'John Denver & The Muppets' is the Greatest Christmas Album of All-time
Somber but hopeful, it's far more than just Christmas music
I grew up during the peak Muppet years, a period between the mid 70's and the late 80's. They loom large in my memories of childhood, as does their Christmas album, John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together. The album remains a tether to all that was and now can only be faintly glimpsed.
We’ve always called it ‘The Muppets Christmas album’—sorry John—but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to truly appreciate John Denver’s contributions.
There is something beautiful and haunting in ‘A Baby Just Like You’, a song he wrote to his son. A father myself, the lyrics stir something nameless thing inside of me, some mix of nostalgia, grief for lost innocence, hope for my children, and the recognition of my own mortality.
The Christmastime when I was young
The magic and the wonder
But colors dull and candles dim
And dark my standing under
Oh little angel, shining light
You’ve set my soul to dreaming
You’ve given back my joy in life
You’ve filled me with new meaning
The entire album is full of such melancholic beauty. Despite the Muppets’ loud and colorful presence, I wouldn’t call this an upbeat album. It’s often a bit dour and serious, though never pessimistic. A current of hope runs through all the songs. It’s surprisingly mature for an album song in part by puppets.
The fun songs are those headlined by the Muppets. Their rendition of Little Saint Nick is the best one going (you can’t top Animal yelling ‘run run reindeer’). But those aren’t the songs I turn toward now. These days I gravitate to John’s solos, or ones with the Muppets in a clear supporting role.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — with Rowlf on the piano, matching John’s quiet melancholy.
The Peace Carol — a wistful song about the peace of Christmas, backed by Muppets and banjos.
Medley: Alfie the Christmas Tree / It’s in Every One of Us — the first half is a spoken poem I don’t mind, but the real star here is John’s rendition of It’s in Every One of Us, sung with open-hearted optimism.
Silent Night — this somber twist on an old favorite opens with the Muppets singing in hushed German. John interjects with the story of the song’s creation, and then he joins the Muppets by finishing the song in English. The final verse is both beautiful and haunting. John sings like I imagine angels must.
For all that John Denver love, it’s actually the Kermit solo that steals my heart. I’ve always been a Kermit the Frog guy, and I guess I always will be. That’s the real Rainbow Connection.2
The Christmas Wish is backed by the Muppets but is clearly Kermit’s song, sung in a slightly wavering but resolute way that is emblematic of my favorite Muppet.
Even though I never saw a Christmas star
I know there is a light I have felt it burn inside
I suppose it’s a bit weird to be moved by a puppet. I know the words are actually being sung by a puppeteer, that Kermit the Frog isn’t real, but damn if this song doesn’t make me believe in him. I, too, have felt it burn inside, and every time Kermit sings that line I come a bit undone.3
I can’t listen to this album without thinking of John’s tragic death.
I was in college when it happened and thus distracted by everything that entails. I don’t remember being too upset at the time, but his death has grown outsized in the years since. I think about his son Zachary, to whom he sings in ‘A Baby Just Like You’. The song was originally released as part of Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas album in 1975, meaning Zachary is almost 50 years-old. Did he find all the things his father hoped for him?
I wonder how John’s children remember him, and if they listen to this album at Christmas, and if they feel the same sharp yearning for the past their father did. I wonder how my own children will recall me when I’m gone.
These are the things this album does to me.
There’s a good chance this isn’t your favorite Christmas album. Maybe you had to grow up with Muppets to hold it as dearly as I do. But it remains some of the most beautiful and stirring music I have ever heard, and the fact that it’s partly sung by Muppets only makes it more magical. I think we could all use some of the world-weary hope John Denver & The Muppets evokes.
I’d like to leave you with this from The Christmas Wish, as sung by Kermit the Frog:
I would like to say a simple prayer
That at this special time you will have true peace of mind
And joy to last throughout the coming year
Gonzo is the Muppet with the droopy purple penis-nose.
I owned a Kermit the Frog toy/stuffed animal when I was a kid. He slept with me every night. I’m only now feeling a bit weirded out that he wore a trench coat and nothing else.
It was so hard—that’s what she said—not to make some kind of STD joke when Kermit sings about it ‘burning inside,’ but it was tonally all wrong, so I resisted my natural instincts.
This piece ended up a lot more introspective and serious than my usual stuff, which just means I needed to flood the footnotes with the requisite amount of dick jokes. I’m pretty sure that’s what ‘fair and balanced’ means.
Also: sorry, Mom.