Why It Will Always Be Impossible to Top A Charlie Brown Christmas

ABC will broadcast A Charlie Brown's Christmas tonight, as it has annually since 2001. Will I watch it for the 38th time? Yes. Why? Because I want to be depressed, of course, and laugh out loud. I want to be transported. I want to mouth the words to Lucy's condescending psychiatry session with Charlie Brown. I want Linus's earnestness. I want to make fun of Snoopy, who walks on all fours at one point like the patronizing, meta-quadruped jackass he is. I want to hear poorly clipped voiceovers speak in grim, serrated quips about Christmas's meaninglessness. But most of all, I want to watch because there will never, ever be a holiday special as effective as Charlie Brown's. Let's remember why.

First, it is still awesome that A Charlie Brown Christmas, a patently anti-capitalist holiday special, is one of the few Christmas programs to re-air every year. Hell, Charlie Brown practically outs the original special's sponsors as propagators of Christmas's ruin, claiming the holiday is run by "an eastern syndicate," a clear jab at the Sterling-Coopers of the time. Chuck's always been part-kiddie hero, part-Grinchly misanthrope, but the sad-sack directness with which he bemoans commercialism, secularism, his own depression, and aluminum Christmas trees is pretty much a feat. It's downright Carlin-ian. Newhart-ian, even. Cavett-ian too. And Black-ian! That should be all.

But I don't want to delve on the cynicism, even if the melancholy children's choir in A Charlie Brown Christmas may as well be bleating "Suicide is Painless" over Vince Guaraldi's score. I want to focus on Charlie Brown's ability to, despite himself, capture the actual spirit of Christmas. In all its whimsy, ghostly ephemera, skepticism, and nostalgia, the Christmas spirit is kind of dark, right? It's about togetherness, but it's kind of isolating. It's about materialism, but it's about your loved ones. The contradictions all crop up in A Charlie Brown's Christmas, and with a plainspokenness that could fit in a funnies bubble.

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When Charlie Brown visits Lucy and claims to be depressed about Christmas, the 5-cent psychiatrist decides to diagnose him with every mumbo-jumbo phobia in the book (including "pantophobia," the fear of everything). Of course, Lucy is the most apt Peanut of all. Her message is clear: You have a point with your cynicism, but no one wants to hear it. Do something with your life if you care so damn much. Sigh. Love her.

After Charlie Brown decides to direct his school's Nativity play, he finds that his cast is obsessed with modernizing the production and adding dancing and music. This will result in hilarious dancing and music. The sequence has nothing to do with capturing the spirit of Christmas (other than it has come to define the special), but it's a necessary moment of dada bliss.

When Charlie Brown figures the play needs "proper mood" and sets out to buy a tree, he brings Linus along to find the right fir. Note the bewilderment with which Linus and Charlie Brown approach the lot of tangelo-colored Christmas trees. Have you not emoted similarly at the 500-foot evergreen at your local galleria? And every single year? Linus's climactic monologue may be the touchstone of the special, but as he knocks innocently on the hollow conifer, he proves he gets us.

linus500.jpg

But about that monologue: Eventually, after Charlie Brown flips out and despairs about Christmas's lost purpose, Linus takes the stage, quotes the Gospel of Luke, and schools Charlie Brown like a Sunday School valedictorian. (It should be known that Charles Schulz taught Sunday School for a number of years.)

Quaint and, for me, the one time I care about the actual Nativity story during the holiday season -- if only because Linus makes soapbox monologues seem so innocent, amirite? Plus, when Charlie Brown exits the auditorium and decides that materialism won't hamper his holiday, it's impossible not to be on board for that optimism. This special name-checks every reason to dislike Christmas (including greed, as exemplified by Sally's letter scroll to Santa), and it finds a way to make those problems as dismissible as a broken candy cane.

But now, the coup de grace: When Charlie Brown takes home his tiny (actual) tree and accidentally "kills" it with a heavy ornament, his rambunctious cast follows him home, finds the tree and stands it upright. And Linus, the seraphic little scamp he is, wraps it in his security blanket. Hollow iconography is dressed in sumptuous care, and there's the real triumphant statement of A Charlie Brown Christmas: It is hard to argue for a revamp of Christmas's artificiality when it provides an easy canvas to coat with love. Damn it, Schulz! I am forever your ad space.

What other Christmas special has dared to be this smart and unflinching while leveling still with every viewer, young and old? For kids and blockheads from 1 to 92, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a skittishly drawn, poorly dubbed slice of very real life, and an eternal cure for pantophobia. Let's watch it again.



Comments

  • The Winchester says:

    I'm organizing a flash mob, where we all faithfully perform the above Peanuts' dance.
    Dibs on the guy who keeps looking down at his shoes.
    Now to find a beagle that plays guitar...

  • adora says:

    2001 was 38 years ago? Where Have I been?

  • Louis Virtel says:

    It's been airing on ABC since 2001. CBS carried it before then.

  • Erik Walton says:

    I watched this the first time it was on.It's burned onto my memory! My mom and I were visiting her best friends house, helping them decorate and make cookies and cake for Christmas... we all stopped to watch it, as there had been controversy about it, and it having a Bible quote in it... I was mesmerized, and have been an ardent "Peanuts" fan ever since.. It's just not Christmas without it... Schulz was a genius in that he evoked every feeling towards the Season that one might have.... timeless! absolutely timeless!!

  • Dimo says:

    If only it was still brought to us by Dolly Madison.

  • I hope that your Christmas is merry,
    And your jolly St. Nick is hairy,
    But remember the reason,
    for this joyous season,
    Is Jesus, and Joseph, and Mary.

  • Delman says:

    Watching it just brings me home from the mall, the traffic, the hustle and bustle....back to a time when Christmas was a fun and happy time. Merry Christmas to all of you and GOD Bless all the Charlie Browns' among us.

  • John says:

    Couldn't agree more. I bypass just about all of the Christmas specials, but "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is one that even Scrooge would make sure to watch.

  • Bluus says:

    Mmmmeehh I'd rather watch 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas,' that was always my favorite Christmas special growing up (and no, I don't mean that awful live action one)

  • NP says:

    I know this is the unpopular opinion, but my sibling and I were discussing it recently and we both agree that we freaking hate Charlie Brown's Christmas Special (and all the Charlie Brown holiday specials). I didn't like them as a kid, and never understood why everyone was so crazy over them, and as an adult I still hate them. Give me Burl Ives and claymation Rudolph. Give me Boris Karloff and the Grinch. Fall down a hole, Charlie Brown.

  • Sarah says:

    I have this on DVD (I upgraded from VHS), and it once got me through an especially awful breakup-you know, the kind where every inch of you is in pain that you're sure will never go away. The only thing I could do without bursting into tears was watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. So when things would get especially bad, I'd thrown this on and disappear into happy memories. It also helped me through the time I couldn't sleep because my friend made me watch Pet Sematary in the dark.
    Bonus weird story: A few years ago I was at a house party that spontaneously broke out into the dancing sequence. Everyone picked a different character. I have never laughed so hard in my life. I highly recommend it.

  • LickyDisco says:

    You first, you uncaring beast!

  • Lorie says:

    That would be awesome! YouTube it so we can all enjoy(except, apparently, "NP")

  • Edie Kugel says:

    I't's not impossible to beat Charlie Brown's Christmas. You know that Charlie Brown's Christmas is not about a baby Jesus that was born in a stable. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, and not about tress lights and etc, etc.
    To whom all who believe, believe that the baby Jesus was born in stable and not some fly by night fake Christmas such as Charlie Brown's Christmas doesn't portay the birth of Christ.

  • Lassie says:

    For years and years we trimmed the tree, with ACBC playing in the background, and then the CD. The beautiful, jazzy, melancholy soundtrack did, and always will be, the sound of Christmas. In happier times, and even now. Some things - the beauty of winter, the stars and moon in the sky, the good feeling when you and your family are socked in by a blizzard, and the tradition of ACBC - these things transcend the ugliness and sorrow of everyday life, the stress and strain of yet another horrorshow leading up to The Big Day.

  • Zakattack says:

    Umm, it sounds like you haven't even seen ACBC. Otherwise you may harken back to Linus's Bible reference to the true meaning of Christmas(you know, the birth of Jesus). So how can you say that ACBC is not about baby Jesus, when that's exactly what is said to be the true meaning of christmas in the special. Maybe you should re-watch this program. I suggest paring it with a good cup of hot cocoa, or cider if that's your choicee.

  • bcone says:

    Zakattack, there's definately a Christian ethic in ACBC, but there's a strong humanistic/skeptical throughout Peanuts and to some extent in ACBC as well. I know you're replying to a comment above yours that ACBC is somehow "not about" the baby Jesus, and it would be interesting to research religious critiques of ACBC, I had never thought much about this before but I wouldn't be surprised if there had been critiques like that out there.

    But Schultz was personally humanistic and maybe even agnostic especially in his later years, as some of his biographies have described, especially "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" by David Michaelis (2007). It's not worth arguing much over, arguing might take away from the intent of the program as one that's meant to provoke thought with children and their families, and that's not what Schultz and his mass of fans would want. :)

    Here it is mid-March after all, and this 40+ year old program which I just old enough to watch when it first aired has had enough effect on me for me to want to read about it when I suppose I should be reading about what, the Easter Beagle perhaps? Anyway, I'll check back here closer to the holidays late this year, this was a good review of the program, and it'd be interesting to read others comments here later on. :)

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