Animation · Television

An examination of A Charlie Brown Christmas special

cbxmas We have reached the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous television specials of all-time. The message was simple: the December holiday was being co-opted by commercialism, and it’s time to put Christ back into Christmas. In other words, this is about the “War on Christmas.” he fact that it’s aired every year since shows that the war was over before it begun. It’s time to put this under the microscope, and explain why this holiday special is part of the problem, and is vastly overrated.  

First off, the positive: the soundtrack is amazing. Vince Guaraldi does an amazing job with the score. He made jazz, a genre we don’t ever associate with Christmas music, oddly appropriate with his timeless classics. The tracks “Skating”, and “Christmas Time is Here” are staples of music played by the radio stations that change their format shortly after Halloween. Of course, his most famous song, and the one that is played all-year ’round, “Linus and Lucy” has absolutely zero connections to the holiday season – except for the fact that it is here. The title has nothing to do with Jesus, Santa, or winter. There are no lyrics to even make references to Christmas. And the instruments – piano, bass, and drums, are not instruments we associate with Christmas (e.g.: sleigh bells, trumpets and other horns). (I bet you’re going to say, “What about ‘The Little Drummer Boy’? Well, that boy wasn’t carrying an entire drum set, let alone, the cymbals that drummer Jerry Granelli is lightly tapping throughout the track.) Schroeder keeps playing “Linus and Lucy” during rehearsal, much to Charlie Brown’s annoyance because it is not setting the correct tone and mood for the opening scene of a Christmas play. The bottom line is that it’s a great song because it’s not a Christmas song.

I’ve always claimed that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the greatest “half-special” because the first half has nothing to do with the plot. The main story, Charlie Brown directing the Christmas play, doesn’t kick in until the second half. The Schultz family should sue Jerry Seinfeld, because “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the original show about nothing. (Take that, Festivus!) The first half is full of vignettes taken from older “Peanuts” 4-panel comic strips. The first two minutes, the skating scene with the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing, is original material, but has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It’s sole purpose is to introduce to us the fact that Charlie Brown feels depressed around the Christmas season. And this being 1965, his best friend, Linus, dismisses the notion, and mocks his friend for not being happy. Not that her sister is any better. “Doctor” Lucy is a prime example of what the special was trying expose. First, she exposes the flaws of the medical industry. First there’s the quackery – we all know there is no way she has a doctorate in psychology, which symbolizes the rampant lack of accreditation. Then she charges her client in advance of treatment, acknowledging not only the excess greed, but the fact that profits are prioritized way ahead of the patient’s state of being. Surprisingly, she’s has a pretty good idea to combat Charlie Brown’s depression. She gets him involved in a social activity by suggesting he direct the play.

But instead of going directly to the auditorium, we get sidetracked into the B-story. We see Snoopy decorate his house with Christmas lights. He hands Charlie Brown a flyer:

A Charlie Brown Christmas, 7:10

As modest as Snoopy’s decorations seem now, for Schultz, it was a prime example of how commercialism was taking over, and ruining Christmas. But the audience got the wrong message, because instead of rejecting excessive lighting, we end up with things like this…

Our protagonists is trying to get to the auditorium, but is waylaid by his baby sister. She wants him to write a letter to Santa for her. She states that if her list is too complex, then Santa should just send cash. In the 1960’s, asking for $10s and $20s was an exorbitant amount of money.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, 8:23

We finally get to the auditorium, where we get the iconic “WTF dance scene.” Ken Jennings has an excellent break down of this scene, so I’ll just add this: how the heck did Sally and Snoopy beat Charlie Brown to the auditorium?

A Charlie Brown Christmas, 8:39
They don’t need a director, they need a choreographer.

Actually, there are 2 dance scenes. The first one, before Charlie Brown arrives, is 12 seconds longs, and we hear “Christmas is Coming.” The second one, is 32 seconds of “Linus and Lucy”, which features close-ups of some of the characters. The scene is just an extended commercial for Guaraldi’s OST.

Linus’ line after getting his script, “Christmas is not only getting too commercial… it’s getting too dangerous,” is not funny now, nor was it funny then. The dangerous part refers to the fact that Lucy threatens to punch him if he doesn’t memorize his lines. Threats of violence had been a staple of American television comedy for the longest time – from “The Honeymooners” to the early seasons of “The Simpsons.” But physical abuse is not humorous. Linus originally freaks out because he claims he can’t memorize such a short script. Yet he has no qualms reciting passages from the Bible on demand, which is exactly what he does at the special’s climax.

Another point overlooked about the play: while Lucy is handing out scripts and casting everyone in their roles, we have no idea who is playing Mary, Joseph, the wise men, or baby Jesus. We have the innkeeper and his wife (Pigpen and Frieda), and shepherds (Shermy, and Linus – with Sally cast as Linus’ wife), but none of the famous biblical characters are cast. Lucy wants to be “The Christmas Queen,” and readily admits to the director that this play has nothing to do with the traditional Christmas story, and none about being commercial (non-secular?). We can speculate that Violet could be playing Mary, and the siblings 4, 5, and 6 (the twins and the boy in the yellow shirt) are the wise men. The fact remains that this glaring mission is a passive jab at “The War on Christmas.”

There is one aspect in which the special was victorious over “The War on Christmas.” And that is the elimination of the aluminium Christmas trees. Those were a real thing back in the 1960’s, and they did come in many different colors, such as pink. Linus is stunned that wooden Christmas trees still exist. Aluminum trees, according to Lucy and Linus, “fit the modern spirit,” whereas natural and traditional wooden ones do not. It is a Pyrrhic victory, however, as the wooden Christmas tree market is bigger than ever, and are just as commercial as the Aluminium tree industry was back in the 1960’s.

While Charlie Brown and Linus are out tree-shopping, we have an interlude scene with Schroeder and Lucy. Schroeder is a huge Ludwig van Beethoven fan. In the comic strips, Schroeder was always more concerned about Beethoven’s birthday, (although his exact date of birth is uncertain, most scholars accept December 16th, 1770 as his date of birth), than the celebrated birthday of Jesus. Both characters represent the notion of following false idols (i.e. not Jesus). Schroeder with his idolization of Beethoven, and Lucy’s contempt of anyone “who’s never had his picture on bubble-gum cards?” Since Schroeder worships Beethoven as a deity, he has no qualms using “Für Elise” in a Christmas play. But at least he is a monotheist. Lucy, with her “bubble-gum card” line, outs herself as a polytheist, at best, or a star-f***er at worst. She worships anyone who is a celebrity, or any pop-culture icon who has been marketed so throughly, that their picture exists on a card. She represents the sin of idol worshiping, false or otherwise. Yet, with the popularity of the Peanuts franchise, Lucy, Schroeder, Charlie Brown, et. al. (especially Snoopy) have become the false idols that have been marketed six ways to Sunday – from countless TV specials, Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, to Sno-cone makers.

I have to admit, I was stunned to learn that Schultz was pressured not to include the Biblical passage Linus recites when Charlie Brown asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about. The response Charles Schultz gave to defend his decision to the Director was, “Bill (Melendez), if we don’t, who will?” I mean, I thought that this was the entire point of the special. That these verses Linus recites (Luke 2: 8-14), these fifty seconds, was the entire message to go with 24 minutes of filler. If the point of this special wasn’t anti-commercialism, then what was the entire point? I mean, beside that Snoopy was a huge dick before Woodstock came along?

Just like Charlie Brown just doesn’t get all the commercialism during the Christmas season, I just don’t get “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at all. The animation is awful. The voice acting is awful. The characters are unlikable. The script is not streamlined. Before you say that this was the standard for 1965, may I remind you that Rankin-Bass’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” aired one year prior, in 1964, and one year before MGM’s “Hoe the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966. It was the very first Peanuts special, and the first production from  Lee Mendelson Film Productions. It was a rushed job, and it shows. I suppose it is a product of its time – looking at the television programs the network aired that year, barely a few have aged well, and even less have stood the test of time (I’m referring to its quality, and not because of syndication.) But because it became so popular, it ended up being part of the over-commercialization and secularism it was trying to fight in the first place. Happy Xmas, Charlie Brown, war is over. The War on Christmas that is. And in 1965, Christmas lost.

 

 

 

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