When you think about Christmas specials, you think of A Charlie Brown Christmas. End of story. Oh sure, you might think about the Grinch or about Rudolph or even Frosty, and maybe you’re Jewish and you’re thinking about how the Rugrats gang finally threw the chosen people a frickin’ bone a few years back with their Hanukkah special. A Charlie Brown Christmas, however, is the template. It’s why every stupid sitcom has a very special holiday episode where someone learns the True Meaning of Christmas.
The True Meaning of Christmas. That’s a phrase that means nothing, isn’t it? It’s been dragged out by retailers and hucksters so often that it can now only be said wrapped snugly in quotation marks. I think this is where it comes from, though. The aforementioned Rudolph, and especially The Year Without A Santa Claus, are heavilly plot-based affairs. Usually, Christmas itself is in jeapordy, and its up to a plucky soul to save it. Why is Christmas so important? Um, because, you know, the kids will be disappointed if there are no toys. Oh noes.
The interesting thing about the Peanuts gang, though, is this: even though they’re presented as children, and even though they have some of the concerns children have, they’re not really children. They’re flawed and selfish, but they’re flawed and selfish in the same way grownups are. I knew bratty little kids growing up, but I never really met Lucy until, say, college. You’ll notice you don’t see Charlie Brown pining after particular Christmas gifts here. The other kids do, but it’s mostly incidental, and it’s in a very grown-up way. Lucy wants real estate, and Sally wants her present in small bills.
As we begin, Charlie Brown’s practically singing The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Sure Don’t Feel Like Christmas Time” as he walks around through his home town. That’s one of the all-time great bummer Christmas songs, and I recommend you give it a listen if you’re ever feeling blue around the holidays. You know what else is a bummer song? “Christmas Time Is Here” by Vince Guaraldi – which all the kids are singing. It’s a lovely slow jazz tune, but somehow the children’s choir gives it a certain dirge-like quality.
Charlie Brown and Linus head out to ice skate with the other kids, and Charlie opens up to his bro about how crappy Chrismas makes him feel. Linus tells him to stop being so damn emo. Charlie hits a tree while ice skating, and all the snow falls off the tree and buries him alive. Then, the title appears. That’s how it starts. Probably the most beloved and resonant American Christmas story apart from “The Gift Of The Magi,” and it begins with seasonal depression and a potentially fatal avalanche. MERRY [bleep]ING CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!!!!!!!
It’s not all that sad. The eating snowflakes bit is fun, and there’s a great subtle piece of character animation where the kids are throwing snowballs at a can on a fence, and just before Charlie Brown throws his snowball, he “goes into the wind-up” exactly like a major league baseball pitcher. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s great. (3:58) However, most of the humor comes from other characters reacting to Charlie’s pre-holiday glum.
Oh, and at 6:15, Lucy gives Charlie Brown the only piece of workable advice she’s ever given anyone ever. In fifty years. Srsly. She tells him, basically, to get off his animated butt and Do Something, and that’s how Charlie Brown winds up directing the school’s Christmas play.
Oh hey, it’s that scene with the dancing. This is where everyone in the audience joins in, and everyone has their favorite dance. I’m partial to the “5” shoulder roll, and Alyssa does the Sally shuffle. Apparently, Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer used to do the Snoopy dance for Willow every year, although we unfortunately never get to see this. Also worth watching is the fanvid someone made, setting this scene to “Hey Ya!” by Outkast.
Watching Charlie Brown attempt to take charge is, naturally, poignant for those of us who’ve directed things. His third mistake is demanding, not commanding, respect. His second mistake is treating the actors as if they were chess pieces. His first mistake is that chair. Seriously, dude.
Anyway, no one listens to Charlie Brown.
If you’ll indulge me, I want to talk about Shermy for a second. Shermy was one of the original four Peanuts characters – he was there even before Snoopy. He actually had the first speaking part in the strip, on October 2, 1950. As a character, his only drawback was that he had no memorable or interesting personality traits whatsoever. He was the first baseman on the baseball team, he was sort of friends with Charlie Brown, and…. that’s all I’ve got. Charles Schultz dropped him from the strip in the early ’70s, when he realized that Shermy only showed up whenever the strip needed a generic character with no personality to stand there and look boring. Poor kid.
Shermy has one line in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it has to do with how every year, he winds up playing the shepherd. ::sigh:: Yep.
So, anyway, Charlie Brown’s trying to bury his Christmas angst in work, which is perfectly respectable and normal way of dealing with my pain his pain, thank you very much. The problem is, everyone around him insists on having a good time, whereas Charlie insists on being somber and serious, and directing a serious Christmas play without any of that frivolous “accessibility.” This is one play, he declares, that isn’t going to be commercial. Charlie Brown is so second-wave punk.
The first step to a good and proper Nativity play, Charlie Brown realizes, is getting a proper Christmas tree. Whaaaaaa? I don’t know either. Anyway, he and Linus find the one wooden tree left in the lot. It’s tiny, of course, but lovable. All the needles keep falling off. Stupid real trees. Everyone hates Charlie Brown for this, and he finally loses it.
“ISN’T THERE ANYONE WHO CAN TELL ME WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT?”
Preach it, Linus.
Linus brings it back home here. Even if you’re not religious, it’s still kind of sweet, and drives home the point that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a good man who wanted us to love each other and treat each other right. Oh, sure, it borrows a lot from the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and yes, the early Christians probably decided to celebrate Jesus’s birthday at around this time in order to convert pagans. Even then, though, the Solstice is about bringing light to the darkness. It’s the coldest, darkest time of the year – let’s make something good out of it. When life throws you eggs, make eggnog. It’s very human. Even the other mean Peanuts kids figure it out, and they help Charlie Brown decorate his pathetic, adorable little tree. And then they sing “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” and wish Charlie Brown a merry Christmas.
So: Charlie Brown learns that, despite the commercialism of Christmas, there is still joy behind the tinsel, and the Peanuts gang learns that the tinsel is there for a reason. That’s the true meaning of Christmas. You heard it here first.
Next up: (if I have time) I’d take the seasick crocodile.