Ladies and gentlemen, our national toys: The Muppets. Tonight they romp, flounce and occasionally slum their ways through ABC's John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together," at 8 on Channel 7. This holiday special, almost certain to become a TV perennial, is lavish, warm and insanely entertaining.

As an event it can only be compared to the night the freezer broke down and we courageous martyrs had to eat all the ice cream at once.

Highlights of the hour include the opening rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with Fozzie Bear repeatedly muffing his line and suffering abject humilation, Rowlf at the piano joining Denver for a duet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a convivial wooden soldier routine choreographed by director Tony Charmoli, and the delicious Miss Piggy in her tiara and lavender gloves, reclining on a satin-covered couch and sternly dictating the terms of her appearance.

It is discouraging to see The Muppets succumb with increasing frequency to sentimental impulses overly exercised in "The Muppet Movie." Kermit the Frog has a duet with Denver that reeks of forced sensitivity; he can become an awfully self-pitying little amphibian at times. Come to think of it, the same goes for Denver, who tends to bring out The Muppets' sanctimoniousness rather than their playful anarchic streak. Occasionally the hour gets so cute one might consider groaning in agony.

But the program is repeatedly redeemed by the fact the Jim Henson's Muppets remain visually ingenious -- true creatures of television -- and very thoughtfully realized as personalities. In addition to the usual Muppets, Henson and associates devised a new kind of animated sculpture used to reenact the nativity story near the hour's end.

Denver gets pretty icky when he starts mooning and twittering about "very special" thisses and "very special" thatses; at one point he actually says, "life is a special kind of thing." Right, especially as compared to the alternative. For all that, the special, beautifully produced by Bob Finkel, is family television in the best sense of the term and enormously satisfying fluff.

One may be totally immune to the fugacius appeal of Denver's smile-button face and still appreciate that he works hard and appears truly to be enjoying himself. When Miss Piggy begs to see him without his glasses and moments later is imploring him to put them back on, his laughter seems hearty and genuine and will be shared by millions.