I don’t have many Christmas traditions, but there is one thing I try to do every year: at some point during the Christmas season, I watch Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas. The 48-minute muppet special first aired in 1977, so it’s been a part of Christmas at my house for more than 35 years. (You can order a copy, or watch on streaming video through Amazon Prime).

With music and lyrics written by Paul Williams, the homey musical offers a view of life that may be idealistic, but appeals to my soul because it speaks not only of hope in hard times and a willingness to risk, but of a generous love that makes room for everyone. That vision of life is sorely needed in a world as polarized, suspicious, and phobic as the one in which we currently live.

In a song called “Our World” (click the link to listen), Alice Otter declares 

Some say our world is getting too small

I say with kindness there’s room for us all,

Our world is always changing, every day’s a surprise.

Love can open your eyes in our world.

When night lays sad upon you, go watch a simple sunrise.

Love can open your eyes in our world.

The Otter family’s love-based world is not the only one in evidence, though. A band of ruffians known as the “Riverbottom Gang” has an entirely different worldview, one that is darker, dubious, and self-focused.

Emmet and his friends join to sing as the “Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jugband” in a local talent contest, in which the local hooligans also participate as “The Nightmare.” In a song called “Brothers,” Emmet and friends sing about the importance of recognizing our similarities and accepting one another as family. A line from the song celebrates “So many things to learn, but we’ll enjoy each lesson.”

In contrast, the Riverbottom gang sings of their disdain for all but themselves. In “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” they proclaim “We don’t wish to learn, but we hate what we don’t understand.”

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? When we take time to know other people, when we learn about others and appreciate our common humanity, hopes and dreams, then things like race and income levels and gender identity become less divisive.

If, on the other hand, we insist on living in a homogenous world that can only accept people like us, our tendency is to reject those who are different and “hate what we don’t understand.”

On the day (or night) Jesus was born into the world, he came as the fulfillment of a divine love willing to suffer and die so that “whosovever” may find life in him. Who.So.Ever. That’s the world God calls us to inhabit: a world of generosity and grace.

Or, as Ma Otter puts it,

Our world says ‘welcome stranger,’ everybody’s a friend.

Favorite stories don’t end in our world.

That’s a hopeful and starry-eyed vision, I know — but isn’t this a season for hope and for stars?


[Special thanks to ACartoonChristmas.com for a nice tribute page. Video clips are also available on YouTube.]

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