Everyone has a list of must watch Christmas specials. It’s a necessary thing to have in my household when my mother owns over 100 Christmas movies and specials on DVD. Thus, there are some I am at fine with skipping ( Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, The Christmas Shoes Trilogy come to mind), others that I’d like to try to get to, but then there is that upper echelon of Christmas films that have to be watched and in fact that list contains some pretty universally loved shows. At the very top of that list is the beloved classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It was hardly the first Christmas special ever produced. That honor goes to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, followed by the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Charlie Brown was the third special to debut, but it was a risky venture. It may not seem like it nowadays, as Charlie Brown and the gang are seen as nice, sweet, and safe, like a warm bowl of oatmeal. Yet everything that Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, producer Bill Melendez and the rest of the crew that brought the story together was one risk after another. From the insistence of hiring real children and not adults as was the case for cartoons back then, to the refusal to use a laugh track, to the shows poignant gospel message, it was one up-hill battle after another. If the special bombed that would be it for Charlie and the gang.
Thankfully for them, Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, Lucy, Sally and the gang struck a chord with the audiences watching and for half a century they have come into our living rooms to regal us in their story once again. The story begins one snowy December when Charlie Brown and his best friend Linus are walking out to the annual skating party and Charlie laments to his stalwart friend how Christmas is coming but somehow he’s not happy.
The rest of his friends don’t make it easier. Sally and Lucy seem to worry more about what they will get, while even Snoopy is going full tilt on decorating his dog house for Christmas for an annual super colossal lights and display contest. In talking to Lucy, she urges him to get involved in some kind of Christmas project to feel the holiday spirit and ropes him into directing their play.
Nothing goes right as no one will follow directions. Charlie Brown and Linus go out to buy a tree hoping it will set the right mood. Despite the request from his friends for a big gaudy aluminum Christmas tree, Charlie sets his eyes on a simple live Christmas tree that can barely stand on its own and is shedding needles like crazy. Most of his friends and even his baby sister and his dog laugh at him. Causing him to call out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about.”
Then Linus takes the stage in his simple, childlike lisping voice recites the Nativity story form the gospel of Luke:
Everyone is silent as Charlie leaves the auditorium and resolved to take the tree home and decorate it. When it doesn’t work out, he is crushed but to his surprise his friends arrive and decorate it for him and where the ugly scraggly tree once stood is a beautiful Christmas tree, and they all wish him Merry Christmas and join in “Hark, the Herald Angels sing.”
Center to this story, and in fact all Charlie Brown specials, is the eponymous everyman hero Charlie Brown. Unlucky in love, and at times unlucky in life, Charlie makes up for all his misgivings with his ability to keep on trying. Always by his side is his lovable dog Snoopy and his blanket carrying sage-like best friend, Linus. The refined Schroeder seems more content to play his piano then mill with the gang while Lucy tries her best to control every situation she comes across. Charlie’s sweet and naive baby sister Sally is always along for the ride and at times is easily swayed by the crowd, while the messy Pig-Pen carries his cloud of dust with him everywhere.
There are other supporting players in this special. Shermy, Freida, Patty and the obscure 3, 4, and 5. These characters have faded from the strip and other specials and as such on all licensed media like puzzles, posters, books, and T-shirts, they tend to be omitted in favor of more popular characters like Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin (none of whom existed at the time the special aired). This only helps to show just how prevalent Charlie and the gang are today as they were 50 years ago. The supporting players may have changed but that core group remains the same.
Much of the genius of this special comes from how well Schulz wrote children. He did not look at them through rose colored lenses. Schulz understood that at times children can be lonely, they can be depressed, they can be confused, and despite what we’d like to think, they can be downright cruel to one another. However, he also knew that children can be good natured if they chose to be, and when they believe enough in something they’ll just keep on trying. More importantly he understood that often times a child can be wise beyond their years, and in the process, they remind us that the greatest things in life are the simplest.
Moreover, his characters demonstrate just what simple, childlike faith can actually do in a very subtle way. While this may be called “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, it really is Linus’ time to shine. Not only is he the only one who doesn’t mock and ridicule his friend and genuinely try to support him (only trying to talk him out of the scraggly tree because he probably knows his friend will be mocked for it), he is the only one who gets it when it comes to Christmas. So much so that when he recites the passage from the Gospel of Luke, it is the only time in Peanuts franchise history that he can willingly let go of his blanket. Linus shows that faith can change you and give you a strength you never knew you had before.
Driving Charlie and the gang along is the bouncy Jazz score by Vince Guaraldi. Oddly enough you can hear his iconic “Linus and Lucy” playing on the radio at Christmas time on any station that plays holiday music. There is nothing inherently Christmassy about the theme, the music, like the special has become part of our collective Christmas consciousness. The only four songs in the special that were not original were “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” , “O Christmas Tree”, “Fur Elise” and “Jingle Bells”. The lack of any contemporary music helps the special retain a nearly timeless feel ( sans the reference to aluminum Christmas trees which were in vogue in the 60s and this special is often thought to have helped hasten their demise).
It’s a short special, and even shorter without the commercials for Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison pies that were present in the specials original airing. It lacks the high tech wizardry of more recent specials. It doesn’t have any superstar voices to entice you to watch. The animation is rough and hand drawn, and in fact when the recent theatrical movie was announced to be done in CGI, Brad Bird of Pixar was among the first to express concern. One would think someone who was part of the animation revolution would have no qualms with updating an old classic, but it’s easy to see why he would feel that way. Something about the simple, hand-drawn animation of the Peanuts specials just has a warm, heartfelt, homespun, look to it that you can’t help but love.
The special, is not unlike the tree that Charlie Brown picks out. It isn’t perfect, glitzy or glamorous,but that is what makes it so great and what places it in that top tier of great Christmas classics alongside the likes of A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Elf. These stories feature a shared thread that comes from a willingness to tackle the cynicism of the age, and remind us that Christmas is not about the crash commercialism that the holiday seems to be associated with, but something much greater.
Thank-you, Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the gang for continuing to remind us what Christmas is all about. Happy 50th Anniversary!