This 1978 PBS special opens on an iconic ice skating scene, a bone of contention between Henson fans and general internet contrarians. I never had trouble accepting the human-sized version of the Muppets. Sure, you saw them half an hour later, back to their legless, puppet-sized selves. But for now, suspend disbelief. It’s Christmas, after all. Muppets can skate and they’re damn good at it.
So good that Big Bird, a wobbly beginner, can suddenly lift and spin a young girl. I was jealous of her blond curls and proximity to my favorite bird for too many years of my young life.
As the crew walks home from the skating rink, they pose the overarching question of the movie: How does Santa get down the chimney? Big Bird worries that, if he doesn’t understand how Santa delivers gifts, he won’t get any.
Imagine the shock of realization that must have hit him. The cold slap of, “But wait…” as his bird brain tries to make sense of the issue. This doesn’t only relate to Santa; this is a larger philosophical question of how things can exist even if you don’t believe in them.
That sets up the framework for the entire film: believing.
First, you must believe that the life-sized Muppets on the ice-skating rink are, indeed, the same Muppets you later see on Sesame Street.
Then Big Bird and Snuffy try chimney-related experiments. Apparently, everyone on Sesame Street came to help because you must believe that Kermit and Grover can interview dozens of children at the last minute on Christmas Eve.
Later, we visit Cookie Monster. He’s trying to write a letter to Santa (yes, snail mail on Christmas Eve) about the cookies he wants. He starts with a pencil that he eats because he’s so hungry.
Next, he has a typewriter with about ten keys. You must believe that those ten keys are the only letters he needs.
Last, he calls Santa. You have to believe that he knows Santa’s number but, for some reason, thought writing a letter was the best choice. I suppose stamps were cheaper than a long-distance call…
Of course, Cookie Monster eats the receiver. We can hear Santa’s voice from his stomach, but somehow Santa can’t hear Cookie Monster’s voice.
We must believe that Cookie Monster thought his writing utensils and telephone were delicious.
Finally, Gordon suggests that Cookie Monster leaves Santa a gift to inspire goodwill. Cookie Monster offers to leave Santa a necktie or shaving cream. When he finds out that most people leave Santa cookies, he’s befuddled.
We must believe that Cookie Monster is selfless enough to give a little to get a little.
In Bert and Ernie’s segments, they’re struggling to buy each other the perfect gifts. Ernie goes to Mr. Hooper’s store, trading his beloved Rubber Ducky for a cigar box to hold Bert’s paper clip collection. Later, Bert shows up at the store and trades his paper clip collection for a soap dish where Rubber Ducky can perch in the tub.
We must believe that their treasured possessions are valuable.
If you first see this movie when you’re very young, and watch it so often that it’s ingrained in you, you’ll believe it’s all original. When you first read “The Gift of the Magi” in middle school, you’ll feel shocked. “This is from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street!” you’ll think, outraged on Jim Henson’s behalf until the teacher begins her O. Henry lecture.
This theme of believing mirrors what we experience in the real world: a lack of answers.
Am I the only one who happily accepts the life-sized Muppets for who they are? We don’t know.
Does Cookie Monster leave cookies for Santa? We don’t know.
Did Mr. Hooper return Bert and Ernie’s belongings because he’s generous, or because they were junk? We don’t know.
Likewise, Big Bird never finds out how Santa gets down the chimney. But he doesn’t need to know, because he still got presents. And isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas?
Allison Renner lives in Memphis, Tennessee. She typically works behind the scenes as an editor for Flash Fiction Magazineand the Publicity & Reviews Manager for Split/Lip Press. Her fiction has appeared in Six Sentences and Bastards and Whores. She’s on Twitter: @allisonrwrites