Stop animation — that’s what I see when I hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” I suspect that this is true for many who grew up, like I did, with a Christmas tradition of watching stop-animation specials on TV, like the two that got their titles from those songs.

ken priebeSo it seems right and good to invite animator, illustrator, author, and instructor Ken Priebe as a special contributor to the Looking Closer Christmas Playlist project.

Ken has written two books on the demanding art of stop animation. And he will soon share a new book with the world: Gnomes of the Cheese Forest.

These are the songs that serve as Ken’s Christmas soundtrack.

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together

Christmas and the Muppets have always gone hand-in-hand for me. I had this album on vinyl growing up, and have since collected a rare CD print of it to keep returning to it year after year. In many ways I feel it’s one of the best achievements of the Muppets in general, and the mix of songs really captures their essence from the peak of their popularity in the late 70s.

The music of the Muppets was very intentional in preserving and re-inventing classic songs of eras gone by, from vaudeville standards to jazz and old show tunes.  Their Christmas album is no exception, as it brought to light traditional carols and gave them their own unique spin. Their version of “Silent Night” even includes a monologue by John Denver which explains the history of how the song was written, and then sings it with sacred grace and reverence to its original source.

While specifically religious themes were a rarity in most Muppet holiday specials, this Christmas album does bring a few to light. Another monologue by John in his original tale “Alfie the Christmas Tree” makes specific reference to the Son of God and puts it in the context of a plea to remember the trees and creatures of the natural world (a subject which was close to the heart of both John Denver and Jim Henson). The “Savior King” is also referenced in the beautiful song “A Baby Just Like You.”  All of this tradition mixes with the typical Muppet comedy, silliness, and banter in songs like “Christmas is Coming,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and even the Electric Mayhem’s cover of “Little Saint Nick.”

The highlight of beauty and mystery in the album culminates in “When the River Meets the Sea,” a favorite Paul Williams song also used in the brilliant TV special Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, whose lyrics invoke images of nature, life, death, re-birth and a childlike faith.

I love John Denver’s voice too, and as far as I’m concerned, he was one of the Muppets himself.

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street

While on the subject of the Muppets, it’s hard for me to wax nostalgic on my childhood Christmas memories without referring to 1978’s TV special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I also had as a soundtrack on vinyl.

The musical moments in this special sum up so much of the Christmas spirit for me growing up, from “True Blue Miracle” to “Keep Christmas With You,” and especially Bert and Ernie’s coda to their storyline (a version of “Gift of the Magi” with Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paper clip collection), a duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” To this day, Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s cover of this song is the defining version for me, and one of their finest moments as performers.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – The Vince Guaraldi Trio

Another regular staple on my annual playlist, both for viewing and listening, is the full soundtrack to my #1 favorite Christmas special. The opening shot of snowflakes falling coupled with the first notes of “ChristmasTime is Here” is another one of those moments that not only takes me back to my childhood but one that I’ve carried forward year after year as a tradition that sums it all up, and now I got my own kids wrapped up in a love for Peanuts (and Muppets) along with me, and this wonderful music is all part of it.

“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” – Bob Bennett

In more recent years I’ve discovered other meaningful Christmas tracks to play annually, along with all the warm fuzzy nostalgia from my childhood. Among these are the songs recorded by Bob Bennett off his Christmastide album, produced by my friend Roy Salmond. I was most fortunate to attend a Kindlings Hearth retreat with Roy and Bob, and once you hear Bob play guitar and sing live in front of you, your life is never quite the same. His beautiful voice has enriched many a Christmas for me since then.

Alongside one of his songs three years ago, my wife and I arranged to have children and adults from our church contribute to a special project. We gave each person a different ornament from the traditional “Jesse Tree” advent calendar and asked them to produce a piece of artwork that represented somehow the character, symbol, or concept behind each ornament. We put all the art we collected into this video presentation, set to Bob’s recording of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”

‘Better Days” – The Goo Goo Dolls

Going in a different direction, this is one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. It’s made especially poignant when remembering that Christmas is not only a joyous time but can also be a difficult time for various reasons. Whether it be the absence of loved ones who have passed away, reminders of past grievances or just the stress, rush and commercialism of the season, the sky is darkest at this time of year for many… a paradox to the joy that is still there when the light shines in the darkness.

That being said, this song fills me with awe and wonder by pointing me to that light when the frustrations that Christmas can bring become all too evident at times. I love the lyrics, which remind me that at the heart of it all, “tonight’s the night the world begins again.”

“Blue Christmas” – Porky Pig

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, this track always finds its way to my Christmas playlist. It’s not by the actual Porky Pig (otherwise known as Mel Blanc)… it’s a novelty recording done by a New Jersey DJ and it makes me laugh each time I hear it. Not only because of the singer himself, but even more so because there is someone else cracking up in the background the whole time.

“Jingle Man Christmas Boy” – Steven Colbert

And on a final note of ridiculous-ness, I leave you with this, a little outtake from another annual Christmas special that’s become a quotable favorite in our household, which my wife and I like to enjoy after the kids are nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads.

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!