A Charlie Brown Christmas

"I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess."

First broadcast on December 9, 1965, and rebroadcast every year since, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a permanent fixture of American pop culture. It is also the single most radical, subversive, counter-cultural Christmas special ever made.

In the spring of 1965, Charles Schultz' Peanuts comic strip appeared daily in pretty much every newspaper published on the North American continent and was so firmly fixed in mainstream pop culture that everyone knew who Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Linus and Lucy were. After working together on an unsold documentary about the comic, Mr. Schultz and television producer Lee Mendelson pitched the idea of a Peanuts animated Christmas special to the suits at Coca-Cola.  Coke enthusiastically bought it, no doubt expecting a standard "heartwarming holiday special" with snowflakes and Santa and Christmas carols, as inoffensive and predictable as every other heartwarming holiday special ever made.

When the suits from Coke and CBS finally got to see the finished product, just a week before its scheduled air date, it was not what anyone was expecting.  It opens with a scene of children ice skating, a standard Christmas special setting--but wait a minute, that music!  Conventional Christmas song lyrics, . . .
Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call their favorite time of the year
Snowflakes in the air, carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to share
. . . but the tempo is slow, the kids singing it are singing softly, they're accompanied by a jazz trio instead of an orchestra--no sleighbells, fercryinoutloud!--and the whole thing comes off sad and wistful and bittersweet instead of Happy Holidays! cheerful.  What is going on here?

What was going on was that Charles Schultz had some very unconventional ideas of how his characters and fictional universe should be translated into television.  The voice actors were children between the ages of six and nine--some too young to read the script!--for the sake of authenticity.  There was no laugh track, something which was then considered "best practices."  The music was contemporary jazz by Vince Guaraldi, and includes the very non-Christmasy "Linus and Lucy" (the earworm everyone thinks of as "the Peanuts theme") and a laid-back, syncopated cocktail lounge rendition of "O Tannenbaum."  And as if all that wasn't unexpected enough, the story centers on a sad little boy displaying signs of what we would today call "seasonal affective disorder."

Perpetually unlucky, perpetually depressed Charlie Brown finds himself attempting to direct an uncooperative cast in a school play which is an incoherent mashup of holiday tropes (shepherds, innkeepers, Christmas trees, a "Christmas Queen"), all the while becoming ever more repulsed by the pervasive commercialism and avarice he sees around him.  Sent out to get a shiny new pink aluminum tree for use as a stage decoration, Charlie Brown instead picks out the only non-metallic example on offer, a sickly sapling for which he has no small degree of empathy, even though, as Linus puts it, it "doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit."  Cruelly mocked by his peers as a "blockhead" for picking the "wrong" tree, Charlie Brown lets out an anguished cry: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

This is the point where the usual holiday special rolls out some vague platitude about "the spirit of Christmas" or "the magic and warmth of the Holiday season" or a deus ex machina "Christmas miracle" that ties up the plot threads just in time for the last commercial break.

But this is not the usual holiday special.  What we get instead is Linus on a bare stage, reciting the Gospel of Luke, King James Version:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."  Followed by dead silence.

Inspired by this, Charlie Brown sets out to decorate his forlorn little tree.  Though at first his effort goes awry--this is Charlie Brown, after all--the other kids, now suitably chastened by Linus' monologue, show up to pitch in.  With ornaments and lights stripped off of Snoopy's overdecorated doghouse, and Linus' security blanket for an apron, the tree is transformed.  Linus summarizes the result: "I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love."

A little love went a long way.  15.49 million households watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, making it the second highest rated program that week.  The critics and the public adored what they saw.  A Charlie Brown Christmas won the 1966 Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.  It was rerun in December of 1966 . . . and 1967 . . . and every year thereafter to the present day, becoming what is probably the most beloved half hour in all of western animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas worked so well precisely because it was so unconventional.  The minimalist, unpolished animation was appropriate for Schultz' minimalist drawing style.  You don't need a laugh track to tell you that Lucy asking for real estate for Christmas is funny, and a laugh track would have been a distraction from the deeper meaning.  The critique of greed and commercialism underlying the punch line hits you in the heart in a way that sappy sentimentalism or throwaway jokes never could.  Even the jazz soundtrack was a perfect fit.

It couldn't have been done any other way.  Just try to imagine a slick CGI Peanuts Christmas special with blatant product placement and a laugh track and sleighbells instead of Vince Gauraldi--it would be horrifying.

Also under the tree....

There is a beautiful, subtle bit of symbolism in the climax: when Linus says the words "Fear not," he drops his security blanket.

Circa 1965, aluminum Christmas trees were hip, cool, and trendy.  After the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the kitschy aluminum tree fad was crushed beneath a tidal wave of social disapproval.  Thank you, Charles Schultz.

Quotes

Charlie Brown: "Rats. Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"

Lucy: "I never get what I really want.  I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle, or clothes or something like that."
Charlie Brown: "What is it you want?"
Lucy: "Real estate."

Sally's letter to Santa: "I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.  Please note the size and color of each item and send as many as possible.  If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money.  Tens and twenties."

Schroder: "What do you mean, Beethoven wasn't so great?"
Lucy: "He never got his picture on bubble-gum cards, did he?  Have you ever seen his picture on a bubble-gum card?  Hmm?  How can you say someone is great who's never had his picture on bubble-gum cards?"

Conclusion

If it did not already exist, you probably couldn't get A Charlie Brown Christmas produced and aired today.  Linus reading from the Bible was considered incautious enough even in 1965 that the network might well have pulled the show from the schedule--except that it was only one week from the scheduled airdate, promotional materials had been made up and released, and the listings in next week's TV Guide had already been printed, so there was no turning back.  21st Century sponsors would be put off by its anti-commercial message, and risk-averse media executives would fear the Twitter-powered wrath of intersectional-studies scholars, pop-culture pundits, and hipsters with Festivus poles condemning the reading from the KJV as "offensive" and "problematic."

So let us be grateful that it did get made the way Charles Schultz wanted, and that it achieved the success it deserved.  Standing out from the thinly-disguised toy commercials, celebrity ego-trips, snarky parodies, and predictable melodramas--yeah, Hallmark Channel, I'm looking at you!--that we see so often at this time of year, A Charlie Brown Christmas reminds us of the origin of Christmas, and of much more.  One need not be a Christian, or even any kind of believer, to appreciate that it challenges us to see that there is more to life than immediate material gratification; that we should show a little love for ordinary things and ordinary people, and seek peace on earth and good will toward those around us.

Four out of four non-aluminum Christmas trees.

Baby M has never had his picture on a bubble-gum card, which makes him at least as great as Beethoven.

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

What a fun, lovely review, Baby M. Thank you so much.

CoramDeo said...

This review is exactly, completely on the nose. Absolutely true in every way about this wonderful special. Thank you.

Patrick said...

This is my one piece of essential viewing each Christmas season.