I’ve said here before and I will proudly say it again: I LOVE Peanuts. I love the characters. I read the strips as a kid, I have books for my son, and I love the specials and movies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of America’s favorite animated Christmas programs, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I watch it just about every year, or at least read the story to my son.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted on December 9, 1965, is an animated television special based on Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. It opens with shots of the children ice skating while the song, “Christmastime Is Here” plays. Charlie Brown and Linus walk together on the VERY snowy roads to chat at their favorite wall. Side note: am I really the only one thinking these conditions look way too bad for these kids to walk around, alone? Maybe I am. At the wall, Charlie Brown confesses to Linus that he’s just not feeling the holiday cheer, although he knows he should. Normally, Linus has some words to perk him up but even he has to admit that Charlie is bringing him down.
When Charlie checks his mailbox, he sees no cards. He sarcastically tells Violet thanks for her card and she tells him she didn’t send him one (Rude!). When he tells Lucy, at her psychiatrist booth, that he feels depressed about the holiday, Lucy suggests he direct the Christmas play at school. Right away, Charlie hopes this plan could boost his spirits. As he heads home, he becomes even more frustrated about the commercialization of Christmas when he sees Snoopy decorating his doghouse to win a contest for money. Soon after, Sally asks for help with her letter to Santa Claus, where she requests cash in “tens and twenties.” Even his baby sister!
It’s worth mentioning that my son repeatedly reminded me that he does NOT like Violet, and dislikes Lucy even more. He would walk up to the TV and point just so I wasn’t confused. I’m pretty sure he thought they were the same mean girl but anyway…
When the other kids find out Charlie is directing the play, they immediately show their disappointment. Snoopy even boos him when Charlie arrives. He has little control over the other kids and is shown no respect. Most of them would prefer a modern take on Christmas, with dancing and upbeat music. In an effort to set “the proper mood,” Charlie Brown decides they need a Christmas tree. Lucy offers to take over while he looks for a “big shiny aluminum tree” so Charlie takes Linus with him.
At the tree market, there are many trees that fit Lucy’s description but Charlie Brown wants the one real tree, which happens to be VERY small. Knowing his sister, Linus is reluctant about showing up with the tree Charlie Brown likes. He tells him it doesn’t fit the “modern spirit” but Charlie is convinced that after decorating it, it will be just right for the play. When they return to the auditorium with the tree, the children and Snoopy mock and laugh at Charlie Brown, as they call him names (much to my son’s chagrin). Hurt, Charlie Brown challenges everyone, asking if anyone knows what Christmas is all about.
Linus stands center stage, requests a spotlight, drops his beloved blanket (!), and explains Christmas, as told in the King James Bible. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie Brown picks up the little tree and walks out of the auditorium. Inspired by Linus’ speech, Charlie decides to show them all what this tree could do with a little decoration. He passes Snoopy’s award-winning doghouse and takes an ornament. Due to the weight of the ornament, the top branch flops to the side. Feeling sad, Charlie says “I’ve killed it. Everything I touch gets ruined!” He runs off, more upset than before.
Linus and the other kids arrive near Snoopy’s doghouse. Linus admits he liked the tree, gently returns the branch to an upright position and wraps his blanket around the base of the tree. The kids help him spruce it tree up as Lucy also admits it was a nice tree. When they start humming “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charlie returns asking what they’re doing. Excitedly, they all shout “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!” then they all sing together as a group, next to Charlie’s gorgeous Christmas tree.
The special was a primetime hit, and even won the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966. As the story goes, no one was a believer when Schulz pitched his idea around. He knew no one thought it would be a success but he pushed forward anyway. In 1965, America was not moved as much by religious messages on TV. The nation was on the brink of a cultural revolution as people continued the fight for Civil Rights, protested war, and pushed for women in the workplace. Who was looking forward to a cartoon with a child preaching from the Bible?
I do understand the skepticism but if we just return to innocence for a moment, it’s hard to deny there is something special about Linus bringing everyone together to honor the meaning of Christmas. Christmas is indeed a commercial holiday so it’s nice to have a reminder that we should appreciate the good things and good people we have in our lives. A Charlie Brown Christmas brings out an innocent feeling in me and I am happy to say 50 years after it premiered, I sat on the couch and watched it with my 21st century son and he enjoyed it as much as I always have. I think Mr. Schulz would be proud.
OK, he really really doesn’t like Lucy!