On December 24th, 2015, with one hand occupied with a glass of wine, I watched an old VHS tape that from (almost) beginning to end, is nothing but Christmas specials from the 1960s, and 1987 to 1989.
I treasure this tape as if it was an original tome of Eudora Welty’s short stories. It has come to define the holiday season for me without question. Alongside Christmas cookies, Mariah Carey‘s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra renditions of Yuletide classics, and wrap-around lights, this VHS tape is another slice of my holiday joy.
Running the gamut on this almost thirty-year-old cassette is live action, stop motion, and classic 2D animation thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Pee-Wee Playhouse Christmas, A Garfield Christmas, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Claymation Christmas Celebration, and Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. It was my sister that compiled the recordings from our analog TV. In navy blue pen, she had written, on the sticker strip to the side it is identified by, “Christmas specials.” The title’s appearance in the last few years has changed from semi cursive to a bleeding graffiti font.
As I watched these favorites of mine, I sometimes placed my wine glass on the table because I was assembling a store bought gingerbread house from Target. At 28-years-old then, I could not have embodied a multi-tasking woman child any more than I did that night.
The 2016 was also a week away and there were no clues of the kind of year that laid ahead of us. The celebrity deaths that would ripple through my childhood, and that of everyone else’s. The begging of the end of President Obama’s last year in office, as Donald Trump had already initiated a hateful campaign. While the year of any American presidential election is usually a circus that you can’t help but bring your own corn for poppin’. By December 2016, the debates had been embarrassing, a majority of the candidates bleak, and the results, completely comfortless. 2016 was the year the music and the ’80s died, and hope taken a necessary retreat.
But in December 2015, Prince, Sharon Jones, Gene Wilder, and George Michael, were still with us. An election hadn’t made us question our neighbor’s humanity yet.
I pressed play on our DVD/VHS combo player on Christmas Eve. Ready to ease into the jokes I already knew the punchlines to. As well as the songs that were terrifically sappy and sassy with just the right about of cheddar on top. I happily transported to a time where the glass in my hand would’ve been a juice box or an orange soda. A pink lemonade perhaps. (No time for water apparently). The days of which most of these Christmas specials originally aired, I miss them so much.
The nostalgia was high even when watching this Christmas specials tape in December 1999. ’90s cartoons were able to translate the heartwarming notions of family, friendships, and it’s the thought that counts impressions into slapstick scenarios and smart-aleck dialogue. Benevolence was the de facto template for cartoons in the ’80s. An era otherwise rocked by news headlines of drugs and diseases, as exciting as it was pop culturally. From The Get Along Kids, the Care Bears, and Strawberry Shortcake, to name some, reminders were abounded that a good heart always led the way (in cartoon world).
From A Charlie Brown Christmas, the wondrous TV special with Charles Schulz‘s Peanuts characters, the number of quotables from it can only be rivaled by Clueless and The Devil Wears Prada according to my sister and I. In viewing the sardonic outlook of children beyond their years, it prepared this one-time eleven-year-old for when she watched season one of Dawson’s Creek.
It was not odd watching kids with the stress level of COOs visiting psychiatric booths. Such characteristics were disarming. As I’ve older, the Peanuts are heart crushing accurate accounts of humans at weakest and bravest moments.
The sincerity of the script’s mission of reminding Charlie Brown of why Christmas mattered, the bubblegum card cuteness of the Peanuts, and pencil drawn illustrations, filled with the basic colors of a Crayola box, are what old school childhood memories are fulfilled of. My heart still sings when it hears Vince Guaraldi‘s magnum opus “Linus and Lucy” specifically crafted for the special. A crowning achievement in his respectable career as a jazz artist. A Charlie Brown Christmas, and its soundtrack, celebrated 50 years of “good grief” and “goodwill toward men” in 2015. 2016 marked the fortieth anniversary of Guaraldi’s death. He died in 1976.
“It’s too early. I never eat December snowflakes. I always wait ’til January.” -Lucy
“As they say on TV, the mere fact that you realize you need help, means you are not too far gone.” -Lucy
“All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” -Sally
A Pee-Wee Playhouse Christmas first delighted in 1988, at the apex of Pee-Wee fandom. The goofy yet headstrong character, famously played by Paul Reubens, carried on his usual shenanigans, and celebs who checked their artistry at the door for a good laugh and time, swung by such as Cher, Little Richard, and Whoopi Goldberg. This was where I likely viewed for the first time Joan Rivers, Charo, Grace Jones, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was introduced as Princess Zsa Zsa in the credits. These ladies would go on to be inducted into my personal trove of icons who’ve waved the freak flag for unabashed camp.
A Garfield Christmas from 1987 remained true to the sarcasm of everyone’s favorite tabby cat. Salted with more acerbic humor than the Peanuts, the heartfelt sing-along tunes mismatched with the neuroticism of Garfield’s owner Jon’s parents, brother, and grandma (my favorite) made for a teeter-totter bash of feel-good, home for Christmas jolly. I would be lying if I didn’t see my own family replace faves of Jon and co. at the dinner table, squeezing in catty jabs in between bites. In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Garfield creator Jim Davis reflected on the fan love that remained for all of Garfield’s holiday specials: “The holiday specials, I think, just have a special place in everybody’s memory, everybody’s hearts. The Halloween special’s 30th anniversary is coming up next year. You watched them as kids, you watched them with your kids, grandkids, and they’re still going.”
A Claymation Christmas Celebration debuted the same night as A Garfield Christmas on December 21, 1987. It stands as a widely revered representation of claymation. Admittedly, claymation is not the prettiest form of moving imagery to look at. Features and bodies of animals and persons can be askew, and buildings and cars bulky. This lack of grace in return makes claymation feel unalloyed compared to the perfection of classic Walt Disney. It’s a rather thankless frontier of animation.
What has lasted for me throughout the years are the covers of holiday carols embedded between the banter of A Claymation Christmas hosts Rex and Herb and their friends. Sung gorgeously by church choirs, the musical numbers were treated with kid gloves, offering great respect to the religious and holy tones of the meaning behind Christmas. A Claymation Christmas also scored a cameo by the California Raisins. Those fictional grapes that belted Motown songs in the kitchen cupboard or a nightclub. The kick I get from their take of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” prevailed for another year last Christmas Eve. I love to see them harmonize in the end. Taking the place of the reindeers on Santa’s sleigh, grooving across the moon.
By the Simpsons‘ 1989 special, that continues to succeed as nonpareil in the canon of 600+ episodes, I had finished my gingerbread house with the frosting and candy it came with. Nowhere near as delectable or charming as the one my mother and I made at Lincoln School when I was in kindergarten. I wasn’t annoyed by the realization and actually preferred it that way. I’ve allowed my past to hold to the memories, where they’ll be forever young and not processed through some revisionist, remake setting. Time must go on. But I’ll never quit my childhood favorites. Not when the calendar says December 24.
The tape is finished with Sailor Moon episodes that aired when The CW was The WB. I do remember letting those play on as I got up from the armchair and headed into my bedroom to get something. I can’t recall if it had already turned Christmas Day but when I stepped into my room, I slight jolt ran through my body. On my made bed waiting for me was a big bag that read “Merry Christmas” with my familial nickname on it and a smiley face in black Sharpie. I was touched.
I wanted to maintain the surprise and wouldn’t look into the bag for another hour. I can confirm that included inside was a warm, fully, throw big enough to cover my queen-sized bed, and with Linus, his blanket and an instigating Snoopy trying to take it away from him in comic strip style.
Sometimes, my family knows me so well.