Last year around this time, I was settling into the post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas ritual of watching all of my favorite holiday specials and movies. As someone who cut the cord years ago, there’s still a certain comfort in finding the Griswolds on my parents’ cable when I’m back in Ohio. A trip I won’t be taking this year for the first time. It never truly felt like Christmas until I heard someone tell Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out. But when it comes to the holiday specials and classics from my childhood that are an absolute must-watch, none ranks higher for me than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
As an avid lover of all things Jim Henson, and as someone who can be easily taken in by the corny cheer of a season, I live in the perfect center of the Venn diagram of folks for whom Emmet Otter is for. It was cute for me as a kid, charming for me as I got older. As versions of it came and went from print, it took on a mythical quality—a chase. Many a season I’d spend trying to find that YouTube video someone posted of it last year. Or I’d look for an elusive DVD copy on eBay, or hope someone was showing it on TV. Was it the Kermit version, or the one where he was edited out for copyright reasons?
I own it digitally now, and currently, it’s available on Prime. But last year, as I booted up my copy of it and pressed play, something new happened with me. Something had changed about my favorite Christmas special. I came to a sudden and somewhat horrific conclusion.
Emmet Otter would always hurt a little now.
The Jim Henson Company
The thing is, last November my father passed away. Losing a loved one is an experience I’ve been through far too often in recent years. But losing someone as important to me as my dad just before the winter holiday season was especially cruel. Just as the malaise of the funeral process and a numb Thanksgiving began to recede, every Christmas carol, every movie about the importance of being home for the holidays, even commercials of families in matching pajamas—a tradition we never, ever partook in—was gutting. If you’ve never had the experience of sobbing openly in the middle of the World of Color holiday water light show at Disneyland’s California Adventure, I can tell you that I do not recommend it.
Those of you who know the story of Emmet Otter probably can see where this is heading. For the rest, let me just mildly spoil it for you here. Emmet (Jerry Nelson) and his mother Alice (Marilyn Sokol) are the two main characters. Both attempt to make a Christmas that is joyful for each other in a Gift of the Magi-style situation involving the prize in a local talent contest. And the reason they need to do that is that this is their first Christmas following the death of Emmet’s father.
Right now you’re probably thinking, Riley, why would you possibly choose to sit down and watch a special that is literally specifically about the exact thing that has been a constant sort of pain for you? And the honest answer looking back is that I simply hadn’t thought about the plot. I was on semi-autopilot mode and Emmet and his Ma have been sources of comfort for me throughout the years. It was something I just gravitated to. It wasn’t until I was too far in that I realized it would never feel the same for me again.
The Jim Henson Company
Yet here I am a year later, in full awareness of what this special did for me last year, and reaching for it now all the same. Despite the number of times I’ve seen this thing in my life, I wasn’t prepared for the way it has come to mean something fully different for me now. Look, I still love the Muppets, the cute story, and the rock-and-roll showmanship of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. But this thing that was once just a silly little throwback has found its way into a new space in my heart.
It’s very strange to see myself and my own mother in these two almost expressionless otter puppets. And yet here they are both just trying to move forward as much as they can. But the presence of Pa looms large over them. The stakes of this little small town talent contest mean everything to them. Because they’d both give everything to just make the season a little bit happier for the other.
I will never view Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas the same way I did prior to a year ago. But I’ll still reach for it as much as I always have. Sometimes growing up with something means exactly that. It was there when I needed it back then. And it’s here for me now.
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is currently available on Amazon Prime for streaming in the United States.