Arthur — like so many sources of millennial childhood nostalgia — has spawned a multitude of memes since debuting in 1996. But before the PBS animated series found a second life among adult fans on Twitter through Arthur’s clenched fist and D.W. not being able to read a sign, there was the show’s quintessential holiday special: Arthur’s Perfect Christmas.
Yes, Arthur’s Perfect Christmas originally aired on cable television for an audience of ages 4-8. Yes, the TV movie stars an anthropomorphic aardvark. But it’s a warm, wonderful holiday special that deserves recognition in the canon of Christmas episodes.
Arthur’s Perfect Christmas deals with big issues without using magic or Santa scenarios as a crutch. While Arthur the main series dabbled with fun magical plots, the heart of the show has always been how it deals with heavy moments of life. That theme translates effortlessly to the holiday special and instead of spending 54 minutes vying for a spot on the Nice List or reliving Christmas over and over, the Arthur characters deal with the same holiday season problems that the audience does.
For starters, it’s made pretty clear that Santa doesn’t exist. While D.W. demands that Arthur pen a letter asking for the hottest toy of the season, their mother sweats a bit, telling D.W. that there’s a chance Santa might not bring her a Tina the Talking Tabby toy. No matter your age, that’s some real talk.
Arthur’s mom’s quest for the present isn’t the only grown-up-centered plot line, nor is it the most meaningful one. Taking center stage in Buster’s story is his mother Bitzi, who feels extra pressure to make the holidays perfect — to the point where in the days leading up to Christmas, she wakes up early, making pancakes and bringing out the presents.
“I think she gets really nervous that I won’t have a good Christmas because my dad’s not with us,” a sleep-deprived Buster tells Arthur.
But at the same time, Buster doesn’t want to disappoint his mom, who’s clearly put in a lot of effort into their pre-planned holiday festivities. At the heart of their storyline is the need to communicate; when the mother and son open up to one another about their insecurities regarding the holiday season, they discover the year’s perfect gift is a bit more intangible.
Lack of communication is also what spurs one of the other meaningful storylines. Rich girl Muffy can’t grasp why her best friend Francine is missing out on her extravagant Christmas party, despite the fact that Francine has told Muffy multiple times (28 to be exact) that the party falls on the same day as the last night of Hanukkah, an important occasion she’d rather spend with her family. This argument forces them apart, especially when Muffy chides Hanukkah for not being “as important as Christmas.”
Muffy finally approaches Francine to try and understand why she’d rather spend the holidays with her family than at the party. Francine’s understandably frustrated, but she explains the holiday to Muffy, and why Hanukkah makes her feel like part of something bigger. It’s a touching moment, spurred by the fact that self-centered Muffy messed up and is trying to expand her world view. She actually listens and learns.
Arthur | Muffy Learns About Hanukkah
The holidays are an opportunity for kids to participate in the traditions that make their families unique. In this clip from Arthur, Muffy, the "Princess of Christmas" learns about Hanukkah from Francine and her family. Watch the full episode on the free PBS KIDS Video app.Posted by PBS KIDS on Tuesday, December 4, 2018
If Arthur’s Perfect Christmas weren’t interrogating every notion of the holiday enough, the characters candidly discuss the fact that Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25.
“The holiday’s in December probably because that’s when the Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice,” says Brain, when Arthur laments about how Christmas isn’t Christmas without the snow.
Arthur, meanwhile, anchors the special for anyone worried about tradition. While Francine combats casual discrimination and Muffy encounters world views that don’t match her own and Buster and his mom navigating the single-parent lifestyle, Arthur’s whole schtick seems to be his own incompetence at finding (and not breaking) a gift for his mother.
But Arthur’s quest is broader. He wants the perfect Christmas, but everything is going absolutely wrong. Arthur’s father is swapping out a traditional Christmas dinner for something more kooky. He’s had to resort to some low-budget gifts for his family. His wacky Uncle Fred is trapped with them when his car breaks down. And it isn’t snowing.
It’s a holiday special, though, so things work out — not necessarily in the ways that the Read family wants, but in the ways they probably need.
Arthur’s Perfect Christmas is a gem of a holiday episode. Sure, there’s some cheesy songs and stilted animation, but there’s heart and soul within that makes it a worthy addition to the holiday episode pantheon.
Arthur’s Perfect Christmas is available to stream on Amazon Prime.