A Charlie Brown Christmas is that rare work that succeeds on multiple levels while retaining timeless appeal. Kids may glom onto the crude and loose visual language of the Peanuts gang, only later appreciating the tart dialogue, exquisite jazz piano score, and underlying message. Grown up viewers may find Charlie Brown’s search for meaning as potent as ever. Yet this most cherished special isn’t without its own contradiction between heartfelt emotion and commercial interests.
When CBS executives got a first peek at the finished product, their enthusiasm was muted to say the least. Criticisms that the show felt “slow” and “flat” seemed to serve arguments made by the network in favor of augmenting the animation with a laugh track and replacing the children’s voices with those of adult actors. Executives were especially leery of Linus’s recitation from the New Testament, fearing it would turn off viewers.
The executives were wrong. A Charlie Brown Christmas is eminently relate-able: a half-hour chock-full of melancholy and joy. Premiering on December 9th, 1965, the special pulled in just under half of all television watchers in the nation. It earned immediate critical acclaim, and would later score both Emmy and Peabody nods. A perennial favorite was born, one with more on its mind than most. As the Christmas season creeps ever further up the calendar—recently cannibalizing Thanksgiving—viewers can point to A Charlie Brown Christmas and take heart that beneath every trampled Wal-Mart employee there remains a profound spirituality. We see ourselves in the scribbled imagination of Charles Schulz: imperfect, greedy, neurotic, depressed, yet hopeful for answers.
Weary disillusionment with the commodification of the holiday season is a central theme. Charlie Brown bemoans little sister Sally’s requests to Santa (“How about tens and twenties?”); Lucy’s unrequited lust for real estate; and his dog Snoopy’s attempt to win money by costuming his doghouse with tacky lights. Perhaps Lucy best expresses Schulz’ distaste with the un-childlike observation: “Look, Charlie Brown, we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”
“Big, eastern syndicate” could also describe the Coca-Cola organization, original sponsor of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Hard to believe, but for years, A Charlie Brown Christmas housed as many as three instances of product placement for the soft drink giant. The first occurs during the opening skating scene right before the title card. Entangled in Linus’ blanket, Charlie Brown and Linus are hurled by Snoopy in opposite directions. Charlie Brown smacks a tree, while older viewers might remember seeing Linus fly face first onto a Coca-Cola sign. (The text of the sign was changed to danger for promos and unedited airings after 1971.) Another scene shows the gang pitching snowballs at cans perched on a fence, one can clearly marked “Coke.” Finally, during the end credits, the sponsor breaks in over the children’s rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
By placing itself inside Charlie Brown’s world, Coca-Cola deftly inoculates itself against the special’s disillusionment over the corporate co-opting of Christmas—an ironic twist given how much the brand had help shape America’s perception of the holiday. Though Santa Claus had already evolved over time and place into a jolly, fat man in a red suit, Coca-Cola crystallized and capitalized the image of St. Nick through a series of advertisements illustrated by Haddon Sundblom in the thirties. It didn’t hurt that the suit and brand shared the same color. Santa is linked to Coca-Cola, so much so that it made waves when Pepsi dared borrow the fictional character to hawk their soft drink.
Whether these concessions to Coca-Cola were made willingly or grudgingly are not covered in David Michaelis’ otherwise comprehensive and wonderful biography, Schulz and Peanuts, though the book sheds copious light on the mindset of its subject. Schulz wrestled between the modest desire to be the best cartoonist he could be versus striving to become the most renowned in the world. The staggering amount of Peanuts ephemera suggests that the latter impulse won out. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Schulz not being dismayed at the thought of selling a replica of the sad little tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas, currently on sale at Target.
For many, the most memorable scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas is Linus van Pelt’s soliloquy. Right off the bat Schulz establishes Linus as a voice of reason, challenging his morose friend with the line,
Charlie Brown, you’re the only person who can take a wonderful holiday like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right … of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.
Despite a moment of concern over learning his lines for the play, Linus seems above holiday anxiety. He isn’t laboring over a Christmas list. He dances awkwardly. He assists in choosing the sad little tree. And he alone volunteers to comfort Charlie Brown by walking onto the stage and speaking from scripture.
Drawn from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, the scene’s power lies in its unadorned clarity. Schulz doesn’t bludgeon the viewer, nor does an older figure enter to explain its significance or vouch for its truth. It plays with quiet dignity, counterbalancing the rest of the special, lending emotional heft, and generating a spark for Charlie Brown and audiences at home. As Michaelis writes in Schulz and Peanuts, “The simple, lisping authority of [Linus]’s exit line, ‘That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown’ would forever bind Schulz and his characters to the pure heart of the season.”
Even non-believers can find inspiration. In his collection of non-fiction essays, Manhood For Amateurs, Michael Chabon affirms the power of Linus’ recitation:
I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown’s heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christmas of its power to move me the way any truly great story can.
Defying pressure from network executives and producing partner Bill Mendelson, Schulz battled for the scene’s inclusion. Understandably, one might assume that Schulz was in lockstep with a thrilled ecclesiastical community that would rally around the special upon it’s premiere. But according to Schulz and Peanuts, the cartoonist’s religious view modulated over time, shifting from traditional orthodoxy to a more guarded type of humanism of which—in Charlie Brown fashion—Schulz claimed to know next to nothing.
This shift is sensed through the comic strip and subsequent holiday specials. Remember: it’s previously wise Linus, not hard-luck Charlie Brown, who feverishly asserts the magnificence of The Great Pumpkin, only to be let down every Halloween. Schulz would state publicly that The Great Pumpkin was an analog for Santa Claus, though Michaelis’ book makes the case that
[Linus’s] willed mania demonstrates that people would rather live drunk on false belief than sober on nothing at all, at whatever cost in ridicule. Schulz is saying: be careful what you believe.
Quite a change from the previous Christmas, when Linus’ conviction in the unseen carried such weight. And, needless to say, the character proselytizing most cannot function without his security blanket.
Again, we see ourselves in Peanuts—a populace ravenous for answers while clutching whatever suits us. Traversing the gap between tangible truth and unearthly belief—for many of us—that’s what Christmas is all about.