In 1978, two Sesame Street Christmas Specials aired. One was a star-studded, big-budget network spectacular that almost nobody remembers, because the other one was PBS’s Emmy-Award Winning Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is a perfect Christmas special. It’s funny and heartwarming with a diverse cast and great lessons for kids. Honestly, I’d say just go watch it now, and then come back here so we can talk about it. If you don’t want to just dive in, here’s the main song from the special, to get you started. It remains one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time
The central plot is simple: in an effort to ruin Christmas for Big Bird, Oscar points out some logical inconsistencies regarding the myth of Santa Claus. But if Santa doesn’t make sense, how can Christmas happen? Big Bird’s friend Patty tries to help him work through his anxieties, with the help of Kermit, Snuffy, and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.
That’s the A Story, but the various B stories are just as delightful: Linda enhances a kids chorus with sign language, cookie Monster tries to contact Santa; it’s all great. But I really need to single out Bert and Ernie’s gift exchange as being just… incredible.
It’s fairly traditional for Christmas specials to adapt a classic story of the season: A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life being the go-to sources for plots. So what did Henson choose for his inspiration? The Gift of the Magi. Yeah, you heard me right. If you haven’t read it, do it now. It’s by O. Henry, so it’s a very short story, and it’s considered a classic for a reason.
Bert and Ernie are featured in this retelling of the story of a couple who give up the things that are dearest to them in order to get each other Christmas presents, only to find that their gifts were meant to enhance the very things each had sacrificed. In this story, Bert trades away his paper clip collection, and Ernie trades away his Rubber Duckie. I cannot adequately convey how distressing I found this as a child, but you’ve gotta trust the Children’s Television Workshop. They know where they’re going with this, and it all resolves nicely.
In the 70’s and 80’s the CTW was ahead of its time in so many ways. Ten years after Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, Sesame Street had an ongoing interracial relationship between Maria and David as a fairly central plotline, with absolutely no fuss. The cast has always been very racially and ethnically diverse, boys and girls are both well-represented, and people with disabilities are featured prominently. I was strongly encouraged to watch primarily PBS during my childhood, and I’m starting to think that was a huge blessing – I grew up watching a world where everybody could be a main character. I mean, our human lead is an Asian girl named Patty. They did this in 1978, while the rest of mainstream media production continues to use the same exclusionary casting methods that are still called out today.
Speaking of things that are ahead of their time, you know the whole “Seasons Greetings/Merry Christmas/etc” kerfuffle? Well, I’ve always known what the clear and practical solution to that was: if you know what holiday someone celebrates, wish them a positive version of that holiday. If you don’t, be nonspecific. It’s not that hard! If everyone just followed that insanely simple rule, people would just have to wear a nice Santa-or-manger-related sweater to get the “Merry Christmas!” they need to survive, and we could stop filling our TV screen with elaborate “War on Christmas” graphics every year. But do they listen to me? Do they listen to Sesame Street? Do they bother to get to know their neighbors well enough to know who to wish Happy Hanukkah rather than Merry Christmas? No, of course they don’t. My point is, Bob and Mister Hooper had this thing solved in 1978. Catch up, FOX News.
There are too many awesome things in this special to even list. Just listen to I Hate Christmas. If you have a friend who hates the holidays, this will become their anthem.
As we reach the end of the special, Big Bird’s problem still has no resolution. How does Santa fit down tiny chimneys? Is Santa going to come at all?
It’s common for an all-ages special to start asking questions about Santa, but usually they have easy answers prepared. So many Christmas specials take the same track, and reward the believers at the end. I’m not fundamentally opposed to this… indeed, you’ll see some fine examples of that trope in other movies or specials that I praise. But Christmas Eve on Sesame street has the best answer of all, I think.
I’m a strong proponent of what I call ‘Santa Agnosticism’: believing in Santa is fun, but you should always leave things a little mysterious. This way, when kids start to ask questions, the answers don’t turn them into tiny, adorable cynics. Instead it invites them to use their imaginations. It can become baby’s first metanarrative, their first glimpse of the fourth wall.
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street keeps the perfect level of mystery. As Big Bird dozes on the roof, we hear sleighbells, footsteps, and merry laughter. When he wakes up and there’s no sign that anyone has been there, but when he goes downstairs, the presents are all under the tree. Older kids might conclude that Gordon and Susan are the ones who put up all the decorations and brought out the presents, but Christmas Eve on Sesame Street makes it clear that the specifics of who does what and how are not important. What’s important is spending time, safe at home, with the ones you love.
At the same time… if we hear sleigh bells in a dream, maybe that dream does represent something? Maybe dreams can be real, or made real by the people we care about.
Watch this special. If you can, watch it with people you care about. And keep Christmas with you all through the year.