Retro Review: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Distributor: Lee Mendelson Films

Director: Bill Melendez

Writers: Charles M. Schulz

Composer: Vince Guaraldi

Starring: Peter Robbins, Chris Shea, Tracy Stratford, Tracy Stratford, Kathy Steinberg, Bill Melendez

Genre: Animation

Rating: G

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most popular Christmas specials for over a half-century. Beloved for its sweet story and surprisingly spiritual themes, the special reigns as one of the all-time great specials to run traditionally during the holidays.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A boy bumps his head on a tree.

Language/Crude Humor: No language.

Sexual Content: A young girl flirts with a young boy.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: A character reads the story of the birth of Christ.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Positive themes of what the true historical and spiritual meaning of Christmas is.

Review

An often forgotten aspect of the lore around Peanuts is how very cynical the entire proceedings of the classic can be. As David Michaelis mentions in his wonderful biography Schulz and Peanuts, the original comic strip was considered by many literary academics to be something of an existential masterpiece. Charles Schulz, however, being the relatively pedestrian middle-American that he was denied any such tomfoolery. He was just a comic-strip artist drawing life as he saw it. This speaks very much to Schulz’s melancholic view of life.

Charlie Brown is a character who is defined by his failures. Classic bits from the comics and TV specials such as the football gags and the kite-eating-tree reflect a constant struggle in Schulz’s mind between ambition and the chaotic nature of the universe as he seemed to understand it. The structure of most classic Peanuts strips reflects this as the four-panel stories often establish a character’s desire before popping it like a balloon. This isn’t to say that Schulz had some sort of deeply iconoclastic view on life. He was a practicing Christian for most of his life, but to him, and to Charlie Brown, the material world can be cruel.

This fundamentally melancholic view of life reappears across the breadth of Schultz’s lifetime of work on Peanuts. It’s no surprise then that A Charlie Brown Christmas carries much of this sadness and confusion with the world into the happiest time of the year. The first lines of dialog from the song Christmas Time is Here are carried in a low tempo jazz style that establishes the pace of the special as something quiet and more thoughtful than your average zany Christmas special. The first lines of dialog jump to the point with Charlie Brown deliberating to Linus about his reservations with the season.

Our main character feels lost in the shuffle of modern (by 1965 standards) commercialism and is missing out on the true spirit of the season. He’s surrounded by characters interested only in how Christmas can provide them financial gain (in Lucy’s case, longterm theoretical real-estate investments). Overwhelmed by his feeling of being lost in the season, Lucy takes it upon herself to give Charlie Brown a chance to take command of the school play to get involved with other people to help keep his mind busy.

Charlie Brown’s desire to create a more authentic and fulfilling version of the season battles with the cold reality that the other kids actively seem to like the colder, plasticine version of Christmas. The crux of this conflict comes into focus with the introduction of the tiny dying Christmas tree. In an attempt to inspire the actors in the school play, Charlie and Linus find themselves in a tree lot overtaken entirely by fake metal Christmas trees. Of all the trees on the lot, Charlie gravitates towards the only tree that’s actually a living tree. Living, of course, is a strong descriptor for that state of the tree. More accurately speaking, the tree is a stick that can hardly hold up its own weight. In this, we see a very visual depiction of Charlie Brown’s struggle for authenticity. Naturally, the other children laugh it and Charlie out of the room.

At his lowest point and at his moment of deepest frustration, the youthful and naive Linus stands athwart the room to teach Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas. In one of the most beloved speeches in television history, Linus merely recites the Biblical story of the angels visiting the shepherds in the hours before they met the newborn Christ (Luke 2:8-14 KJV). It’s a profound moment of deeply resonant religiosity where the words speak for themselves with all the strength and innocence of a child reading them for the first time. Charlie Brown is deeply taken aback by the speech. Emboldened by the renewed sense of meaning in the purpose of the season, he walks out of the auditorium with the dying little tree. Once again the award-winning soundtrack chimes in again and punctuates the moment perfectly with a quiet, low tempo version of Oh Christmas Tree.

There is but one lesson left for Charlie Brown to learn. As he attempts to decorate his tiny tree with ornaments the weight of a single red ornament nearly bends the tree in half. Grieved over yet another failure to make a small improvement to the season, Charlie storms offer away from the little tree and leaving his friends in his wake. Even though dismayed, the rest of the kids are left inspired by Linus’s speech and Charlie’s dedication to building the spirit of the season back together. Working together they’re able to do something that Charlie can’t do alone, decorate the tiny tree into something beautiful. As Charlie Brown returns he finds himself in their midst as the entire group breaks out into a choir of Hark the Harold Angels Sing. As he comes to learn, though the true meaning of Christmas is found in the divine, the spirit of Christmas is found in our ability to share the joy with the people that matter to us.

Charles Schulz himself wrote A Charlie Brown Christmas fifteen years after the launch of the comic strip in 1950 and his voice as the author can be heard throughout the special. The dry wit of the children’s comments about everything from preferences in what time of the year produces the tastiest snow to Sally’s cynical preference of receiving money from Santa in place of Christmas presents offers a quiet and meaningful moments of self-reflection from a cartoon that itself has gone on to become much of the same commercial plasticine Christmas to Schulz was afraid of. It should be noted just how ahead of its time this kind of skepticism of consumerism in the holidays is. In our modern discussion, we are still hashing out vehement disagreements about Black Friday’s slow encroachment onto Thanksgiving evening. This is a sin I’m no less guilty of than anyone else but it certainly speaks to the failure of the Christmas season that a holiday centralized on giving thanks for what one has is punctuated by rampant spending on consumer electronics.

This isn’t to say either Charles Schulz or I am an anti-capitalist or are against the commercial side of Christmas. Schulz certainly gained his dues from a lifetime of Peanuts comics, musicals, merchandise, and naturally TV specials. It just goes to show that being lost in this life is natural. As Christians, we live to serve that which is good beyond the confines of this mortal world. The world is a fleeting thing but in itself a blessing that we ought to enjoy because God provided it for us. God obviously doesn’t hate the material world or he wouldn’t have made one. Schulz merely believed that the spirit of the holiday and life itself was being lost behind our desire to cling to the material and fleeting world.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is technically, all things considered, a fairly crude little special. Animation wise, the drawing style barely edges out the likes of Rocky and Bullwinkle in terms of visual fidelity. The voice acting is literally comprised of a group of children with a limited range of acting ability. The only technical provision where the special achieves above and beyond the call of duty is the award-winning jazz soundtrack that’s gone on to be acclaimed as one of the greatest Christmas soundtrack albums ever. Whatever can be said of the special’s crudeness on the technical level the voice of the Schulz speaks through it very powerfully. Much like Linus delivering the true meaning of Christmas, the special looks and sounds like the drawing of a child looking up to his parents to ask them the most profound question there is.

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Bell on January 10, 2018 at 12:33 am

    I wouldn’t really put Lucy’s conversation with Schroder as “sexual content”. I mean, for “flirting”, it’s very very innocent. They’re just kids after all. Plus, Charlie Brown getting slammed into the tree by his dog is more slapstick than anything, let alone violent.

  2. John Canary on December 23, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    I don’t think you can get too upset at the acting of kids or the poor animation. For it’s time, I suspect it was very good.

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