“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way that I’m supposed to feel.” – Charlie Brown (Charles Shulz)
Just about everyone feels like that at some point, if not about Christmas, then some other big, stressful event bathed in cultural expectations. For 50 years, A Charlie Brown Christmas has reminded us how to be a human during the holidays, and how to appreciate a small, wilted Christmas tree in a sea of artificial glitz.
Charlie Brown’s creator Charles Shulz has said people told him his Peanuts comic strip and holiday specials help teach people how to be human, and that’s about the best description of Chuck and the gang’s enduring magic. The comic is awash in vulnerability stirred up with just the right doses of darkness and sweetness. Many attempts at Yuletide sentimentality can seem forced and cloying, like the flashy lot of sparkling metallic artificial trees, but Charlie Brown’s brand of bittersweet sincerity rings true.
“Charlie Brown, you are the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” – Linus
Although Charlie is grumbling about the commercialization of Christmas in the special, it turns out his major issue is anxiety about being lonely and rejected. “Nobody sent me a Christmas card today,” he says, using his empty mailbox to validate feelings of self-doubt and poor self worth. “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”
The holiday season time of celebration for everyone to enjoy and be overwhelmed by. It’s an excuse to see family and friends we don’t often see, to be kind to strangers, to help others, maybe even to spoil yourself. They come with a lot of pressure, but holidays are opportunites to connect; even bathed in commercialism, they are a societal push in that direction. However, like Charlie Brown succumbs to, it’s so easy to take these societal messages and feel mocked for everything we don’t have, whether it’s material possessions or more personal, emotional things. We can easily find ourselves in a spiral of doom, lamenting the facade of perfection we think we see all around us.
If we stop looking at images of joy and celebration as personal affronts to us, we can get to the true “meaning” of all these wintery holidays from Thanksgiving to the New Year: to just be a little nicer and more grateful to each other, to appreciate and nurture what we have instead of resenting what we don’t, to try to understand where someone else is coming from when we feel misunderstood.
“Charles Schulz said that there will always be a market for innocence in this country,” the Christmas special’s producer Lee Mendelson remembers. That’s a pretty bold statement, and it’s absolutely true. Every cynical barb encapsulates an instance of a sensitive being person afraid to be vulnerable. Charlie Brown reminds us that we’re not alone in our insecurities and range of emotions. It’s so easy to feel estranged from one another. Like Charlie, we work up narratives in our heads about how we’re the only one who makes mistakes or feels sad.
Even expressing joy and enthusiasm can be met with sour reactions that make us feel even more alienated. Somewhere beyond glossy Facebook posts, forced smiles, and sarcastic jabs are the tumbling and sensitive inner lives of others. Peanuts helps us deal with our foibles, reminds us that everyone else is just as human as we are, and celebrates our inner innocence. We just want to be a genuine expression of that self we feel we are inside, but it just never completely works out. It helps to keep reminding ourselves that other people are constantly missing their marks, too. It’s frustrating, being a human. Sometimes, however, we can connect with one another. We can see each a little more clearly and offer each other a little warmth.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” – Linus
What really drives the comforting and complicated mood of the special are the voice actors (who were children,) and the jazzy, low-key music. We can owe that special Charlie Brown sound to Vince Guaraldi, whose music Mendelson fell in love with on the radio in 1963. Mendelson called him up and asked if he wanted to work with him on a Charlie Brown program, and soon Guaraldi was eager to play him a little riff that became “Linus and Lucy,” which is almost as synonymous with the Peanuts world as Charlie Brown himself.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was the first special, got backed by Coca-Cola early on, but the finished product failed to impress CBS executives. They were unnerved by the mood, the pacing, the voices. “This is probably going to be the last [“Peanuts” special]. But we’ve got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it,” Mendelson says they said after viewing. They may not have “gotten” the special, but they were definitely in a pessimistic state of mind Charlie Brown can relate to. When it debuted Dec. 9, 1965, however, ratings were through the roof: half of the United States were glued to their televisions. The team that made the special went on to do dozens more, scoring tons of Emmys along the way.
BTW: We don’t usually have a Christmas tree at our place, but this year we’re displaying this charming rendition of Chuck’s tree. It IS artificial and commercial, but the intentions are sincere. (Etsy is also awash in items inspired by Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.)
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