“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
Charlie Brown’s admission of his Seasonal Affective Disorder, followed by Linus’ harsh rebuttal, isn’t how you would expect one of the most beloved Christmas television traditions of all time to open. It’s amazing how melancholy and introspective A Charlie Brown Christmas is. There are few references to presents, Santa is hardly mentioned, and there’s a fairly solemn and thoughtful reading from the Gospel of Luke right in the middle of it. For a special that was originally sponsored by Coca-Cola (references to the famed soft drink have long been removed for modern broadcasts, but if you hunt around the internet, you’ll find them), A Charlie Brown Christmas is decidedly non-commercial. Charles M. Schulz’s immortal Peanuts characters appear here, in what was their first television appearance, with all of the humanity that had made them so famous on the printed page.
The premise of A Charlie Brown Christmas is simple enough. Perennial outsider, Charlie Brown, is having trouble getting into the festive holiday spirit. In true Charlie Brown style, his response to this perfectly natural feeling is to beat himself up with an extra helping of self-loathing. With her usual flair, Lucy suggests that the best remedy would be for Charlie Brown to direct the gang’s Christmas play. And there you have it. This opens up the floor for any number of meditations on the meaning of Christmas, happiness, commercialism, and friendship.
I mean, sure, it’s funny. I’ll always get a laugh out of Snoopy eating his way through a stack of bones while reading the newspaper, or Lucy’s laundry list of various phobias that she thinks Charlie Brown may be suffering from, or Schroeder’s increasingly annoyed renditions of “Jingle Bells” (that one really kills me), or any of the other gags peppered throughout.
But if you ask most people what sticks with them about A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ll probably hear one answer more than others: the tree. That scrawny, sickly, pathetic Christmas tree that the gang fixes up has come to symbolize the entire “Charlie Brown Christmas” experience. And while it’s played (mostly) for laughs, the effort that goes into turning that tree into something suitable feels more and more like both a quiet jab at the general commercialism of the season and the charity and kindness that we should really be thinking about year ’round, let alone in December.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio holds the show together with a sequence of original compositions and jazz-inflected renditions of traditional Christmas fare such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Of course, the two signature pieces are the haunting “Christmas Time is Here” and the uptempo instrumental, “Linus and Lucy” which has become as inseparable from the Peanuts characters as John Barry’s music is from James Bond. A personal favorite is “Christmas is Coming” with its rolling bass line and infectious percussion, it perfectly captures that anticipation that most kids (but not Charlie Brown) feel as Christmas gets closer.
For a piece of television that’s now over 50 years old, A Charlie Brown Christmas still feels remarkably timely. However, I can’t help but wonder what I loved about it when I was a kid. It’s more introspective and poignant than it is funny or surreal, nobody gets any toys, Snoopy’s screen time is minimal, and the “spirit of Christmas” it finds is more philosophical than celebratory. But for those of us who have a little trouble getting into the swing of things during the holidays, Charlie Brown is always there to remind us that we’re not alone.