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December 14, 2016

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” revisited

For some reason, all of the classic TV Christmas specials were produced in the mid-to-late 1960s, starting with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964) and continuing through “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966) to “Frosty the Snowman” (1969). As a kid, I watched all three every year, along with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), arguably the pinnacle of the genre.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a clinically depressed child’s failed effort to direct a school Christmas pageant. This plot is so slender that the show’s 25-minute running time feels capacious rather than constraining; there’s plenty of room, still, for long quiet walks in the snow and extended glimpses of the stars in the sharp winter sky.
Its classic status owes more to its stylishly unadorned animated style (and its catchy theme song, the immortal piano ditty composed by Vince Guaraldi for the program) than to its spare script by Charles Schulz. The leaden Midwestern dourness of Schulz’s comic strip was replicated in the TV cartoon with a fidelity that would have made proud the curmudgeonly Charlie Brown, for whom even blinking Christmas lights are unacceptably garish: instead of punching up the source material for a mass audience, animator Bill Melendez doubled down on its plainness. The characters speak slowly and one by one, when they speak at all; the comic gags are so basic that their dignified unfunniness recalls “A Prairie Home Companion” more than it does the high-energy wackiness of a contemporary children’s series like “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Sometimes minimalism is just a product of not doing very much in the first place, rather than of paring down: the special was made in just six weeks (from an outline composed in a single day by Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson) at the request of the Coca-Cola Company, which, in the fall of 1965, was looking for a family-friendly vehicle for its holiday-season advertising. That “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was created in order to sell Coke is an irony, given that Charlie Brown spends most of the program bemoaning the evils of consumerism at Christmastime. Ultimately, “Peanuts” would become one of the most widely merchandised creative properties of all time, but surprisingly, the soul of the strip remained intact—Charlie Brown would always be a loser, no matter how popular he became.
“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,” Charlie Brown says in the show’s heartbreaking first lines. Ultimately, he is supposedly saved by the religious traditionalism of Linus, who, in what must be the climax of this uneventful story (the Christmas pageant around which the action revolves never actually happens), recites a passage from the Bible to remind Charlie Brown of the true “reason for the season”—as if the spiritual emptiness experienced by the tragic little boy, his sense of the hollowness of the yuletide cheer that surrounds him, could be filled by an influx of Christian sentiment.
But from the beginning, Charlie Brown’s rants against the materialistic crassness of modernity, to which the ancient wisdom of Linus serves as a counterpoint, are essentially incoherent: the charm of the “Peanuts” universe begins, in fact, with its old-timey agrarian backdrop and the solemnity with which its adult-like children occupy it. There are no shopping malls or TVs or ADD in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and the characters amuse themselves by throwing snowballs at a can perched on a fence or by ice skating silently on a frozen pond. Their small-town landscape is timeless, and except for the pink aluminum Christmas trees that Charlie Brown rejects in favor of his famous wilted fir, utterly devoid of the tacky ephemera of our commercialized era, unless you’re fusty enough to count Schroeder’s tasteful jazz.
Charlie Brown’s depression—the pain of which manifests itself here not only as harmless lament but, unfortunately, too, as passive-aggressive taunting of Violet and Pigpen—is really about Charlie Brown. Though he views himself as a put-upon victim, Lucy never yanks the football away in this particular episode; instead, she invites him to direct the school’s Christmas play in order to cheer him up and get him more involved in the holiday season. It’s his classmates, not he, who apply the tenderness that regenerates the sad plant selected by Charlie Brown for the pageant; the love they spread over it is an expression of their love of him, or at least of their charity.
Still, he is probably doomed. If anyone can help him, it’s perhaps not earnest Linus but Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, who embraces life in a spirit of mischief, irony, and imagination.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first of what would become a series of increasingly less necessary “Peanuts” holiday specials—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day—whose second installment, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” self-consciously reflects (through Linus’s attempt to create an October analog for Santa Claus in the Great Pumpkin) upon the absence of a coherent Halloween mythology around which to build a holiday special. It’s kind of a classic, too, but really only Christmastime can be sad enough to match the sadness of Charlie Brown.

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