Every year on my personal blog, I post the lyrics to a song from my favorite childhood Christmas album as my seasonal well-wishes to anyone reading. I’m a Christmas Geek, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago, so I want to make sure my well-wishes express my feelings without alienating anyone who doesn’t share those feelings, and this song manages that perfectly. It’s heartfelt and gentle, it’s inclusive and welcoming of all faiths without shying away from personal spirituality, it’s about love and peace and togetherness. And also, it’s sung by Kermit the Frog.
I know, my friends in college thought I was joking at first when I started gushing about A Christmas Together, a 1979 collaboration between The Muppets and John Denver. Sounds gimmicky at best.
The weird thing is, I’m not sure it’s possible to make a less-gimmicky album, at least if you’re going to have puppet characters involved. Right, there’s (gasp) no such actual person as Kermit the Frog. These are just a bunch of puppeteers singing in the voices of their characters. And yet they sound so authentic. They’re not putting on a show. These characters, and most likely the people doing the singing through them, really believe the sentiments they’re singing about, and you can feel it. The same can’t be said for most of the pop artists who seem to be contractually obliged to record at least one holiday tune for incessant airplay on pop radio. When I listen to The Muppets (and John Denver, though I admit The Muppets are the real draw for me) on this album, I feel like I’m listening to people who really love what they’re singing about and are doing it because it makes them happy, not because some corporate bigwig decided to make money off of it. I don’t know if The Muppets can ever again capture quite that same spirit with Disney hovering over them, and especially not without Jim. It’s magical.
It’s also different, in a way I don’t think any licensed characters could ever get away with again. Sure, there are standards on this track list, and if you ever hear a song from this album played on the radio, likely it’s one of those standards, probably because the station program managers just grab onto the titles they recognize. But this is how they miss out on playing the actual best songs on this album. It’s the unknown and little-known songs that I truly adore. There are some John Denver originals, and some written by others involved in the production, gentle folk songs with just a hint of the lightness that comes from singing with puppets.
The album also has a spirituality to it that I can’t see most studio heads approving of. Either your work is overtly religious, so they can sell it through specialty publishers, or you stay the bleep away from any God-talk in your story so that no one is offended except War-on-Christmas vigilantes. But here The Muppets aren’t afraid of referring to, not only the Babe in Bethlehem, but all sorts of metaphysical ideas of faith and hope and love and peace and rebirth; and at the same time, they’re welcoming about it. It’s sharing, not preaching. They don’t want to beat you over the head with IT’S-JESUS’-BIRTHDAY-AND-EVERYTHING-ELSE-IS-WRONG. Instead the message is, I quote, “But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough for you to come and celebrate with me.”
My sentiments exactly.
Last year, not content to push just one song’s lyrics on my followers yet again, I wrote up a track-by-track review. I’d like to share it here with you, in the hope that maybe, if you don’t already know this album, I might tempt you into giving it a listen, and maybe you’ll discover a new favorite that the whole family won’t get sick of.
1. “Twelve Days of Christmas“
This is a song that gets occasional airplay on the Christmas stations, and I always think, really? “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is, frankly, a boring carol to listen to. This is a carol meant for active participation, not listening. The Muppets, at least, are aware of the cardinal rule of singing this song, which is that each day MUST be taken by a different person or group of persons, so that everyone has to remember to come in on their day, and there’s usually a great deal of showing-up and general silliness. That is the way you make “Twelve Days of Christmas” moderately interesting to listen to for all twelve verses. If anyone can make this work, The Muppets can, particularly Piggy, who eventually starts adding “Ba-dum dum dum” to the end of her verse (the five gold rings, naturally), which now I am also unable to keep from adding when I sing it (or happen to hear a more-boring recording of it).
2. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“
I love that I was about to type, “A duet between Rowlf and John Denver, Rowlf on piano.” I know, mentally, Rowlf is not on piano, it’s just some actual human piano player. But the magic is strong, and I know in my heart that that’s Rowlf on the piano. He concludes his piano arrangement with the first line of “Jingle Bells,” which I have noticed is a common way for pop renditions of Christmas carols to end. Have you noticed this, too? Count them some time, when you’re
being subjected to listening to an all-Christmas-music radio station. Take note every time a Christmas pop song ends with “Jingle Bells.” Who started it? And did everyone just copy them? Or did everyone come up with it independently and think they were being clever?
3. “The Peace Carol“
Something in my head insists that this is a moderately traditional carol that’s been around forever but just isn’t as well-known as most, something like “Coventry Carol” or “Brightest and Best” or one of those others you say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard this,” when you hear it, but you’d never think of it on your own? But when I did a search for it, all I found were references to this album, or at the very least John Denver on his own. The arrangement is credited to “Bob Beers” on the album notes, but there’s no mention of an original composer. But this is definitely one of the songs I wish was better known. It’s a lovely sing-along that makes me picture all the characters sitting around a campfire.
4. “Christmas is Coming“
This one is pure silly fun. Miss Piggy has rounded up a few of the others to sing this as a round, and enthusiastic chaos ensues. I found the song—at least the lyrics—in a piano book once and was disappointed because that version wasn’t nearly so fun as what’s happening here.
5. “A Baby Just Like You“
This is an original John Denver composition, directed toward a baby named Zachary. I’m not enough of a John Denver geek to know for sure, but apparently he did have a son named Zachary, which would make this much more personal than a mere carol. Anyway, when I was a kid I imagined that Baby Zachary was a character in the actual storyline of the Christmas Together TV special, and that everyone was singing this to him around his crib. When I finally saw the actual TV special on YouTube a few years ago, I actually found it disappointing: They do a lot of songs that aren’t on the album that are much weaker than those that are, and they leave out some of the best songs, and I just don’t think the songs that are on both were quite as good on the special as they were on the album, but I probably am biased from growing up on the latter. But my point is, there was also no Baby Zachary, and no storyline either, for that matter, so darn it John!
But in all seriousness, it’s a lovely song, and it’s become extra meaningful for me in the past few years, now that I have babies of my own.
6. “Deck the Halls“
There’s nothing notable about this track. It’s very nice though. It, of course, is also one of the ones that gets occasional radio play, because it’s a song people know already, but there’s just nothing special I really need to say about it. It’s The Muppets singing “Deck the Halls.” What it says on the tin.
7. “When the River Meets the Sea“
LISTEN UP: If you happen to be around for my funeral, and have any say over the playlist, you will play this track at my funeral or I will torment you from beyond the grave. Don’t hold me to that, though. Just play it for me so I DON’T have to come back and torment anybody, because I probably won’t actually feel like it.
When I was old enough to stop and really listen to the lyrics, I did wonder what a song that is, essentially, a funeral song (in fact it was sung at Jim Henson’s memorial) was doing on a Christmas album. It’s actually really deep and meta, I realized: Christmas celebrates the coming of Christ into the world in all ways, not just as a human child, so this just happens to be a second-coming Christmas song (“In that sweet and final hour truth and justice will be done”).
I didn’t see Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, the TV-movie that first used this song two years before, until I was in college. Then I finally realized Henson and crew were most likely merely throwing back to their earlier Christmas project by including this song. But no matter. This song is gorgeous and I can listen to it over and over, and maybe it’s just that I haven’t got any personal nostalgia for Emmett Otter, but I much prefer Robin and John Denver’s peaceful duet to the twangy granny singing in the movie. SORRY, EMMETT OTTER LOVERS.
8. “Little Saint Nick“
The Electric Mayhem OWNS this song. The original feels so canned in comparison, like (and this probably is what happened) the record company just went up to Brian Wilson and said, “Okay, write a song for you guys to release for our Christmas sales, so, you know, do something Christmas-related but Beach-Boys-ish, like make it about surfing or cars or something,” and so he did and they dutifully recorded it and it was a sufficiently Beach-Boys-ish Christmas song for the record company. But the Electric Mayhem plays it (again, *ahem*, YES THEY ARE playing it) like they want to play it! At the very least, they definitely make it rock harder. And I just feel like the original is missing something by not having a half-feral drummer screaming “RUN! RUN! REINDEER!” most of the way through.
9. “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913“
This is a gentle, beautiful John Denver solo. The lyrics are a poem by Robert Bridges, but it’s been set to different music at least two separate times. A few years back, my dad’s community choir performed a completely different setting of the poem, but I recognized it immediately, and went up to him afterwards all excited like “YOU DID THAT SONG FROM A CHRISTMAS TOGETHER BUT WITH DIFFERENT MUSIC!” and he couldn’t figure out what I was talking about, even though he’s surely listened to this album as many times as I have. I may have been a little overexcited for him to understand me clearly.
10. “The Christmas Wish“
This is the song I mentioned in the first paragraph, my traditional Christmas Blog Greeting. The one where all you have to do is believe in love and that’s the only requirement for celebrating with me. Are you one of those people who gets a little teary when Kermit sings “The Rainbow Connection”? Then this one will get you, too. In fact, here, I’ll share it with you even more directly. You don’t even have to leave this page:
11. “Medley: Alfie, the Christmas Tree/It’s In Every One of Us“
The first half of this “medley” is John Denver reciting a poem over a kind of annoyingly repetitive organ part. It always kind of grates on me, and makes me wish this was two separate tracks so I could skip to the second part, though it grows on me a little as it goes on. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. First it’s about a Christmas tree who doesn’t want to be a Christmas tree because he wants to keep living in the woods, then the tree says it isn’t that he doesn’t like Christmas because in fact he loves it and lives it every day, but what about everyone who doesn’t believe in Christmas, does that mean they can’t live the Christmas spirit every day no of course not because life belongs to every living thing, so remember to keep nature in your prayers? It’s all beautiful sentiment, but it seems to jump from idea to idea without really exploring it thoroughly, and because it’s not beautiful music like all the rest of it, it’s probably my least favorite part of the album. But then “It’s In Every One of Us” starts and all is forgiven, because that part is just a simple hippie anthem that makes you want to join hands with all The Muppets around Alfie (or any other tree) and sing your heart out.
12. “Silent Night, Holy Night“
This was very educational for me as a child. Everyone sings the first verse in the original German, which is a good reminder for an American kid: Ooo, look, the world doesn’t revolve around you! This song was originally in a different language, you know! Then John Denver starts talking again, which is initially jarring after having so recently sat through “Alfie,” but this time he’s telling the story of how “Silent Night” came to be written, which is interesting (although a little romanticized). Then everyone joins back in singing, this time in English.
There’s a bit I sort of love here, demonstrating what I said about the authenticity of it all. Fozzie, I think–somebody played by Frank Oz, most likely Fozzie, but maybe Animal–hits a note slightly off. But it feels right. It doesn’t feel like it’s done for laughs, or that it’s a glaring mistake that pulls you out of the moment. It just feels like Fozzie is genuinely singing his heart out, and he isn’t a perfect singer, but that’s okay. I love that note.
13. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas“
When I was a kid I was genuinely confused by why everyone else in the world sang the “good tidings to you” verse, which they skip on this album. Obviously The Muppets should be definitive, right? And even when people do remember to sing the verse about figgy pudding, well, that loses something if not interrupted by an irate pig who thinks you’re proposing to cook her and/or her kin. Honestly, The Muppets should be the last word, and I’m still confused how they’re not.
So, lovely readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, figgy pudding or no. If you’re not feeling peace in your heart yet, I do recommend you listen to this album pronto. At least “The Christmas Wish.”