A Charlie Brown Christmas. We've all seen it. But it's possible that you haven't really watched it in a few years. Maybe ever. I, like most people, associate this little gem with the background noise of the holiday season. There are a few clips that are immortal. Charlie Brown's sad little tree. Linus' recital of Luke. The cheesy looped dancing. And that dreary but somehow joyful jazz theme. The fact that kids waving their hands somehow transforms a tree. And doesn't Charlie Brown's bald head look incredibly cold under that hat? But I realize that this special has been reduced to shortened clips and highlights and it really is a shame.
It deserves to be appreciated in its entirety.
There are two main elements that set this cartoon apart. One is Vince Guaraldi's music. "Christmas Time is Here" is strangely melancholy. You would think a children’s choir singing about Christmas would sound all chipper and happy but this song has a beautifully sad tone. And to be honest, there always seems to be a hint of sadness to Christmas. Whether it's that another year has gone by and not much has changed or it's the cold dark weather. I don't know, but this song captures it perfectly. It makes me want to walk slowly with my head down. (Hey, where the f*%k are my hard-boiled eggs?)
The other defining characteristic is the voice acting. The director Bill Melendez went against the wishes of Warner Brothers studio and cast actual children to read the parts. The studio also wanted a laugh track, which would have ruined the whole thing. Many of the children were too young to read and had to be fed their lines in short increments. You can often hear where they have cut and pasted together different takes into one line of dialogue. Especially with Sally. But you can't recreate that childish cadence without using an actual five year old. But it is these obvious flaws that give this TV special has an undeniable creditability. The seven year old voice of Christopher Shea gives Linus the perfect tone as he recites from the New Testament. He isn't preachy or sanctimonious. Only heartfelt and deeply sincere.
When something becomes iconic (and this most certainly is), it's value and depth can lose a part of its initial impact. It runs the risk of becoming cliche. Because of this and the fact that it's a children's cartoon, it's easy to overlook something as profound as A Charlie Brown Christmas.
That's right, I said profound.
I may be overstating it, but I can't think of another well known piece of culture that better illustrates the conflict between materialism and Christianity that is inherent with the Christmas holiday. It's a bit of a strange paradox to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, (born not so subtly in a stable) by buying a bunch tacky crap (symbolized in "Charlie Brown" beautifully by the fake Christmas trees). This special features a wonderful blend of anti consumerism and heartfelt religion. Those two things aren't associated with each other as much as they should be.
Maybe there is another TV Special or book or movie that captures that conflict as well. But I can't think of it. "A Christmas Carol", "It's A Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (the Chuck Jones cartoon, not that Jim Carrey abomination) all illustrate the perils of consumerism. But they don't directly reference Christ. In fact I can't think of a more articulate depiction of the hollowness of materialism (a pretty broad and well covered idea) than "A Charlie Brown's Christmas". Again, I'm sure there are better works of art that illustrate this theme more effectively. But there's something about this 25 minute, simple, little cartoon that just nails it for me.
Charlie Brown feels bad. But he doesn't know why. He is surrounded by the self centered (Santa, just send money. Tens and twenties.) and the culturally uncouth (Beethoven was indeed never on bubble gum cards). Of course, they are children. So we should probably cut them some slack. Still, he feels alienated and disconnected. He then sees himself in a sad little twig of a tree only for the tree (him) to be rejected by everyone else. Linus then quotes Luke (notice how he drops his security blanket when he says "fear not") centering the meaning of the holiday season on Christ and His grace. Charlie Brown then sees the value in the little tree (again, himself) and with a renewed self confidence he tries to improve it. But he fails. It is the new found selflessness of his friends and, dare I say it, the grace of God that ultimately transforms the tree from a bare lonely stick to a glorious Christmas Tree. It's very simple. But it gets me.
(Did I just equate a bunch of kids waving their arms around a tree to the grace of God? I think I did. I'm going with it.)
So here it is, in all its glory. Take a little time and watch it as if you have never seen it before. I promise, you'll come away with some new insight.
a charlie brown christmas