how Santa gets down skinny chimneys. Inside Gordon and Susan’s apartment, Gordon hangs stockings, while Cookie tells him about his failure at trying to contact Santa, but Gordon assures him that Santa knows all about him, and knows exactly what to bring him for Christmas, but that it would be a nice idea for him to leave something in return; Cookie thinks it’s a terrific idea, and tries to decide between a necktie, or shaving cream, until Gordon tells him what people usually leave him… cookies. Cookie’s reaction? Priceless! Just when you thought things couldn’t get any funnier for the shaggy blue monster!
Gordon answers the door, after he hears a soft tapping, and finds a worried Patty telling him that Big Bird is gone, so Gordon and Susan start a search party. At that moment, Big Bird ascends to the roof of 123, where Bert’s pigeons coo and tell him that Santa hasn’t been by yet: Big Bird has decided he’s going to stay up on the roof until Santa arrives, and see, firsthand, how he gets down skinny chimneys. Down on the ground, Gordon and Susan tell others about Big Bird’s disappearance, and soon, everyone is running around looking for him, much to his confusion. Big Bird figures he could go down and help look for someone who may be lost, but figures it’s more important that he sticks around and see Santa. The rest of the gang continue searching for Big Bird, while he dozes off on the roof. When he is fast asleep, and half-buried in snow, the shadow of a large figure slowly approaches him. When Big Bird opens his eyes, he sees no one there, and figures he must have had a wild dream. He then decides to step down to Gordon and Susan’s to warm up for a moment; just as Gordon and Susan return home. They are relieved, but frustrated when Big Bird comes down from the roof and tells them that he was waiting for Santa. They soon discover that everything in the apartment has been decorated, presents are under the tree, and the stockings are full… Santa did indeed make it down the chimney. Big Bird is happy, but disappointed that he still doesn’t know how Santa does it; Gordon asks why Big Bird he needs to know so much and tells him that’s not what’s important… what’s important is that after losing him and being very worried about him, they got him back safe and sound, and that they’re all together for Christmas. “And if that isn’t a true blue miracle, I don’t know what is.” Oscar joins them, and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back, because he wants to ask him something… “How does the Easter Bunny hide all those eggs in one night?”
The special ends with Big Bird stepping out onto the street, to the relief of the other residents, happy to see he’s back, while a reprise of “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)” is sung. As everyone goes home for the night, and Big Bird and Patty enjoy the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the arbor, Gordon and Susan come home to find that Cookie Monster has eaten their tree: “Scotch Pine delicious, but Douglas Fir give me heartburn!”
This is such a great special, unlike many of the holidays specials of today, this one not only had a very structured and solid storyline, it was also neither overly political correct, or even overly educational. It’s also a favorite among a lot of the cast and crew as well; “I thought it was the best of what we’d become,” Roscoe Orman said in Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street, “Jon Stone wrote, directed, and produced it, an incredible vision. It was a wonderful tribute to the spirit of what we’d created.”
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier