This year, I’m bringing back a feature from last year where I take another look at, what I consider to be, the greatest Christmas specials ever made. I explained my reasoning for doing this in prior posts, but in short, the first time I looked at some of these specials I did just a short write-up and not the deep dive approach I would adopt in subsequent iterations of The Christmas Spot. It seemed silly to go lean with the best of the best, so I’m righting a wrong. Today is the first such repost of the year with more to follow and it is indeed one of the great specials of Christmas: A Garfield Christmas.
Garfield the cat, created by Jim Davis, is a character that has never completely gone away since its debut as a comic strip in the 1970s. He has definitely seen his popularity wane as the decades have gone by so it may surprise younger readers to find out that Garfield was on top of the world in the 1980s. The strips were so popular that Garfield made the jump to television via 12 animated specials before eventually getting his own television show. His popularity stayed relatively high well into the 1990s with the Garfield and Friends show lasting in syndication beyond that before giving way to new content. Coming in at number 7 on the list of television specials based on the gluttonous cat is 1987’s A Garfield Christmas.
A Garfield Christmas premiered on December 21, 1987 and if you read the first entry in this year’s countdown you’ll know I referred to it as one of the specials that got away. My mom decided that 1987 was the year to record a bunch of Christmas specials for my sister and I to have throughout the years to come, and despite her being a fan of Garfield, she failed to record this one. Maybe it was because it aired so close to Christmas she felt the tape might be nearing its end? Maybe she had just run out enthusiasm for the exercise come the 21st? The last special on the tape is A Muppet Family Christmas which aired on December 16, so it’s certainly plausible. Maybe we had plans that night and she didn’t want to bother with the timer? I don’t know, she doesn’t know, and I’m certainly not mad about it, but I do wish I had grown up watching this one as frequently as the specials on that tape. Now we can browse YouTube and see some of the bumpers from that very year and I see some of the other specials I missed out on. It’s not really something I’m upset by, but it does make me wish we could go back to every week in December being event viewing because CBS was loaded that year seemingly devoting two nights per week to airing Christmas specials. And that doesn’t include the various holiday themed episodes of their regular programming.
A Garfield Christmas is another Film Roman production directed by Phil Roman and features the talents of Lou Rawls, Ed Bogas, and Desirée Goyette handling the music end with Jim Davis the credited writer. Davis considers this one to be semi-autobiographical as it features Jon (Thom Huge) returning to his home on a farm for a good old-fashioned family Christmas. We’ll get to know Jon’s immediate family, including the oddly named brother Doc Boy (David Lander), and spend some quality Christmas time with Grandma (voiced by the recently departed Pat Carroll – R.I.P.). Of course, we also have Garfield and Lorenzo Music reprises the role he was born to play. His deadpan delivery is perfect for the sleepy cat and I feel bad for talents like Bill Murray and Frank Welker who have had to follow Music in the role, but will never be as good.
The special begins with an exterior shot of Jon’s house decorated for Christmas. The color palette is slightly washed out which is a stylistic choice because this is a dream sequence. Garfield is sleeping in his usual spot and Jon, dressed as an elf, implores him to wake up because it’s Christmas! He has his arms full with Garfield’s numerous breakfast lasagnas and lays them out in a row so that Garfield can eat his way to the tree. There he’s told that he has a present coming his way and Jon steps offscreen for a moment only to return driving a forklift with a giant, green, gift on the front. He drops it down beside Garfield and it bursts open to reveal a real kitschy looking robot Santa in a chair. Jon then demonstrates that this is the gift that keeps on giving. He sits in the robot Santa’s lap with his cat, thinks up a gift he wants, and is promptly given a green hat to complete his elf costume (which looks a bit like a Robin Hood costume). Garfield, ever the opportunist, shoves Jon off of the machine and puts the helmet on his own head and is immediately rewarded with a handful of jewels and a pearl necklace. Remarking to the camera, “That’s just for starters,” as he holds his reward he immediately starts conjuring up countless gifts as the special goes into the song “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” and the title is displayed above the happy cat.
The musical number is up-tempo and quite jaunty as Garfield frolics in his gifts. Declaring a love for all of the things piling up around him, including greed and avarice, he jives to the music and we’re clearly being setup for Garfield to learn a lesson about what Christmas is all about. Garfield is soon woken, for real, by Jon and the setting reverts to something more familiar for a Garfield cartoon. The sleepy cat is not particularly pleased about being woken up. He refers to Jon as, “Oh, it’s you,” and instructs him to leave a number as he pulls his blanket over his head and looks like an adorable, little, blue, meatloaf. Jon excitedly asks Garfield if he knows what day it is and Garfield sticks his head out to tell him he doesn’t do pop quizzes before breakfast. Undaunted, Jon tells him it’s Christmas Eve morning and describes excitedly how they get to pack the car and go to the farm to see mom, dad, grandma, and Doc Boy! Garfield sarcastically responds he can’t wait to meet other “Boys,” like “Oh Boy,” as Jon takes his leave. Garfield then emerges from his bed to question why he has to leave his warm bed every Christmas to see some “stupid” relatives. He finishes his list of questions to himself with “And why am I whispering?” before the scene fades to black.
We cut to a shot of Jon, Garfield, and Odie (Gregg Berger) in Jon’s car as they leave their city confines for the farm. Jon is in a nostalgic mood while Garfield wants nothing to do with it. He reminisces about Christmases past which soon leads into a song. It’s a bit of a call and response as Jon recalls a memory and Garfield interjects with a cynical take on it that associates a tradition with work. For example, Jon recalls decorating the tree fondly, and Garfield pipes in to call it “Gardening.” The song is called “Can’t Wait Till Christmas” and it does a good job of showcasing one character’s enthusiasm for the holiday, and another that has a decidedly different take. Garfield punctuates the end of the song with the very observant, and relatable, line about the best gift of Christmas being the insomnia and anxiety kids get from having to wait. Oh were there many sleepless Christmas Eve nights spent in my bed. The song ends with Garfield instructing Jon to wake him when Christmas is through.
We then see Jon roll up on the old farm and is warmly greeted by his mom (Julie Payne) who is one of those annoying animated characters that rarely seems to open their eyes. He moves to greet his dad (Pat Harrington) and brother Doc Boy, who seems to hate his nickname. We then hear from Grandma who is in a rocking chair facing a window as she guilt trips Jon into coming over to pay his respects to his poor, old, lonely, grandmother. Not that she needed to for Jon enthusiastically strolls over referring to his grandma as his favorite girl (genuinely sweet) and she pops out of the chair to give him a warm hug. She then points out that he’s developing a bit of a belly and questions if city life is making him soft. She punctuates the thought with an elbow to the belly that doubles Jon over causing her laugh. She reprimands him for not taking care of himself and reveals that she does 100 sit-ups a day. She gestures to her belly saying it’s hard as a rock as a result and urges Jon to take a shot at her.
Jon, not wanting to punch his grandma, deftly changes the subject and asks if she remembers Garfield and gestures to the cat and Odie (I’m not sure why he didn’t ask her if she remembered Odie, poor dog is always getting forgotten). She picks Garfield up with an amused look on her face as she seems to regale the cat as an oddity remarking they used to only have wood burning cats (whatever that is). Garfield is not amused. Mom then remarks how nice it is to have the whole family together for Christmas. As she gushes about being happy everyone is there, Grandma instructs her to “Put a sock in it, deary,” and suggests they go finish dinner. Garfield has now settled into Grandma’s arms and remarks to the camera “I can see Grandma and I are going to get along just fine.” When Grandma snaps at Jon’s mom her eyes actually “opened” for a moment too. I can’t figure out if Grandma is supposed to be her mother or mother-in-law. Grandma looks a little more like the mom than she does the dad, so I guess she’s her mother, but they have an adversarial relationship (which we’ll see more of) that screams classic mother-in-law.
We cut to an exterior shot and Jon is enthusiastically leading Odie and Garfield to the barn presumably to get more firewood. He’s put on a stocking cap to fight the cold, but not a jacket or even a pair of gloves. I guess he’s more hearty than he looks. Jon is still aglow from being home for the holidays and encourages Garfield to take in the scenery. Garfield remarks he can only see darkness and we see why as the snow is over his head. The only visible part of Garfield is his tail sticking out of the snow and he soon walks right into an exposed water pump.
Meanwhile, inside the kitchen Grandma is creeping up on the stove. She tastes the gravy cooking there, and apparently dissatisfied, produces a can of chili powder. Mom comes up behind her and politely suggests she isn’t thinking about adding any chili powder to “MY” sausage gravy. Apparently there is some sort of competition between the two concerning the presence of chili powder in sausage gravy. Grandma plays nice and suggests she wouldn’t be doing that, but when Mom walks away she turns a bit sinister. Muttering softly to herself “Just because my chili gravy won a blue ribbon at the county fair and your gravy didn’t even place! Who am I to tell you how to make gravy? The Green County Gravy Champion, that’s who!” Par Carroll’s delivery of these lines is so perfect and so sincere it’s no surprise that Grandma had to return for the Thanksgiving special to follow.
Jon and Garfield then enter the kitchen while a simple rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays in the background. Jon asks Garfield where Odie went who responds curtly “In-the-barn-let’s-eat.” We cut to Odie sniffing around some junk. He pulls out some scrap wood and a gardening tool and looks rather pleased with himself as he runs off. Back in the kitchen, Garfield’s nose has detected the scent of sausage gravy. He hops up on the counter and runs his finger through the brown liquid and gives it a taste. A look of satisfaction appears on his face as he licks his fingers which is soon replaced by one of pain. His face turns red, steam shoots out of his ears, and he releases a plume of fire from his mouth. He then returns to a contented expression and as smoke still trails from the ends of his mouth he remarks, “Perfect.”
The family is then shown gathering around the table for Christmas Eve dinner. Odie slips back into the house unnoticed while Doc Boy is reprimanded for reaching for a dinner roll before anyone has said Grace. He’s instructed to do so, but he protests this responsibility until Grandma strikes him on the head with a wooden spoon. He then recites a fairly routine prayer that Mom punctuates with an “Amen!” when he’s apparently finished. As the others get set to dig in, Doc Boy rises from his chair and goes into a more poetic poem. No one looks pleased, especially Grandma, who strikes her grandson once more with the wooden spoon prompting him to end the misery.
Jon requests his mom pass the potatoes, and she asks if he wants fried, baked, mashed, etc. which causes Jon to remark she always prepares too much. Unable to decide, he just asks for a piece of pie instead (no wonder why he’s acquiring a belly) and is met with another impossible decision as his mother prepared six different types of pie. We then cut to Grandma as she slips plates of food under the table to the hungry pets. Garfield, looking fatter than usual, and Odie are enjoying sitting beside Grandma. Garfield then praises the quality of the food and service, but criticizes the décor. He decides to rate the “restaurant” a mere 2 stars. Dad notices the empty plates before Grandma and makes a comment about her really “putting it away.” She responds that she’s eating for two now (really three) and Dad gives a smile which is soon replaced by a look of shock and confusion.
Grandma begins cleaning up while Jon praises his mom for the meal, which Grandma makes a throat-clearing sound to get Jon to acknowledge her hand in the dinner as well. He then tries to give Garfield some leftovers unaware he’s been eating this whole time. The now very fat cat politely declines and indicates he’s watching his waistline this holiday season. Mom then calls everyone over to the naked Christmas tree which requires trimming. Odie pops out of the box of lights and garland apparently searching for something. He pulls out what looks like a small bit of wire before slinking off with it.
The rest of the family then gathers around to trim the tree. All except Grandma who has returned to her rocking chair with Garfield on her lap. She makes a remark to the cat about the rest of the family sounding like a pack of banshees and even refers to them as crazy. She then adds that you need a little crazy to make it through this life, then declares herself proof of that since she talks to cats! We cut back to the tree and Dad is awkwardly climbing on Doc Boy to put the star on the tree and this doesn’t look like a scene that will end well for anybody. Dad wisely asks why they always wait to put the star on last when it would be a lot easier to do it first before the tree is up, but Mom dismisses the thought because “It just wouldn’t be Christmas,” that way. I had no idea so much was riding on when the star was placed on the tree. I suppose the same is true for those who place an angel or something else up there instead?
Jon then gets the bright idea to ask Garfield if he can climb up the tree and put the star on top. Jon sells it as a very special request suitable for a true hero, and to my surprise, Garfield goes along with it with far more enthusiasm than I expected out of the old cat. He tells Jon if he’s not back in an hour to send a banana cream pie up after him and then approaches the tree. Garfield feels this will be a piece of cake and begins his ascent. As the tree wobbles to and fro, the rest of the family looks on with concern. Jon can barely seem to watch. Soon Garfield emerges from the top of the tree triumphantly, though he looks at how high up he is and seems to momentarily lose his balance. He rights himself and places the star atop the tree to raucous applause. He decides to take a bow, soaking in the adulation, and promptly falls. He strikes the ground with a thud wrapped in lights and garland and then utters what was a very dark catchphrase of sorts at the time for Garfield, “Whoever invented Christmas trees should be drug out into the street and shot.” An ornament then strikes him on the head which seems to indicate the tree does not share in Garfield’s sentiments.
Dad then beckons everyone to look upon the tree as he plugs in the lights. It gives off a warm glow and everyone “Ooo’s” and “Aah’s” at the sight. Mom then informs us that Doc Boy is going to sing us a Christmas song, which he wants no part of, but Dad insists given they spent a bunch of money on “pie-anno” lessons. Doc Boy goes into a slow and melancholy rendition of “Oh Christmas Tree,” but Grandma has heard enough. She shoves everyone aside to take over the keys and plays a much livelier, and shorter, version of the song and then turns to the family with a look of satisfaction on her face. Mom refers to it as interesting, which doesn’t seem to bother Grandma. This is basically the only part of the special where I think they’re trying a little too hard to make Grandma seem “cool.”
Jon then encourages his mom to play and we go into another musical number, “Christmas in Your Heart.” While the family gathers around the piano, Grandma returns to her rocking chair and Garfield. She asks him “How did you know I needed a cat in my lap?” She then talks about her departed husband and the Christmases they used to have. She covers the usual numbers, how they didn’t have much, but would always find a way to give the children a good Christmas. She adds that the old man was the type who didn’t show much affection, but on Christmas that would change for a day. She hypothesizes that it was his favorite day of the year given how excited he would be for the children to wake up and see what was under the tree. It gets a little sadder after that as she tells Garfield sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking he’s still with her adding, “This is the night I miss him the most.” In a cartoon about a fat, orange, cat, who knew something so crushingly relatable could be found?
Mom is done playing her song and enthusiastically declares it’s time to move onto the Christmas story. This is the part of the special where Jon and Doc Boy regress into man-children. They enthusiastically inform us that the family Christmas story is “Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas” and the responsibility of reading the story falls on Dad. He wants no part of it and seems to be the only one capable of recognizing that this is a pretty weird tradition to carry on now that their boys are grown men, but the rest insist. They gather around Dad’s favorite chair, and Garfield and Odie even join in by sitting on an armrest each, as Dad begins the story. It’s clear that Jon and Doc Boy do derive pleasure from this ritual simply because it makes their dad feel awkward and silly. When he starts reading the story, Jon points out to his father that he needs to read it with more emotion and Doc Boy reminds him to do the voices. He lets out an enthusiastic, Binky-like, “Hey! Kids!” which Odie demonstrates his approval for by licking the man’s cheek, which Dad does not enjoy.
Dad finishes the story and Doc Boy gets in another little rib at his expense before Mom resumes treating the boys like children and declares it’s time for bed. The two enthusiastically run off like children while Odie takes a walk over to the closet. He finds a plunger inside, but removes the rubber end leaving just a handle, and tries to leave the closet with it, but gets stuck on the doorframe for a moment. He eventually figures it out and leaves and we fade to a shot of Garfield and Odie sleeping by a warm fire. Odie’s eyes snap open and he checks on Garfield to see if he’s awake. Seeing that he isn’t, he smiles rather slyly and scampers off.
Garfield wakes up shortly after and is surprised to see Odie missing. He heads over to the window to look for him and another song comes on, this one sung by Rawls and Goyette and titled “You Can Never Find an Elf When You Need One.” The bouncy little number hums along as we see Odie assembling all of the stuff he’s been collecting throughout his time at the farm. Using a base, pole, and the gardening tool he makes some kind of a post which he covers with a paper bag and proudly carries back into the house. As he scampers out of the barn, Garfield emerges with a smile on his face seemingly amused by the pup. He then stumbles and falls off a box he was standing on and a smaller box empties its contents into his lap. It’s a wad of letters and a look of surprise comes over Garfield as he informs us they must be 50 years old.
We cut back to the inside of the home and Jon and Doc Boy are checking-in on their parents who are fast asleep. They start off with whispers directed at their dad asking if he’s awake, but soon evolve into something closer to a yell and Jon flips on the lights. Dad angrily wakes up and asks them what they’re doing, but their metamorphosis into children has fully taken hold and they want to open their presents. It’s 1:30 in the morning and their dad tells them to go back to bed. Jon tries to reason with him that it’s technically Christmas morning, but he’s having none of it and the two grumpily return to bed.
We cut to an exterior shot of the house at night and the sun soon rises behind it. Inside, Mom and Dad are by the tree setting out some last minute presents while Jon and Doc Boy come into frame. We only got a sense of what they were wearing last night, but we now we see that Jon is decked out in orange-striped pajamas with bunny slippers while Doc Boy is taking things even further with full bunny rabbit pajamas. Seriously, don’t leave your kids alone with Doc Boy. Dad then playfully asks if they want to do chores, eat breakfast, or open presents first and the boys predictably choose presents.
We get a time lapse and see the family seated and enjoying their new stuff. Dad got a giant hat, Jon a sweater, Grandma a bowling ball, and Doc Boy…a toy airplane. Mom apparently gets nothing. Mom declares that it was a very nice Christmas, but gets interrupted by Garfield tugging on her skirt to tells us it’s not over yet. He then drags over the bundle of letters he found last night and gives them to a surprised Grandma. She softens immediately as Jon asks what they are and she tells him they’re love letters from his grandfather. She begins to read one aloud, but when things start to get a little steamy she just laughs. Mom asks what he said next, but she declines to share the spicy details.
We’re still not done though! Odie then gets Garfield’s attention and drags over his contraption. When he removes the paper bag Garfield is a little puzzled, but Odie is there to demonstrate that he’s invented a cat scratcher. He rubs himself all over the thing and seems to really be enjoying it. Garfield thinks it’s great and happily gives it a try. Declaring it the best gift a cat could ever receive, he tells Odie that sometimes he surprises him and gives him a hug. The family looking on let out a loud “Aww” which prompts Garfield to address everyone. I don’t think any of them can hear him, but we can, as he tells us “Christmas: It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving. There, I said it. Now get out of here.” See, he learned what Christmas is all about in the end!
We then break into “Good Old-Fashioned Christmas” which is like a rag-time kind of song. Everyone dances and sings and it’s the song that takes us into the credits. A Garfield Christmas is a bit of a good old-fashioned Christmas, the kind that would make Clark Griswold jealous. We get to see Garfield go from viewing all of the traditions of Christmas as a chore, to happily partaking in them and even getting in some gift-giving. His window-side chat with Grandma is touching and definitely makes me miss my own nana who always seemed to miss my grandfather the most at Christmas after his passing. I still remember the first Christmas without him and as the dust settled on the frenzy that was the opening of presents by the younger crowd, her taking a seat in his old chair and having a little cry. It’s the nice, but also the sad part of the holidays which always seem to conjure up memories of holidays past and all of the people we lost along the way to get to the current one.
Not to say there isn’t a bunch of humorous moments in this one. Garfield is a character basically made for Christmas. He can be dismissive of the chores, but welcoming to the food and merriment. Jon’s family is fairly ordinary, though the lack of kids from either Jon or Doc Boy gives the gathering a different feel. Of course, we see a lot of Jon and Doc Boy and it’s readily apparent why neither has children. I’m not even sure Doc Boy has moved out of that house. It’s largely a special of small moments that build to Christmas morning. The moments are almost so small and meandering that there is a bit of an anticlimactic feel to it, but it comes across as nice and more believable a Christmas than some of the specials I’ve seen that don’t feature a talking cat.
If you’ve seen any Garfield specials before then you know what to expect from the presentation. The performances by the actors are all well done, especially Pat Carroll as Grandma and, of course, Lorenzo Music as Garfield. The music is also pretty damn terrific. The song “Keep Christmas in Your Heart” does border on being a bit too sappy, especially the way they use it to cap the somber moment between Grandma and Garfield, but it’s okay and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The classic, public domain Christmas songs are used sparingly, but with great effect. They’re just subtle ways to keep the Christmas theme going in scenes when it wouldn’t be obvious you’re staring at a Christmas special. And the animation is quite lovely from Film Roman. It doesn’t attempt anything incredible, but the characters emote well, they’re bouncy when they need to be, and I love the little touches in the backgrounds.
If you haven’t seen A Garfield Christmas by now then I don’t know what you’re waiting for. The special turns 35 in a few weeks and is sadly no longer shown on television. It is available for free on YouTube and has been printed numerous times on DVD usually with other Garfield holiday specials that are also well worth your time. It’s definitely not a hard one to view and I definitely think it should be in your holiday rotation this year and for another 35 years at least. All right, now I really want some lasagna.
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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