According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.
You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.
Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)
A Garfield Christmas
A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.
As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.
The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”
A Claymation Christmas Celebration
Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.
The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)
Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way. And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)
Why We Don’t See Them Anymore
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.
Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?
On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.
Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.
Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.
The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”