‘A Charlie Brown Christmas” has reached its 50th season. The animated holiday classic based on the popular “Peanuts” comic strip first aired on Dec. 9, 1965.
It was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and pre-empted a 7:30 p.m. Thursday showing of “The Munsters,” and the preview had disappointed the suits at CBS who had ordered it. The late Charles M. Schulz, the son of a St. Paul barber and creator of the beloved characters, had pushed for novel elements that his collaborators — the television producer Lee Mendelson and the former Disney animator Bill Melendez — didn’t quite understand.
All three had settled on using children’s voices instead of adult actors, but St. Paul’s favorite son had refused to go along with a laugh track, saying he didn’t want to tell people when the show was being funny. Then there was the matter of the program’s emotional centerpiece, an unadorned reading of the nativity narrative from Luke. The network executives found it flat and slow-moving, and were certain it would be a flop. It was of course the opposite.
Ask the average person what the show was about, and you’ll likely get a single answer: the commercialization of Christmas. Considering what the holiday has gone on to become since 1965 — Black Friday stampedes for the latest game system, our demeaning awareness of notions like “consumer confidence,” the entire gift-card economy — it seems quaint that American society envisioned itself anywhere close to the pinnacle of greed in 1965. But it’s easy to see why the program is so often taken as a moral fable about getting our values straight.
Charlie Brown spends much of the tale suffering the crass ways of his playmates — preschoolers who ask for their gifts “in tens and twenties” and older children disappointed for not getting real estate. And the story so effectively skewered aluminum Christmas trees that the entire industry died within two years.
If the tale is a lament that Christmas is too commercial, that’s a characteristic baked into the holiday from its origins. According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s compelling social history “The Battle For Christmas,” for the two centuries we have been bequeathing children with toys in the name of St. Nicholas — an “invented tradition” introduced by upper-class New Yorkers in the 1820s — the holiday has always been a product of commercial efforts.
A resurrected Dutch folk tale that had not previously traveled to America, the early-19th-century Santa narrative was propagated to ensure “the children inside their own households had replaced the poor outside as symbolic objects of charity and deference,” according to Nissenbaum. Though designated since the fourth century as a day to honor the birth of Christ, the holiday had functioned as a pressure valve in a time of extreme wealth concentration, a bawdy public season of drinking and door-to-door demands for cash during the period when fermentation peaked and work diminished.
In this telling, nothing less than the adoption of Christmas trees itself was a commercial ritual — a practice meant to address growing anxieties that children were becoming too materialist as the new focus of the December holiday, as well as to help redefine Christmas as a celebration based within the home, not upon the friction between the classes.
The true meaning of Christmas, it seems, may have always been as a day we set aside to admonish ourselves for forgetting the true meaning of Christmas.
If, on the other hand, you listen to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your eyes on the road and the DVD screen pointed to the back of the minivan, there is something about its remarkable opening passage and a handful of segments that follow that jump out at you. They have little to do with the commercialization of Christmas or the true meaning of Christmas, but everything to do with the things we are tasked with overcoming if we are ever going to express the love we really feel for one another.
The story’s radical intentions begin before so much as the opening credits, as the saddest of holiday hymns since Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” plays in the background — Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmastime is Here.” Charlie Brown and his blanket-toting companion trudge silently through the snowy twilight. If their surroundings seem familiar, it’s because the comforting backdrop of one-story homes, chain-link fences and small apartment buildings evoke Schulz’s Depression-era childhood on Snelling and Selby, above what is now O’Gara’s Bar.
The pair stop to talk at a short garden wall. Charlie rests his large Peanuts head on his diminutive Peanuts hand, endearing proportions paired with an outsized human spirit believed to have been inspired by a female artist with dwarfism Schulz had befriended at an early illustration job. (She would rest her chin on her hands while standing at his desk.) At this moment, the most memorable Christmas reflection of our time opens with a strange and vulnerable confession: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus.”
Schulz, who died in 2000, was both sentimental and hardheaded about childhood. He was wistful about memories, but also keenly aware of the barbed comments, aggression and slights that made us into the secretly frightened grown-ups we all went on to become. Though his faith was Christian, his embrace of suffering in the struggle for self-acceptance necessary to express love feels almost Buddhist.
“You’re drawing mainly memories,” he is quoted as saying in the wonderful biography “Schulz and Peanuts” by David Michaelis. “You just sit there and think about the past, kind of dredge up ugly memories and things like that.”
Schulz’s skepticism about the Santa Claus story — he once said “it must be very hard on a lot of families” who lacked means — trickled out of Charlie. “Christmas is coming,” he says to Linus. “But I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Following some light comedy involving ice skates, snowflakes and snowballs, the nagging certainty that there remains something wrong with him forces Charlie to patronize a lemonade stand advertising “Psychiatric Help, 5¢.” The enterprise is of course sketchy. It has a shopkeeper’s sign (“The Doctor is Out/Real In”), and is staffed by the most hard-charging and obtuse of all Schulz’s characters: Linus’ older sister, Lucy.
A lifelong melancholic who once told his wife he did not want to see a psychiatrist because “it would take away my talent,” Schulz could easily have staffed the clinic with the cheerful Peppermint Patty, the sweet-tempered Pigpen or the cerebral Schroeder. Instead he chose the girl known for promising to hold the football as Charlie runs up to kick a field goal, only to pull it out from under him for fun. So it’s possible the cartoonist’s confidence in the trade might have been lacking. After asking him to pay in advance, then celebrating “the beautiful sound of cold hard cash,” Lucy does at least get around to asking him what seems to be his trouble.
And once Charlie says, “I feel depressed” — that “I know I should be happy, but I’m not” — Lucy, with chipper efficiency, begins conforming his condition to her bloodless taxonomy of human suffering. In true Schulz form, she is verbal beyond her years, flying through a now-dated roster of diagnostic constructs Charlie could be manifesting, including hypengyophobia (“are you afraid of responsibility?”), “ailurophasia” (“if you’re afraid of cats!”), climacophobia (“are you afraid of staircases?”), thalassophobia (“this is the fear of the ocean!”), gephyrophobia (“the fear of crossing bridges”) and, finally, pantaphobia. Which, as it turns out, is what Charlie says that he does indeed have: the fear of everything.
Today the above would be regarded as manifestations of the same essential process, then held at bay with drugs or put to rest with exposure therapy. But 50 years on, the scene seems prescient of the runaway train of diagnoses now upon us, an era of ever-expanding definitional categories but little headway on our collective bouts with sadness. Like Charlie Brown, Schulz himself experienced “pantophobia.” (“Everything frightens me,” he once told a fan asking whether his overwhelming level of success frightened him.) Deference to panic and emotional discomfort limited his willingness to travel, but he appears to have managed the persistent sense that the other shoe was about to drop, accepting that he just felt sad and anxious more than happy as part of his natural-born condition.
And for all of her deficiencies, Lucy’s advice was that which a patient would be lucky to receive. She didn’t offer him breathing exercises or mood-management medication, or help him develop insight into his troubles. Instead, she gave him a purpose. “You need involvement,” she told Charlie. “How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?” And in her counsel that Charlie do something to find meaning, Lucy inspired him to rescue the tree that looked as unlovable as he felt. This being Schulz, it wouldn’t go smoothly. The other kids laughed at him, but they also eventually did the right thing in the end.
“Cartoonists are strange people,” Schulz once remarked. “I don’t think that we’re especially happy people. … But from that feeling comes humor.”
This was his burden in life, and others around him paid for it. “I had a hell of a time hugging him,” said his cousin Patty, the real-life model for the character Peppermint Patty. “Hugging him was like hugging a tree — he never moved.”
It did not diminish his belief in love. Linus said the tree picked out by Charlie was “not a bad little tree, all it needs is a little love.” John Lennon very likely lifted that line for another iconic reminder of the thing we all wish we could do better (the Beatles song “All You Need is Love”).
All of this from a man who could not kiss his young children good night.
“Dad, if you are going to write about it, please say nice things,” said my son, who is 7. He has read all of the “Harry Potters,” the “Diaries of a Wimpy Kid,” and yet is also enchanted with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
He knows that his dad is a bit like Charlie Brown. But so are all of us.
Paul John Scott is a writer living in Rochester. On Twitter: @pauljohnscott.