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Books, music, and a spooky movie for your kids’ holiday programming

Clockwise from top left: Little Santa; John Denver And The Muppets' A Christmas Together; The Nightmare Before Christmas; Richard Scarry's Best Christmas Book Ever; The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe; The Velveteen Rabbit
Photo: The Nightmare Before Christmas (Joel Fletcher/Online USA/Getty Images), Graphic: Nick Wanserski
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song says, the time when parents pull out all the old favorites to enjoy with their kids: The Polar Express (book only, avoid the movie), A Charlie Brown Christmas, various Grinch incarnations (animated>>>live action), and in a few years, Die Hard. For now, though, in case your list of holiday specials is feeling repetitive, A.V. Club parents again offer some of our favorite holiday pop culture treats to share with the kids, including some idyllic books, picture and otherwise; a classic Muppet guest star; and a certain movie that straddles the holiday season between Christmas and Halloween.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Everyone knows that The Nightmare Before Christmas is a great Halloween movie for 8-year-olds. What my family pre-supposes is: Maybe it’s a great Christmas movie for toddlers? I don’t mean to re-ignite tedious and pointless debates about which subgenre of holiday movies it “truly” belongs to (obviously it’s seasonally appropriate from September through December), but I will say that despite the many creepy-crawly details, it’s a surprisingly good starter of a Christmas movie, in that it’s longer than a regular Christmas special but (at just 76 minutes with credits) shorter than most other features. We introduced it piecemeal to my then-2-year-old daughter last year, just showing her videos of “This Is Halloween” and “What’s This” as holiday primers in song—another testament to this movie’s utility for younger kids.

A few weeks later, I decided to take a shot at the whole movie, vowing to shut it off if she got freaked out, and it simply didn’t occur to her to find it frightening. If almost everyone in a movie is creepy, crawly, and possibly dead, it’s not that big a deal, and the stop-motion animation is a nicely tactile match with the season of elaborate decorations (and if you’re not decoratively inclined, maybe you can just throw on the movie instead). Other kids’ mileage may vary, of course; one thing I’ve learned from parenthood is that age-appropriateness is tricky to pin down in your own kid, never mind someone else’s. My now-3-year-old still finds the snow monster in Frozen skippably scary, but I took her to the recent seasonal re-release of Nightmare for her first real movie-theater trip, and she didn’t flinch once (well, maybe at the Nutcracker And The Four Realms trailer, but I think Nightmare prepared her well for that, too). Of course, it was the weekend before Halloween. But seriously, “What’s This” is an all-time great Christmas song.
Suggested age: 3 and up, why not? [Jesse Hassenger]

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

My worn, dog-eared copy of The Velveteen Rabbit is as shabby as the titular toy itself these days. But I still pull it out to read to my (now middle-school-aged) children, just as I’ve done since they were helplessly strapped into bouncy seats, forced to listen to me and my daily aural menu of picture books. Even with (or maybe because of) its particular brand of pathos, The Velveteen Rabbit has always been a particular holiday favorite of mine. It starts out in such a celebratory fashion, at a family Christmas party, where a boy receives the titular rabbit for a present. But it is not love at first sight, as the rabbit then has to hang in the nursery with other forgotten toys, hearing about enraptured tales of what life was like when your child loved you enough to consider you real.

Of course, that fate eventually happens to our own dear rabbit, as his whiskers get rubbed off from too much cuddling and some stuffing sticks out from his once-lustrous velveteen coat. Still, the velveteen rabbit is so happy with the boy he loves that he doesn’t care, until a bout of scarlet fever comes along to mess everything up (see also: Little Women), until the velveteen rabbit is transformed at the end. When I think about The Velveteen Rabbit too much, I think it’s about death, and the mysterious wondrous transition that possibly comes afterward. For the kids, though, I highlight the part about how the velveteen rabbit wasn’t the fanciest, or most modern, or most expensive present the boy had, but the most loved, which is the most important thing.
Suggested age: Strapped-into baby seats and up [Gwen Ihnat]

John Denver And The Muppets’ A Christmas Together soundtrack

John Denver And The Muppets’ A Christmas Together is a fun, goofy viewing experience, but I’ve only managed to get my kids to sit down for parts of it before they inevitably get distracted by something newer and less John Denver-y. We’ve had much more success incorporating the soundtrack into multiple holiday activities like baking, decorating the tree, and pushing plastic geegaws around on the carpet. Even by the generous standards of entertainment made for an audience ranging in age from 3 to 41, A Christmas Together soundtrack has some rough patches in the middle. The songs are slower and a bit more maudlin, qualities that help expose some of the chintziness of the electronic orchestration. But the big, uptempo group songs take full advantage of that manic Muppet enthusiasm to deliver cheery, energetic renditions replete with the little asides and non sequiturs mumbled between the characters. But honestly, even the cheesiest songs are as integral to the fabric of the Muppet experience as the wit and mania. If it was too cool, it wouldn’t be the Muppets. And that also applies to Christmas.
Suggested age: 3 to 41 [Nick Wanserski]

Richard Scarry’s Best Christmas Book Ever

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. I’d spend hours poring over those little animals in people clothes doing people things. Because I grew up in Florida, it introduced me to concepts that were foreign to me: “Oh, that’s a ‘scarf.’ Those are ‘mittens.’” So it’s no surprise that as soon as I learned there was a Best Word Book holiday equivalent, I got it for my kids. Richard Scarry’s Best Christmas Book Ever features little vignettes (the Pig family’s “Best Christmas Present Ever,” “Trouble At Santa’s Workshop”), games (“The Trip To Grandma’s House”), and even sheet music for “Jingle Bells” and other classics. It’s all set in the Scarry-ubiquitous Busytown, but, this time, Busytown is all decked out for the holidays. Even Lowly Worm is there in his apple car, outfitted with track treads for the snow.
Suggested age: 2 to 7 [Marla Caceres]

Little Santa by Jon Agee

Holiday media has so many Santa Claus stories that you may not feel the need for another. But there are also a lot of bad Claus tales out there, so before your kid stumbles upon Santa Claus: The Movie and inundates you with questions about Dudley Moore, why not start them out with something easier and less cluttered? Jon Agee’s picture book gives a quick primer on Santa’s childhood as part of a family growing tired of their cold, desolate life at the North Pole. Naturally, Young Santa doesn’t share their yearning for a relocation to Florida, and the book uses this (minor) conflict as the springboard for another Santa origin story. The writing is fine, but the standout element is Agee’s adorable illustrations, especially in the oversized hardcover (a board-book version is also available). Seeing Santa as a scrappy little kid might be kind of a mindblower for little ones who know him only as a towering figure of myth, and might even assuage some of those Mall Santa fears. Whether it’s the book or TV version of The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus, the Santa Clause trilogy, or Kurt Russell’s Santa spectacular, kids who celebrate Christmas tend to be inundated with Santa stories at some point. Think of Little Santa as a nice set of training wheels.
Suggested age: 2 to 5 [Jesse Hassenger]

The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

You may not think of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe as a Christmas story, but C.S. Lewis’ timeless children’s fantasy novel has a better claim than Die Hard: Santa’s the hero. While Aslan, the talking lion Jesus stand-in, is central to the book’s mythology, the turning point of the story—in which four children venture into the magical land of Narnia, currently under the thrall of an evil White Witch—involves Father Christmas visiting Narnia for the first time in a century. He gives the children presents (a sword, a bow, a healing potion), which they eventually use to save the day. Afterward, they meet Aslan, who takes them through to the climax of the story, but it’s Santa who actually breaks the White Witch’s hold on Narnia and allows for Aslan’s return. Beyond Wardrobe’s Christian allegory (which Lewis’ contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien criticized as too obvious and clunky), the story also imparts the most important lesson of all at this time of year: Winter is evil, and being cold sucks. The Witch imprisons Narnia by covering it under a blanket of snow, and takes people prisoner by freezing them into statues. And hope only returns to the land when Father Christmas melts the snow and returns life to the land. Because Santa knows the best gift of all is being able to go outside without a coat again.
Suggested age: 4th grade and up [Mike Vago]