There's a lot of good Christmas specials, and certainly plenty of great Christmas specials. Then there's a few that were fantastic enough to survive for decades without losing steam. Still, every high head has a low ass, and the proof is in 1979's "A Family Circus Christmas." Based on the strips everyone makes fun of but still reads anyway 'cause it takes about two seconds to digest 'em, the holiday toon probably wasn't as bad as you're suspecting...but it's close.
In a world where virtually every holiday special is still widely available for all who'd seek them, "A Family Circus Christmas" remains a comparative rarity; a seeming urban legend that can't possibly exist because who in their right mind would make a cartoon about Jeffy and "Not Me?"
To give you an idea about what we're up against, I've actually had this tape sitting on deck for the past two Christmas seasons on the site. While it was obviously great X-E fodder, I just couldn't sit through the special. Toooo slooow. I'm not even one of the many who absolutely loath "The Family Circus," either. I used to get a big kick out of those Sunday "directional path" strips where we'd trace the footsteps of Billy through his adventures in the backyard, woods, or random construction site. I wasn't trying to hate it. I was just trying to stay awake.
There's the three eldest kids. Dolly, Billy and Jeffy. The first two are fine and dandy -- they're actually a lot more likable here than in the actual strip, with Dolly taking on a sort of Lucy Van Pelt role, and Billy just being vociferous in his discontent for everything having to do with the special. Seriously, you've never seen an animated kid maintain a level of irritability for thirty minutes straight so well. Still, Dolly and Billy are bit players here -- foils for the real star of the show...Jeffy.
Now, I don't recall ever having any abnormal hatred for Jeffy while reading the strip. He was just sorta "there." I didn't like him, I didn't hate him -- just totally didn't even notice him. In "A Family Circus Christmas," it's all about Jeffy. After seeing the special, that fact is on par with coercing a really messy dog into taking a big shit on the cassette. In either case, you're not going to want to approach this video.
You know how some people can tell entire stories without a single break between words? They just kinda throw endless barrages of annoying sounds at your face, putting you in the position not only to hear it, but to actually try to comprehend something your subconscious is actively blocking out? Meet Jeffy.
The special focuses mainly on Jeffy's impossible desired gift for his father. It includes a dream sequence with several veiled drug references, a Santa Claus silhouette who flies around scratching his ass whenever Jeffy does something "good" or "bad," and a housewife with chest torpedoes more pointy than the many ends of a Bavarian Star. It's way more heavy handed than most Christmas specials -- we're dealing with topics like death and loss and God and big pointy momma tits, so at least "A Family Circus Christmas" is interesting if only in a "are they really saying that?!" way. Here's my review of the nightmare, complete with a handful of video clips so you'll believe what I'm telling you.
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Meet Santa Claus. Appearing as an apparition meant to instill senses of good in children worldwide, Jeffy frequently notices this sad sack of invisible shit haunting his every move. Dolly and Billy don't believe him, but Jeffy swears that he's being chased -- literally -- by Santa Claus. Please. If the guy really existed, even as a flying paint-by-numbers canvas, I'm sure he'd find a more interesting kid to stalk than Jeffy. I mean, all Jeffy does is run around "Barfy the Dog" in circles. What a stupid way to carry out an inner lust for voyeurism, Santa.
Through these strange "Ghost Santa" scenes, we learn that Jeffy hasn't lost his faith in Saint Nick. Actually, he's pretty fanatical in his devotion. Whether by repeatedly cleaning his room or erecting miniature shrines to Mrs. Claus using Play-Doh and clumps of Dolly's hair, Jeffy quickly establishes himself as a God-and-Santa fearing Christian with no intentions of mussing up his holiday gift bounty. He hasn't gotten around to writing up that there wish list yet, but there's still time.
December progresses, as it always does, and finally it's time for the family to put up the tree. Dad is sure to put the tree's "bare spot" facing the wall, and unbelievably enough, this becomes an important plot point later. After dolling it up with the usual gamut of ornaments and lights, everyone awaits the familiar climax: they've gotta add the traditional tree topper. It's a family heirloom -- a star made by Daddy's father on some long ago rainy afternoon. Every year without fail, that glorious glass star has topped the family's Christmas Tree. It was the glue that kept the holidays strong. It was the drug of Christmastime. This poses a minor problem, because this year, they can't find it.
The family is at a loss for words. How can they have Christmas without Grandpa's star? The kids wax poetic about the missing star being symbolic for the lost meanings of the holiday season; Mommy sulks around, negotiating her bazookas. After a few minutes, they get over the loss. After all, it was just a stained glass tree topper. Woolworth's sold the exact same kind for six bucks. Things were looking up, but Daddy wasn't quite ready to let go of the past. He missed his father's Christmas star. He missed that star more than he missed the man himself.
Their Christmas could've been merry. It always was before. Now that Dad's gone into an almost catatonic state of depression, what hope can we have for the big day? It's here that we find out a particularly understated truth from the comic strip: Daddy was very, very peculiar. And his eyes looked like urban Sea Monkeys. A terrible father all around, Daddy decides to pass on his usual holiday cheer, opting to act as miserable as possible until that AWOL star flies back atop his annual tree murder.
And then....Jeffy gets an idea.
Associating his pop's sadness with a severe longing for the days when Grandpa was still alive, he hatches the plan to ask Santa Claus to bring ol' granddad back from the dead. I am absolutely serious. In a world where asking for ponies and race cars is considered an unfruitful taboo in the realm of Christmas lists, Jeffy's request is adamant in its stupidity. With visions of worm-infested corpses dashing through the front door with antipasto platters to share on Christmas morning, Jeffy slowly falls asleep. Because the special was designed only to torment its audience, we enter into Jeffy's mind and share in his various dreams. This is where things get interesting...
Ho Ho Ho, he's dreaming of Santa Claus. Pretty typical kiddy dream in December, but Jeffy ups the ante by envisioning himself riding along with Santa on his infamous reindeer-powered sleigh. Santa takes our hero on a tour of outer space, and clues us in on some of the finer mysteries of Christmas. For example, did you know that there's elves in the clouds who ensure that the snow we get nailed with on Christmas is of perfect quality to make snowmen? Yep.
Furthermore, did you know that other elves purposefully cut sections out of Christmas Trees so we know which side to point at the wall? This is Jeffy's dream. Blame him. While Jeffy's appropriately googoo gaga over all the Christmas wonders, he hasn't forgotten his mission. As Santa chats up a storm about cloud-living elves and mutilated trees, Jeffy quietly interrupts and pops the question we've all been waiting for.
"Santa, can you bring Granddad down from Heaven?"
It's the Christmas wish to end all Christmas wishes. Santa contemplates the possibilities for a moment, remembers that he's pretty much God, and snaps back with a quick "well...I AM Santa Claus!" Unreal. This is the same schmuck who refused to bring me an Omnibot 2000 in 1984. I may not have been as genuinely "good" as Jeffy, but come on...I wasn't killing anyone or setting animals on fire. Just as I was becoming totally incensed with the very idea of Santa Claus, I realized the awful truth: this was all just some loosely coherent dream sequence. Santa hasn't promised Jeffy anything in real life. Thank God -- I'd hate to lose my shine for Santa this late in the game, especially over a Christmas special I didn't really want to watch anyway.
As the dream ends, Jeffy wakes up in a fit of cheer. Imaginary world or not, he firmly believes that Santa will make good on his promise. Looks like the Family Circus is gonna have a Christmas morning fit for Unsolved Mysteries. Granddad's a'comin back from dee dead!
Now that that's taken care of, the only thing left for Jeffy to do is brag about his accomplishment. After waking up Billy to explain the situation, we find an older brother who's just absolutely sick and tired of being related to such an idiot...
At first, Billy tries to handle the situation all smooth. He doesn't want to hurt Jeffy's feelings, but he can't let the kid think he's getting a reincarnated grandfather for Christmas. He'd just be setting his brother up for the worst Christmas ever. Jeffy is steadfast in his beliefs, though, so Billy has no choice but to lay on the truth with a thicker sauce: "FORGET IT, JEFFY! IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!" After hearing this dreadful lie, Jeffy degenerates into a pile of his own tears. He thought Santa Claus could do anything!
From here on out, the special becomes more desperate. Jeffy refuses to believe that Santa isn't going to come through for him, but there are certainly a few nagging doubts. Plus, they still haven't found that missing tree topper. Plus, Dolly's getting all pissed because she may as well not even be listed in the credits with the criminally tiny role she's been handed.
Mommy brings the kids to a prototypical Mall Santa, inspiring several spirited conversations between the children as to just how Santa appears at all of these places at one time. Billy offers some interesting theories: for one, Santa has a magical stopwatch that freezes time so he can go about his Santa bidness without being seen or interrupted. I'm not sure if it's the first time I've heard that one, but it still sounds ridiculous. By that logic, why would he even bother cramming all of that activity into one solid block? Why not can the reindeer, and just leisurely go about dropping off presents while touring the seven continents? A little stop in Paris, the Grand Canyon....Hell, I bet even Chile has some crazy shit worth seeing if you've got the time to search broadly enough. And Santa? He's got the time. He's got all the time in the world to see the world. Why bust your ass, rushing through it on a flying couch covered in animals? Screw the stopwatch...Santa never had a stopwatch.
Billy, progressively sensing the inherent stupidity in his first theory even as he says it aloud, shifts towards a second idea. "Santa moves around so fast, kids can't 'een see him!" If that's the case, Billy, then why does he bother going down the chimney? Kicks? There's more holes in these theories than paint colors used to properly illustrate the golden fur of one Barfy the Dog. I think I liked Billy better when I could cover him with the TV listings. The remote was sooo far away.
Anyway, Jeffy hops onto Santa's lap, assuming that the guy already knows his wishlist. Santa plays along, but drops the charade after Jeffy brings up that whole "grandfather DOWN FROM HEAVEN" thing. Not even a Mall Santa, famous for their boundless promises, would agree to something like that. Like Dead Bruce Willis, Jeffy only hears what he wants to hear. As fas as he's concerned, there's a grandfather wrapped in red and green paper on the way.
Guess what -- Daddy's still depressed. I didn't get it. Turning to the lamp since nobody else was in the room, I asked if Daddy's lasting woes really seemed justified. The lamp shook his head, sighed and pondered aloud whether the tree topper was made of 24 karat gold. The lamp and I chuckled, and though no less annoyed with Daddy's critical mood than before, we were satisfied enough in knowing that our hatred spawned together.
Interesting thing was...the lamp wasn't plugged in.
Again, the special debuted in 1979. Now I know why everyone not my age hates everyone my age. We're the Year of A Family Circus Christmas. It's like being Hitler's son.
Santa continues scribbling away at his good/bad list, marking down everything Jeffy does good/bad. In what I'd call the ultimate slap to Santa's face, Jeffy actually just covers his various messes up with blankets right in the red guy's view. It's a quick ticket to coal, but Jeffy's too blinded with visions of Granddad to notice the Invisible Santa Claus' Invisible Cold Stare. You could've cut the mounting tension with cardboard. Big shit was gonna go down, no doubt about it. Four stars, fast action.
On Christmas Eve, Daddy reads the kids from the great unnamed book. Everyone from Dolly straight down to the dog interrupts his every sentence, ultimate driving him to remember that he's supposed to be all depressed and bad father-like. Daddy ends the show early and goes to bed, and the kids don't quite know what to make of it. He always seemed to love Christmastime so much. What was so different about this year? Could it really be one lousy missing tree topper? I mean, ol' grandpa's been dead for like twenty years now. The wounds have been healed for a long time. What's with all of this "going to bed early" shit? On Christmas Eve?! Why in God's name would Daddy want to turn in early on Christmas Eve?
And wouldn't you know it? During the very late hours of Christmas Eve, who would appear but the ghost of Granddad. A stylish silhouette by all counts, Granddad makes a faux embrace with Jeffy before noticing something terribly wrong with the family's Christmas Tree.
Where's his God damned tree topper?
Jeffy, cast in the unenviable position of having to disappoint someone who's dead, explains that nobody could find the ol' star. Granddad makes a silent huff, stopping short of breaking a vase as he somehow remembers where it is! It's in the closet! Right at the top of the closet! Jeffy stands atop a loose pile of boxes and books to reach high, and just as he finds the box, Granddad's ghost vanishes and Daddy wakes up. He's come to inspect the curious late night noise, but what he'll receive is a Christmas miracle on par with Ralphie's BB gun or Garfield's backscratcher. It's....the lost tree topper!
Jeffy: Daddy! Granddad told me it was in the closet!
Daddy: Oh, Jeffy. Your grandfather is dead.
Jeffy: Yeah! Dead serious about getting this star back on our tree!
It's a Kodak moment -- the family was reunited with their favorite decoration, and the Christmas Tree had never looked so beautiful. Other pets familiar only to those devoted to the comic strip make their first appearance as everyone gathers around the tree topper's holy light, not so much singing Christmas carols as much as wondering if it's a good time to sing Christmas carols. On Christmas, it's the thought that counts.
On Christmas morning, everything was as it should've been. The kids were happy, toys littered the living room floor, and Daddy's cup of coffee steamed with the rage of eight flying reindeer. Would've been nine if the steam was...luminescent.
So ends our story. What have we learned? One, spirits can pay visits from Heaven, but only for circumstances as dire as a missing tree topper. Two, Dads can shift their entire lifestyle and parental habits if they're irked by the loss of a tree topper. Three, Santa controls our dreams. Four, and most importantly, we shouldn't feel bad about whatever we've named our dog. We now know that our dog isn't the most poorly named dog in history.
There's a lot of shitty holiday specials that we still love because we grew up with 'em. I guess the same could be said for "A Family Circus Christmas." If you grew up with it, you can probably look past the negatives. If you didn't grow up with it, it was just a shitty holiday special.
Somewhere off in the distance, the founders of The Family Circus Fan Club march onward with pitchforks, touting "A Family Circus Christmas" as one of the all time classics. "Keane is Keen, Keane is Keen" is shouted in unison, while all who disagree are left wounded by the fan club's rather army ant-esque march of protest. It's a disgusting notion, but it's time to stop pretending like these problems don't exist. It's time we did something.