A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Written by Charles M. Schulz
Directed by Bill Melendez
This is my favorite of all the classic Christmas specials. It’s very in line with my own complicated feelings about the holiday, imbued with a sense of melancholy while still not lacking that charm you expect from these cartoons. What’s funny is upon its initial viewing for executives, they hated the cartoon. It was seen as too slow-paced, the music was off-putting (genuinely shocking to me), and they hated the animation. This shocked the creators as they were sure this would be a holiday classic from the start, and fears set in that it would never air again. Instead, the public fell in love with the story, drawn to the fact that this wasn’t a shallow feel-good Christmas story but deeper and talking about something more profound.
Charlie Brown feels that his depression has not been alleviated by the Christmas season happening around him. He watches how focused everyone around him is on the holiday’s material aspects, and it increases his anger and frustration. Lucy suggests he needs to get involved in something and suggests directing the school pageant, which seems to light up the melancholy kid. Charlie decides to find a Christmas tree to have on stage to wrangle his rowdy class to set the mood. The tree he finds is a pretty pathetic specimen, but he sees something special in it while his friends scoff. Through this tree, both Charlie and his friends discover some more meaningful about this time of year.
There’s been a focus by Conservatives on a fictional war on Christmas in the last few years. I have never understood this as Christmas Creep is a real trend where stores begin selling paraphernalia for the holiday about the time Halloween wraps up. This War on Christmas chatter doesn’t seem to have a problem with the holiday becoming thoroughly entangled with consumerism and buying expensive gifts. I would expect if Charlie Brown were to look at 21st Century America, he would be even further frustrated. Black Friday seems to mark an unchecked frenzy of consumption that now defines Christmas.
A Charle Brown Christmas is Charles Schulz’s way of telling those of us who find kinship in Charlie’s feelings that we are not wrong. We feel empathy as Charlie is gaslighted and mocked by the other kids for trying to express emotion outside of the spectrum they are willing to engage with. These thematic elements are what cause the special to endure for decades. Something always feels wrong about Christmas, especially as we get older the scales of childhood fall from our eyes. As I look over the prolific suffering in my country and the world, it is hard to get behind the artifice of Christmas celebration as dictated by corporations.
I see Coca-Cola ads with a cherub cheeked Santa, and I remember that the company funded Columbian death squads from 1990 to 2002 to crush labor union movements. I see ads for Christmas-themed chocolate and can’t deny that evidence has come forward that the industry relies on child slavery in over-exploited nations. Every major corporation wishing you a happy holiday also works to undermine efforts to increase wages to a liveable level for all workers and expand healthcare for those in dire need. It can be challenging to find beauty in such horrid times. I’m a big believer in not keeping myself willfully ignorant, and the least I can do is feel what I see and read about if not take direct action.
A Charlie Brown Christmas reminds us to find beauty in the simple, overlooked moments of life. No one opens presents in this cartoon; not a single person gets a gift. Oh, they write up lists and drool over what they could get, but we never see it. Instead, Schulz and director Bill Melendez gives us this laughable, needle-dropped Christmas tree, so weak it cannot even stand upright with a single ornament. They remind us that, unlike Sally’s speech, we do not have manufactured owed to us by the world; instead, we have to find ways to divest ourselves from what we’re told we should want, what commercials work to convince us we need. Beauty exists in what we collectively choose to put it in to. Charlie can’t make the tree come alive on his own, and it’s when his friends suddenly begin to see as he does that they come together and find what is exceptional in what so many toss aside.