Dec. 11 – The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree

Original air date December 3, 1979.

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s The Berenstain Bears was a popular series of books that usually imparted a simple, clear, message. I seem to recall a fire safety book being a go-to in school for fire safety week and I know I got a copy of one about not eating junk food from one of those Scholastic catalogs they just gave out in school. Isn’t that kind of shitty? Schools would just send kids home with catalogs for books and similar products that they could bring back to school with a check. A few weeks later, the class would come back from lunch or recess and there would be books and things on some desks, but not others. Basically, each class got to figure out which kids were the poor kids through these things and there was probably a bit of peer pressure on parents to let their kids get in on the fun. I did okay in that sometimes I was allowed to get a book, and sometimes I wasn’t. And when I did it was pretty great, but when I didn’t it left me feeling pretty down. Even though a book is something I’d look at for a day or two and then forget about it. Oh, and they still send those things home with kids today.

Tangent aside, The Berenstain Bears were a favorite of mine as a kid and I think my sister as well. We mostly interacted with them via the library which also had tapes of the cartoon series available to rent. I don’t remember ever watching the show on live television in the 80s, but I do remember renting it and really liking the main song. I had no idea that in the previous decade the franchise first made the move to television in a very similar fashion to Charlie Brown which came about via the animated holiday special. The very first of which debuted in 1979 and was called The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree.

When you want to unveil a new IP in tandem with a holiday it’s never a bad move to go with Christmas. Christmas more than any other holiday just demands we all stop and take notice and television networks love to have Christmas specials on-hand. It’s why a blog like this can exist and have enough material for years on end! The creators of the franchise, Stan and Jan Berenstain, were the ones to seek out a deal and were initially turned away, but they eventually found a partner in producer Joseph Cates. They basically agreed to do the special in the late winter of 1979 and had enough time to write, draw, and animate this thing in time for a December premiere. The Berenstains themselves drew an estimated 20,000 sketches for it that were utilized by the animators and they also wrote the thing, including the song lyrics. It wasn’t based on an existing book at the time, but one would be created the following year to capitalize on the success of the special. More holiday specials would follow before the series was turned into a proper cartoon series for 1985.

I am surprised that I never was able to rent this from the library. I have to assume they didn’t have a copy or else my sister and I surely would have picked a Christmas episode. It’s possible my mom shot us down if it wasn’t that time of year, but either way, I never saw this thing before watching it for this entry. I don’t recall it ever being promoted on television and my memory is that the show aired pretty early in the morning and once it concluded its run in 1987 it was basically done. If it showed up on cable later on I never found it. It feels like a series that would have felt right at home on PBS instead of CBS Saturday Morning, and had it first premiered there it probably would have been re-run for a decade or more. A new series did eventually premiere there, but that was in 2003 when I long had outgrown The Berenstain Bears.

Meet Papa Bear. He’s a dope.

The grammatically correct title of this one implies we’re going on a quest for a tree. I remember next to nothing about the actual characters in this series, so this should be interesting. The special opens with an original composition by Elliot Lawrence called “Christmas Day is Here (It’s Almost Here)” which is a pretty confusing title. Is Christmas Day here or almost here? Why not just call it “Christmas Day is Almost Here”? Was there a conflicting copywrite? Anyway, the animation shows Papa Bear (Ron McLarty, who will also play the narrator to come) walking casually through town with a fishing rod over his shoulder and a giant fish under an arm. He has neglected to secure the hook on the rod and it gets into some mischief without him knowing. He first accidentally plucks the beard off of a Santa Bear which makes the kid on his lap laugh instead of cry. It then winds up on the face of another character mid-conversation with someone. The hook then nearly swipes a wreath from Grizzly Gus, but he catches it and glares at Papa Bear as the hook finds his hat and removes it.

This clock might be my favorite character in the whole special.

We’re then taken to the home of the titular family. As the next series will tell us, they live in a split-level tree: Mama, Papa, Sister, and Brother. Apparently, this family finds little value in names. There’s a wreath hanging in a window, but otherwise, the house isn’t very “Christmassy.” That’s because the Berenstains are one of those weird families that waits until Christmas Eve to decorate. The clock strikes two and it’s a pretty cute cuckoo clock as the bird pops out of the bear’s mouth and then gets pulled back causing the bear to lick its lips like it just snacked on the cuckoo bird. The narrator tells us we’re 10 hours away from Christmas and the camera pulls back to reveal Mama (Pat Lysinger) hanging some decorations while Brother (Jonathan Lewis) and Sister (Gabriela Glatzer) sit on a mountain of wrapped gifts. Papa Bear enters and the narrator tells us the fish he caught is a magnificent Christmas salmon! He doffs his cap and says “Huh Huh, I’m home!” and I did not remember him sounding like a dim-witted yokel. He then slips and falls and the salmon goes sliding through the gifts. The kids land on it as it skates into the kitchen where Mama is waiting to open the refrigerator door for it to gently slide into. We then get a shot of the fish from outside the fridge and it’s frowning, but Mama and Papa reorientate the mouth so it appears to be smiling and the whole family smiles around the happy, Christmas, corpse!

Let’s all smile with the corpse!

Papa is then shown digging through a trunk as he prepares for what the narrator calls the most fun of all: the tree! Papa pulls out a tree stand and places it in the center of a room as the narrator romanticizes the subject. He’s infatuated with the Christmas tree being full and fat, and it’s a sentiment this special comes back to repeatedly and it just strikes me as an odd way to talk about a Christmas tree. I’ve certainly used the word full before, but never fat. As the family looks at the tree stand they envision what this fat tree will look like via pine needles overtaking their father and that’s where we get our title card for the special.

This bear has an unnatural attraction to Christmas trees.

When that is done we go back to Papa posing like Captain Morgan on the tree stand as he details his tree lust. He runs to the closet to get out the “hooks” and Mama looks very concerned as he tries to open the door. Brother assists and eventually the door opens to reveal a mountain of junk piled high. At first, it just sits there and Mama bear gives a sigh of relief, which is the cue for everything to pour out. We get to witness this via Mama as it’s way easier to animate a wince than a closet full of contents pouring out onto two bears. We then get a look at a lot of the stuff as the narrator details it. He uses a rhyme and I don’t really like it. Anyway, the best decoration is some gaudy eighteen-pointed star the whole family is real proud of. Papa seems to think this silly star will make all of the other bears want to see their tree, but maybe that’s how it goes every year so who am I to judge? He nearly drops it though as it bounces from Brother to Sister and comes to rest on Mama’s finger. She just looks at the camera (a lot of characters do) with a tired expression.

The bears hold this ugly thing in high regard for some reason.

Papa continues his fat tree fantasy on the stoop as he calls for his cubs. The narrator adds a “…said Papa Bear,” after his command which is just the most useless form of narration. We can see and hear he spoke, thank you very much. Mama Bear (“Wise Mama Bear” according to the narrator) instructs the children to dress warmly as she fears there’s a hint of snow in the air. Papa dismisses her claims because he’s the dumb man in this scenario for he can’t sense any pain in his left, big, toe. The three set out and grab an axe, and despite Mama Bear’s suggestion, they pass up a tree at Grizzly Gus’s in favor of finding their own, but not before Papa Bear accidentally insults Gus and the quality of his trees, though nothing comes of it.

Papa Bear is just another dumb husband character who refuses to take direction from his wife.

The three bears head into the woods, despite Mama Bear’s direction to just buy a tree. The narrator lets us know that, under normal circumstances, Brother and Sister would listen to their mother, but not their dad. Any bad things that happen from here on out are definitely the fault of Papa Bear. The narrator blames this on his tree lust, and Papa Bear reinforces this by declaring he will find the right tree even if it takes a week! Sister reminds him that Christmas is mere hours away so a week they do not have, not that he pays her any mind. This leads into another song, “We Need a Tree For Christmas.” Papa sounds a bit funny singing, and they just detail all of the stuff they’re looking forward to which always comes back to that they need to get a tree first. The narrator chimes in towards the end to remind us that Christmas isn’t all about trees and things, but giving, and blah blah blah.

Behold! The perfect tree!

The bears soon come upon a lovely, fat, tree. They drink it in while the narrator sounds like he’s salivating at the sight. Papa Bear declares it the perfect tree, but as he readies his axe, Sister notices something. A mailbox placed at the base indicates this tree belongs to a skunk. We then see it’s also the home of squirrels, chipmunks, and crows. Papa Bear obviously isn’t malicious, so he doesn’t cut it, but the crows in the tree aren’t so easy to forgive. The bears are forced to run as they’re chased by a literal murder. We then pivot back to the tree as the narrator reinforces, rather needlessly, that this tree means more to its inhabitants. The skunk is shown opening its mail which contains a Christmas card from its mom and dad. All of these animals seem to be as smart and sentient as our bears, but they see no point in clothes. Fair enough.

…or not!

The bears march further and further into the woods in search of the perfect tree. Papa Bear vows to find the perfect tree and the animation details his proclamations. He’ll cross rivers, conquer the fog, sail over Niagara Falls on a log – yes, he does make it a point to rhyme. He reiterates his vow to find one if it takes a week as he is just blinded by his compulsion. I’m finding it hard to like this imbecile. He even ends his series of vows with a “Just as sure as my name is…uhh…” as he has to ask his son to remind him what his name is. This guys is dumber than Homer Simpson, and possibly more negligent.

Not only is Papa Bear incapable of focusing on more than one task, he’s pretty delusional as well and fancies himself some sort of Christmas tree hero who will have to battle all kinds of evil to get what he wants.

Papa Bear trips over a stump which stops him momentarily. It grounds him literally, and then his kids are there to ground him figuratively as they remind him it’s getting late and they need to find a tree soon. The old bear still shows no concern for their well-being even as the snow begins to fall. The kids follow him up a mountain as the three resume their tree-hunting song while the snow falls harder and heavier. They sing about the stuff they’re looking forward to which includes Sister fantasizing about sardines in a cherry sauce, but when Papa Bear mentions chocolate-covered snails that’s the point at which the kids are disgusted. I don’t know, cherry-flavored sardines actually sounds worse to me than chocolate-covered snails. I mean, I don’t want to eat either, but if I had to choose I might go with the snail.

Mama Bear probably runs when Papa Bear gets this look in his eyes.

Papa Bear tells us that a tree with all of the trimmings is what Christmas is all about. He gets “tree eyes” once again as he spies the new perfect tree. Positioned on a ledge, the lone pine entrances both he and his cubs. They’re ready to chop it down, when an eagle emerges from the top of the tree. Then a hawk, and an owl, and you get the idea. This one is inhabited as well so they can’t cut it down. Worse, these birds are even less forgiving than the crows. The eagle especially dive bombs the crew and snatches the axe. It soars into the sky and even poses like the image on the back of a quarter complete with the appropriate Latin verse, before it dives at the bears with the axe! That’s a pretty frightening sight, but the eagle is a bit unconventional in that it spins the axe like Thor and his hammer and whips it at the bears where it harmlessly strikes a stump.

When eagles start dive-bombing you with axes you know you screwed up.

Papa Bear tries to save face by claiming that tree was no good, it was too green, as he pulls the axe out of the stump. Now the snow is really falling hard, and it’s dark. Papa Bear is still enthusiastic, but the kids seem like they’re faltering as he leads them up another mountain only now in waist-deep snow. The kids are literally falling backwards because the hill is so steep while Papa Bear continues to fantasize about a thick tree. His eyes then catch another tree and it looks almost exactly the same as the previous one. It’s again another tree on a cliffside, but I don’t think it’s the exact same image. Regardless, Papa Bear approaches the tree intent on cutting it, but wouldn’t you know – it’s home to some birds. This time, the birds are literally inside the trunk of the tree and there’s a window and lighting inside making it more like the tree the Berenstains live in. They’re a family that’s basically the bird version of the Berenstains right down to the choice of clothing. They’re decorating a twig for a tree and, at first, are frightened by the giant bear eye in their window, but they respond with a “Merry Christmas.”

Another tree, another home.

Papa Bear is forced to just smile and wave. He’s finally ready to give up on this dream of cutting down the perfect tree for he’s reminded of what Christmas is all about. The kids are a bit dismayed, but he tells them they’ll just get a tree from Gus. The kids seem apoplectic at the thought for some reason, but Papa ignores them and finally uses that axe for something good when he chops a stump into a trio of skis. Papa, Brother, and Sister put on their makeshift skis, and the craftsmanship is actually quite nice for a bear with just an axe, and head down the mountain. The score from the opening song accompanies the bears down the mountain as they avoid death here and there. They go off a cliff which sends the three rolling the rest of the way. They all acquire a bunch of snow to form three balls, then a snowman with Sister’s face sticking out. It looks comical enough, but the ending of the sequence is awkward as it just sort of floats towards the screen looking like South Park animation.

Now we’re in Wacky Town.

The snowman smashes into the sign for Gus’s tree farm and the snow falls away from the bears within. They’re immediately saddened to see that Gus is gone and so are his trees. He sold every one of them which may be the most unrealistic part of this special featuring anthropomorphic bears on a hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. Dejected, the three hang their heads and head for home cold and tree-less. Once they get there though they witness a glorious sight!

Well I’ll be damned…

Their home, which in case you forgot is an actual tree, has been decorated with all of their many decorations. And the decorators? Why, it’s all of the animals they very nearly inconvenienced along the way. I don’t know how they got all of the decorations out of the house, did the murder of crows fly down the chimney and grab them? Did someone knock on the door to get Mama’s attention? I suppose it doesn’t matter as the treehouse is all aglow and looks pretty spectacular. The eagle even puts the eighteen-pointed star in the center of the…roof? Canopy? Whatever.

Turns out, they had the perfect tree the whole time!

Mama Bear joins her family outside to gawk at the marvelous tree. She seems surprised which, again, just makes me wonder how this all happened, but I’m trying to dismiss that. Papa Bear points out the star on top, but the narrator tells us they’re not looking at the plastic one, but the spectacular Christmas Star flashing in the sky high above. And as Papa had predicted earlier, all of the other bears turned out to see their tree. Then Mama decides it’s time to sing again as we move into the final song, “The Christmas Star.” It’s just a generic song about Christmas being for everyone and we get lots of shots of animals putting their arms around each other. Sister even pops in to say Christmas is for people too which just raises further questions. Do humans exist in this world? Her suggestions seems to confuse Papa, but what doesn’t? Mama puts the bow on the song by saying “Merry Christmas to us all, fellow creatures one and all.” The camera zooms out to show the crowd around the tree and the star above.

I do enjoy a good post-Christmas carnage sort of shot.

That last shot felt like the one to go out on, but we’re not done! We then head inside the house and it appears to be daylight now. The camera pans across a bunch of Christmas stuff inside and empty packaging – the wreckage of Christmas post gift exchange. The kids aren’t playing with their new toys though as we find the family in the kitchen getting ready to eat that Christmas salmon. As Papa readies his knife, Sister points out the lesson from last night about thinking about others and wonders why that doesn’t extend to the poor, dead, salmon. Papa and Mama are surprised and a bit stumped by this question, but Papa Bear just adds “…in the case of the salmon, we’ll make an exception.” Yeah kid, we’re eating this fish! We’re then shown another external shot of the tree at night as the credits roll.

Christmas is great when you’re not at the bottom of the food chain.

The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree isn’t quite what I expected. I had absolutely no recollection of Papa Bear being such a boob. Was he in the books? Or in the show that followed? I don’t know, but it was hard to get into for some reason. I found myself annoyed by him, and maybe the rhyming pattern didn’t help matters, even though I don’t place any fault with him wanting to cut down his own tree. I do the same each year because they last longer, but I also go to a farm to cut mine down. I don’t go searching in the woods. One would think the bears of this world would be accustomed to all of the nice trees being inhabited by other animals and would thus be discouraged from undertaking such a task, but again, Papa Bear is an idiot so maybe that’s obvious to all but him?

The other characters really don’t make much of an impact. This does remind me of some early episodes of The Simpsons where Homer is in the lead and the rest of the family has very little to offer. At least in their debut Christmas episode we see Bart pranking a mall Santa (his dad) which gives us a glimpse at the type of scamp he is. This special really does nothing for the kids, while the mother is allowed to convey some of her personality via her facial expressions. Which brings me to the animation which is pretty solid. No, this is unlikely to truly impress, but the main characters emote well and there’s a few flourishes here and there like Papa excitedly moving his toes in giddy anticipation. They do fall back on repeated gags, like Papa’s tree eyes, that takes away from the fun of the visual through too much repetition. It also tries to do something a bit more “out there” with the ski sequence, but it doesn’t pull it off.

Papa Bear is a Grade A boob. He cares about trees and salmon, possibly in that order. Is he the original moronic cartoon dad?!

The audio portion is also a mixed bag. I found the characters to be well-cast at least. Papa Bear took a minute for me to get used to as I wasn’t expecting this “Golly Gee” kind of character out of him. He’s basically a bumpkin, and in hindsight, I suppose that makes sense given his attire. Brother and Sister are fine and what little Mama says also works. Only a few of the animals actually say something with the rest of the cast being mute. The narrator did feel superfluous to me, but given they were adapting a children’s book property for animation I can see why they went in that direction. It just strikes me as a crutch though and one that’s not needed if the visuals work well (and they do). The music is mostly jaunty, though a little repetitive. None of the lyrical portions of the songs did much for me, but they don’t offend. I’ll always award some bonus points to a special that doesn’t recycle public domain music, especially if the end result isn’t something annoying.

The other aspect of this special I wasn’t so sure about going into it was the age range. I associate The Berenstain Bears with my preschool days so I thought I might get a preschool vibe from this. I’m happy to say that I did not. Not that we’re courting a teenaged or adult audience here, but it’s pretty comfortably G rated, if you will. It tried to be funny and convey a generic Christmas message, and it’s only so-so as a result. G-rated for content, C-rated for quality. If you grew up with this stuff, it might be worth a look for the nostalgia or if you have little ones that are currently into The Berenstain Bears. Though in that case, probably try and steer clear of the new stuff as the current version of the family has basically been taken in an ultra-conservative direction by the offspring of Stan and Jan. A message of Christmas for everyone is probably not something you would get out of the property today. The special streams for free on YouTube and has been released multiple times on DVD and VHS for you physical media types. If you’re an adult with little or no connection to this franchise, you’ll probably be content to continue ignoring it.

Can’t wait until tomorrow for more Christmas? Check out what we had to say on this day last year and beyond:

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