Most people respond to the approach of Christmas with a happy blizzard of activity. They lick stamps and fix them to final flurries of Christmas cards. They bake. They bounce between the malls until their cars are caked white with salt.
Me—I gripe. I raise holy hell about 24/7 Christmas programming on the radio, or holiday sales unfurled before teenagers have time to vandalize my Halloween decorations. In December, folks like me become Scrooges in reverse. We jab “bah humbugs” at anyone who profanes our precious yuletide with a wintry mix of commercial excesses. We grumble to no one in particular about an imagined “war on Christmas.”
But every year, I’m narrowly rescued from my scrooging by the most unlikely savior: a 22-minute, crudely animated TV special from the 1960s.
The Class of 65
It’s been 42 years since A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS. After all this time, it’s striking how well the show has aged. The first foray into television for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon remains the gold standard for Christmas specials, never eclipsed before or since. And each winter, it sets me straight.
Charlie Brown Christmas is fantastic from its opening notes. The music, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, still glistens as brightly today as it did four decades ago, thanks especially to Guaraldi’s masterful jazz piano. The brightest spots are original songs—like the twinkling gem “Skating”—but even the standard arrangements sound superior to other versions. For instance, I don’t know what Purgatory looks like, but I’m confident Kenny G’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” is somehow involved. In Guaraldi’s hands, however, the tired old song transforms into “My Little Drum,” a cool, syncopated, and gorgeously understated piece, accented by the lovely harmony of humming children.
Those children, so lovably wry and neurotic, are the heart and soul of
A Charlie Brown Christmas. In a snowy world free of grownups, the late, great Schulz perfectly distilled the absurdities, insecurities and existential anxieties of adulthood in his young characters’ precocious exchanges. Outspoken Lucy operates a stand where she dispenses psychiatric advice instead of lemonade. Filthy Pigpen solemnly swears to run a clean inn for the school Christmas play, despite his “outward appearance.” And Charlie Brown, the boy Everyman, frets that Christmas is becoming a mercantile monstrosity. He watches with disgust as his little sister asks Santa for money, and as his dog Snoopy garishly decorates his doghouse for a “Spectacular Supercolossal Neighborhood Lights and Display Contest.”
For the Love of Linus
While A Charlie Brown Christmas gently scolds America for its exploitation of the season, it really centers on the education of its main character. By letting commercialism spoil his Christmas, Charlie Brown becomes the prototypical “Scrooge in reverse.” As Linus wisely tells him, “You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” Charlie must learn how to prevent these annoyances from blinding him to the true meaning of Christmas. And this holiday special stands alone by actually stating what that true meaning is.
Charlie bottoms out when his friends relieve him of his duties as director of the Christmas play, and mock the little evergreen he picks out for the performance—a sad sapling he chooses for its authenticity in a grotesque field of fabricated, Technicolor trees. Dejectedly, Charlie cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus supplies the answer. He takes the stage and, under a spotlight’s glow, proclaims the story of the Annunciation, Luke 2:8-14 from the King James Bible:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
As Linus steps away, the beam of light remains, shining still upon the good news. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” he says.
If We Don’t Do It…
It’s a sublime moment, devoid of melodrama or sanctimony, subdued and wholly arresting. Schulz fought passionately to preserve the speech in the initial broadcast, asking “If we don’t do it, who else can?” Considering the choices of other “classic” TV specials, the answer to Schulz’s question appears to be “no one.” Not Dr. Seuss, not Jim Henson, certainly not the obese snowman that looks and talks like Burl Ives.
There’s no radical transformation in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Our bald little hero doesn’t grow a heart three sizes too big. He doesn’t buy a Christmas goose for Bob Cratchett. Charlie walks home with his head down, carrying his pathetic tree. The Peanuts gang follows him, and while he’s not looking, they spruce up his sad, little tree with some of Snoopy’s ornaments, a symbol of their own unabashed Christmas cheer. “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” they shout. Charlie quietly sheds his cynicism, and joins them in a chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The end.
As Charles Schulz’s humble story concludes, it radiates with warmth and a reminder to all of us “reverse Scrooges” who are so intently focused on judging others that we forget to celebrate the miracle of Christmas ourselves.