“What’s your favorite holiday movie?” asked Dania, as she tacked a paper snowman to the wall.
“Hm, I’d have to think about it,” Gwen demurred. So many good options to pick from. “The best Christmas films are the ones you watch when you’re younger. They’re family oriented. So should I account for that person bias when picking?”
“No, bias it up,” Dania replied. “Anyone can say, like Home Alone, I’m talking about personal favorites.”
“Oh, I do really like Home Alone, though,” Eleanor said.
“Well, pick another one.”
“Tokyo Godfathers remains a personal favorite,” Gwen recalled. “I’m glad Dania could share that one.”
“What about A Christmas Prince?” asked Dania, taking more decorations out of the box. “Come on, I know there are weird ones you’ve seen before. Anything else?”
“There’s a short film…do they have to be full-length?” asked Eleanor.
“Absolutely not, Charlie Brown Christmas is like twenty-five minutes long.”
“Okay, there’s an old animated special, called The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas,” Eleanor said.
“It was, if I remember it. I’m sure if you looked for it, you could find it online somewhere.”
“All right, I have mine,” Gwen said, stepping out from the kitchen with a tray of mugs.
Dania came down from her stepladder, to her mug of hot chocolate. “Okay, shoot.”
“Do you know Arthur’s Perfect Christmas?” asked Gwen, handing Eleanor her cider. The mug nearly spilled over as Eleanor looked up in shock.
“I do!” she cried out. “I do know Arthur’s Perfect Christmas!”
“Hazel used to watch it every single year,” Gwen explained. She settled into the armchair, sipping her own hot cocoa. “Multiple times. I have that film ingrained into my subconscious now.”
“I loved that special,” Eleanor said, grinning wide. “I was a big fan of Arthur throughout elementary school. So the special was an obvious addition to that.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Dania said, standing frozen. “Is that the strange CG-animated one from a few years ago?”
“No, that’s Arthur Christmas, it’s entirely different,” Gwen clarified. “This was the holiday special for the Arthur TV show.”
“Do I have it on my laptop?” Eleanor wondered aloud. Before she could answer herself, she was walking off to her room, to search for the special.
“Okay, so explain,” Dania pressed.
“Not much to explain,” Gwen began, taking another sip. “It was a holiday special with the characters from Arthur. Imagine most of the twists or plot threads that would entail, and you’ve got a good idea of what happens. Muffy and Francine fight about Christmas versus Hanukkah. Buster and his mother deal with the aftermath of his parents divorce. Binky tries to bake holiday treats but keeps messing up.”
Gwen took another sip, before noticing that Dania hadn’t responded yet. Instead, she looked on confused.
“You’ll have to go further back than that,” Dania said. “I barely know Arthur at all.”
Gwen raised an eyebrow. “Really? Not at all?”
“Not everyone watched the same TV as you and Eleanor, apparently.”
“It was on PBS, it wasn’t like there was a paywall on it.”
Eleanor returned. “Okay, I don’t have the special,” she said, setting the laptop down on the coffee table. “But, I do have this.”
She pressed a key, and a familiar rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon began to play, joined eventually by a child’s voice: “Have you ever wanted something to be the positively, absolutely, most best it could possibly be?”
“Oh my God,” Gwen squealed. Dania took another sip of hot chocolate.
“Well, that’s how I want this Christmas to be,” the voice continued. “Not good. Not great. Perfect.”
The music kicked up, into a rollicking uptempo number, as Arthur continued singing about how perfect the titular Christmas would be.
“Okay, the CD was the best part of the special,” Eleanor explained to a quizzical Dania. “They recorded a whole bunch of holiday music that didn’t make the final cut, so the CD is where they dumped those recordings. And it still sort of slaps.”
“Somewhat,” Gwen tempered. “If you don’t know anything about the Arthur series –– truly, if you haven’t seen this one special –– the soundtrack can feel opaque. Not that it’s littered with references, but the character voices and references that show up throughout can feel intrusive.”
Gwen skipped forward one song, to the album’s defining track: a Dixieland jazz cover of “Jingle Bells.” The song, arranged to include greater syncopation and rhythmic variance as the tune scrolled along, was performed by the full cast of Arthur, in character. Vocal solos were given to Buster (Daniel Brochu) and Binky (Bruce Dinsmore). Later clarinet and piano solos were ascribed, sight unseen, to members of the fictional cast, through additional dialogue.
“I feel like this is impossible to just listen to,” Dania grimaced.
“It…might be,” admitted Eleanor. “You have to understand, growing up with the special, you don’t judge it critically.”
“I get that,” Dania said. “That’s the point of what I said earlier. I’m way into the thing where we all have our guilty pleasure holiday movies. They don’t have to be good to get you feeling the holiday spirit.”
“Sometimes the more niche they are, the more you attach to them,” Gwen said. “It makes you feel like you have ownership over them, to love something so flawed.”
Dania chuckled. “I suppose,” she added. “But introducing someone else to it is always going to be rocky.”
“That’s why I latch onto the soundtrack, though,” Gwen said. “Yes, it’s niche, and the special it’s based on is perfectly acceptable. But the CD, for some reason…”
She stopped talking, and instead turned her attention back to the music. “Jingle Bells” being over, the next track was “The First Noel,” performed by Arthur’s sister, D.W.:
“The first noel…the second noel…the third noel…the fourth noel…”
“Okay, not that one,” Eleanor said, skipping ahead to “Here We Come a’Wassailing.” The song, among the C-list Christmas carols, had undergone a radical transformation into a soft rock bop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place at Live Aid.
“This song doesn’t appear in the special,” Gwen pointed out. “But listen to the energy on display in the vocals. Think about the arrangement work that went into those funky harmonies during the chorus, or the recording process with so many kinds of instruments.”
“The CD isn’t just one style, either,” Eleanor explained. “There are a handful of classic Western carols included, but there’s also a long section in the middle featuring winter songs from other world cultures: Hanukkah and Kwanzaa both get represented, plus Christmas songs from Spain, France, and Scandinavia.”
“Arthur has always been a benchmark of holistic inclusivity,” continued Gwen. “If they’re putting together a holiday CD, there’s no way they were going to let it go out with only western, Christian songs on it.”
“The balance isn’t great,” Dania mused, looking at the songlist. “One or two for each other culture, but half the album is still fairly widespread Christian stuff.”
“As I said, holistically inclusive,” Gwen repeated. “Painting with a wide brush. Hanukkah gets three songs only because it’s prominently featured in the special itself.”
“There are also some songs –– I guess the opener counts,” Eleanor added, “that appear in the special as, you know, just songs. It’s a musical, so some of the numbers are there to move the plot forward. They discuss Christmas, but they don’t stand on their own.”
“Eh, it happens,” Dania shrugged. “The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack contains the ‘Linus And Lucy’ theme, despite it having nothing to do with Christmas.”
“Well, at this point it does,” Eleanor said, “considering how long people have been listening to that CD at the holidays.”
“For kids growing up listening to this soundtrack,” Gwen said, “anything that was on it became an auditory totem for invoking the spirit of the holiday. Even a song like ‘Baxter Day,’ or D.W.’s misheard carols that pepper the album.”
“Yeah,” agreed Eleanor. “The secret of seasonal media is that a Christmas special doesn’t have to be good to fill you with the holiday spirit. The best ones are, obviously. But because so much of the season is rooted in personal experience and memory, a special like Arthur’s Perfect Christmas, or The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas, or honestly most of the Rankin-Bass stop motion specials…”
“Do not come for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in my house,” Dania warned, her gaze sharpening. “In this home, we stan Yukon Cornelius.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes, and continued: “So long as you watch a special long enough to give it personal significance, it can be revered.”
“Which is exactly why the soundtrack impresses me,” Gwen commented. “It works in a similar vein to something like The Nightmare Before Christmas: you grow up loving it for being itself, this weird thing that you listen to each year. But as you get older, you can take stock of more detail with each pass through it. You grow to appreciate the album for the strength of its musical arrangements, the complexity of the vocal performances, the breadth of its song selections –– and the context that all this work was put into a product that wasn’t intended to have any true longevity at all.”
Dania considered this, as she listened to the soundtrack’s punk-rock cover of “Silent Night.” “I don’t know if I agree with that last point, Gwen,” she finally added.
“What? About longevity?”
“Yeah,” said Dania. “I don’t think anyone expected that Arthur’s Perfect Christmas would become a new holiday classic, with reruns on ABC every year. But I’m sure someone at least hoped that people would continue watching it into the future. I’d hope that the creators of any Christmas-themed media would consider that.”
“Perhaps,” Gwen said, taking another sip of hot chocolate.
“I just think it’s worth keeping this strange CD in our hearts around the holiday,” Eleanor summed up. “Not that I’d be recommending it blindly, but if you grew up with it before, know that there’s more effort buried in there than you may have originally noticed.”
“The holidays are a time for finding hidden cultural gems,” Gwen quipped.
“Yeah,” smiled Dania. “Or, at least, recognizing the ones we already have.”
Image Credit: Amazon