Why do the Muppets work so well in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol? Victorian literature scholar Joshua Taft writes that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol combines “humanistic Christianity” with “a variety of secular enchantment.” Enchantment — or re-enchantment — is a crucial part of the Muppets’ appeal.
I am a card-carrying member of the Muppet generation. That is to say: I was reared during the era of Peak Muppet. I was born in 1978. The Muppet Show aired every week during my early childhood, and the Sesame Street Muppets, born in 1969, had truly hit their stride — but had not yet been sullied by The Elmo Takeover.
One of my earliest memories is the CBS “eye” appearing on our living room television just before a drumroll heralded Kermit’s voice declaring, “It’s the Muppet show!” What followed was thirty minutes of the zaniest variety show ever, populated by Muppets and one celebrity human host. The episode where Tony Randall turned Miss Piggy to stone reduced me to night terrors. But the Muppets were also my love language. Ernie and Bert soothed me while my mom applied antiseptic ointment after my first bee sting. Fozzie Bear could always make me laugh. I ate it all up. Creator Jim Henson was just reaching his creative best.
And then abruptly, in my ‘tween years, came the tragedy. On May 16, 1990, Henson died of complications from streptococcal pneumonia. He was only fifty-three years old. I hadn’t fully realized people could just die like that. They broadcast footage from his funeral on the news. I remember seeing bright colors—no darkness for Henson, whose instructions forbade anyone to wear black at his funeral — and delicate butterfly puppets waving among mourners in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I wept. I was twelve years old.
The Muppets could have ended then.
But they didn’t. Jim Henson’s son, Brian, took on the mantle of continuing his father’s legacy. Two years later, in December 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol appeared in theaters. Kermit’s voice was different, and it wasn’t a runaway success — but it was enough. It was a Christmas miracle. Three decades later, there have now been more Muppet films without Jim Henson at the helm than with him.
The Muppets, it turned out, were eternal. Whether they are making rainbow connections or excited that there’s only one more sleep ‘till Christmas, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie Bear all showed us how to believe in our common humanity and the wonder of the everyday. What could be more perfect for we late Gen X-ers — the children of the “spiritual but not religious” Baby Boomers and their marketplace of devotions, desperate for something to counter our cynicism, fearful that we might end up worse off than our parents? The Muppets are our spiritual lingua franca.
The most obvious Muppet Religion is in The Muppet Christmas Carol, which turns thirty years old this December. Last fall, I attended a panel to mark this occasion at D23 — the official Disney fan convention — in Anaheim, California. In a packed hall, I watched drag performer, author, and reality-TV-star Nina West (Andrew Levitt, also born in 1978), clad in a stunning Kermit-green dress, sing with several Muppets. Fake snow and greenery decorated the stage.
During the panel that followed, composer Paul Williams (who also worked on music for The Muppet Movie) told us, “I had a spiritual awakening” after giving up drinking — a change that happened just before he wrote for The Muppet Christmas Carol. After telling the story of his sobriety, Williams brought us into his creative process. “I get up in the morning and I say, ‘lead me where you need me.’ And I say, ‘surprise me God,’ because there’s something about surrendering to just the process of living life, and trying to do the right thing, and being of love and service, that just takes all the work out of it,” he explained.
This idea of surrender is a key feature of many religious traditions — particularly Christianity, which is foundational for twelve-step programs. In a Christian context, surrender means giving oneself over to a higher power, to — as Carrie Underwood puts it — let “Jesus take the wheel.” There is surrender, too, in the Muppets — a willingness to abandon the pretense of being “normal,” and instead to give oneself over to irreverence and community, however dysfunctional things might be backstage at The Muppet Show.
For Williams, Scrooge’s story of redemption resonated with his own. “It’s about a man who is addicted to finance… and suddenly has a spiritual awakening,” he continued. “He finds that he is part of the family of man, and he has awakened to a thankful heart. A perfect match of something to write about that I felt I had been gifted with myself.”
The idea that redemption is always available— that hope comes in the morning — is key to the immense popularity of A Christmas Carol. Dickens might have been British, but A Christmas Carol’s message of salvation is also baked into the DNA of U.S. Protestantisms—and into narratives of what America itself means. In The Muppet Christmas Carol, when Scrooge (Michael Caine) faces his own grave, he pleads with the Spirit of Christmas Future: “These events can be changed! A life can be made right!” These are folks who love a comeback story, whether it’s a redeemed politician or a former gang member turned evangelist. There are few more American moves than this promise: Americans long for what might be, for the change on every horizon.
The Muppets are felt-wrapped containers of unfettered possibility. At the close of The Muppet Movie, in a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit turns to the camera — breaking the fourth wall — and sings, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending.” It is a modern affirmation of faith in the regenerative power of creativity — and our control of our own destiny.
But this is not just a story of American individualism. Kermit sings on a soundstage where he is surrounded by dozens of other Muppets, in every shape and size. Even more than they are dreamers, the Muppets are a family. They are an emblem for all those who have had to forge their own chosen families — a hallmark of Generation X, which was perhaps the first cohort to celebrate “Friendsgiving,” and also of many LGBTQIA+ people (there are many excellent queer takes on the Muppets). Kermit’s dream lives because he shares it with other people. Catharsis only comes once you have a community.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is now a classic, but its spiritual wellspring is different from that of the Henson-era Muppets.
The Muppets’ roots owe much to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time of religious experimentation, as Baby Boomers came of age amidst popular interest in Asian religions; as the Jesus movement spread among “hippie Christians” on the West Coast; and as feminism, Civil Rights, and environmentalism all influenced theologies and rituals. Experimentation was a hallmark of American religions in this era. (In The Muppet Movie, there is a running gag where every time any character says they are “lost,” another replies: “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”)
Jodi Eicher-Levine is the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization and a professor of religion studies at Lehigh University. She is the author, most recently, of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, and is writing a book about religion and Disney.