Today In Pop Culture: 50 Years of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Published on December 9th, 2015 in: Holidays, Music, Retrovirus, Today In Pop Culture, TV |

By Jeffery X Martin


Not only does it have the greatest dance scene ever committed to celluloid (you know it’s true), but A Charlie Brown Christmas is also one of the most well-loved television specials of all time. It works on many different levels and, even though it has definite Christian leanings, the cartoon crosses those potentially limiting boundaries with a sophistication that bursts through the lines of what was expected of a child’s entertainment.

The reason it works so well is it focuses on the existential nightmare that is the holiday season. Each character is trapped in their own private hell. It is like an animated version of No Exit.

A seasonally depressed Charlie Brown becomes enamored of the scrawniest Christmas tree imaginable, and his overwhelming desire is to have it represent just one beautiful thing in his life. His depression is amplified by Lucy’s idea that he direct a Christmas play. However, no one believes he can actually do the job. His castmates mock him and desert him, leaving him by hinself in the auditorium. Again, Charlie Brown is alone in a crowd, a stranger in his own hometown, the eternal outcast.

Linus is forced to act as the moral compass for his friends, even though he just wants to ice skate and dance, like other children. He is burdened with the knowledge that Christmas should mean more than it does, but can only express it by rote recitation of Scripture. Does Linus believe what he is saying? There’s no way of knowing. He proclaims it to be the true meaning of Christmas, but is he simply referring to the universal truths that can be gleaned from any sacred text? What fears is he hiding behind his skillful memorization? And what does that blanket really represent?

What role does Lucy play in this masquerade? She pulls away footballs before Charlie Brown can kick them, then verbally berates him for it, as if his failure were entirely his fault. She sets herself up as an expert, running a booth from which she dispenses psychiatric advice. Her diploma and medical license are nowhere to be seen. She is the worst kind of faker, the kind that needs to control the lives of her peers so badly that she will do anything to achieve and keep dominance.

The other Peanuts kids have it bad, too. Sally asks Santa for money, specifically tens and twenties, a prescient example of the commercialization of Christmas and the attitude of entitlement to be shown by future generations. Peppermint Pattie and Marcie, in love for years, are unable to come out because of societal mores and their young age. Pig-Pen, with his refusal to bathe, cannot be arsed to even attempt more than a fringe attempt at socialization. And let’s not forget Schroeder, the musical genius so wrapped up in his work that he cannot open his heart to love, or even affection.

Don’t even bother bringing Snoopy into this. That dog is insane. He belongs in a hospital.

Why do these people stay together? What could possibly compel them to hang out during this dreary Christmas season? Is there any kind of connective theme that keep these kids from hurling themselves into the thin ice of the frozen part of the lake, sucking the icy water into their lungs and ending their miserable joy-free existences?

Yeah. There is. It’s the music.

I’m willing to bet that, as soon as you started reading this, you began to hear piano music in your head. It’s the music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, those beautiful bits of power jazz that permeate the show, lilting through the air. It makes the children dance. It makes them smile. They skate to it. They discuss the meaning of life to it. It is the soundtrack to their lives. It binds them.

It binds us, too, to this show. It is a tradition in millions of households, one of the few examples of appointment television left. Even through our own individual holiday hells, A Charlie Brown Christmas is there to remind us that everyone is having a hard time in one way or another. And even if we can’t find solace in one another, we can certainly find it in the music.

Happy 50th Anniversary, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

We need you now. More than ever.

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