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.
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.
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.