I discovered Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas when I was in high school, but I watch it annually with an enthusiasm and vehemence that makes most of my friends assume I grew up with it. I actually prefer that I discovered it only recently – we don’t get to choose most of our holiday traditions. Santa Claus, the nativity, Scrooge, carols, mistletoe – these things are thrust upon us, whether or not we like them, whether or not we feel any sort of connection to them outside of their equivalency with Christmas. There’s no Santa or Jesus in Emmet Otter. Only family, love, and pure, unadulterated joy.
In his adaptation of Russell Hoban’s picture book (which itself is a twist on the classic “Gift of the Magi” Christmas story), Jim Henson tells the tale of the anthropomorphic Emmet Otter and his Ma, the “nicest folk on the river.” Ever since Pa died, they’ve barely struggled to keep enough money to feed themselves, mostly sustaining on Emmet’s odd jobs and Ma’s DIY laundry service. But they both decide to go big this Christmas and enter the local talent show in hopes of earning the $50 reward, which is a small fortune to these humble animals. Just one problem: Ma can only afford to buy herself a dress for the performance by selling Emmet’s tool chest, and Emmet can only make a washtub bass for his band if he drills a hole in Ma’s washtub, thus ruining each other’s livelihood just for the mere chance of earning the cash for a gift – which, of course, they’ll unknowingly have to compete to earn. Hijinks ensue.
If that sounds awfully simple, that’s the beauty of it. Christmas specials these days always go so damn big, and I have a hard time remembering the last cartoon holiday episode that didn’t involve “saving Christmas” in some way. But Emmet Otter has an incredible humility to it that makes it far more relatable and resonant. The songs focus on eating barbeque with friends and being grateful for what few possessions we have; the puppets and sets never stop being completely adorable; the themes completely ignore cliches of the genre like “Christmas magic” in favor of truly heartfelt displays of generosity.
Seriously, there are few things in this world that can put me in a place of love and comfort as quickly as this special. This thing is just plain overflowing with good feeling and Christmas spirit. Yeah, it’s Jim Henson, so the jokes are pretty corny and it’s quaint to a fault, but the man could pull off charm and warmth in ways that no one else ever has. I can’t wait to forcefully impose it upon my own children in the years to come.
Given the way that Henson’s properties were dispersed among a variety of companies following the creator’s death, the special has been stuck in copyright limbo for a long time, and chances are that we’ll never see Emmet Otter again with bumpers by Kermit the Frog as they originally broadcast it (out-of-print copies that still feature the Muppet often go for over $100 a pop). It’s actually one of less than a dozen DVDs that I’ve ever purchased for myself, and the absolutely hilarious blooper reel unquestionably validates the purchase. But earlier this year, someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube and the greater powers found it in their hearts to let it stand. Watch the whole thing here, before they change their mind.
On top of that, Jim Henson and company never got around to releasing an official soundtrack for probably the same reasons, but through the glory of the internet, you can download it for free courtesy of the folks over at A Cartoon Christmas. Check it out! (Also, check out everything on that site, it’s pretty spectacular.)