One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.
I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.
Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”
Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.
It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:
When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.
Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.
The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.
Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.
Dare I say, this strangeness is what makes it almost newsworthy that this program still exists and is still popular? This passage is long, but essential:
Consider its pacing, for instance. “Charlie Brown” was one of the first animated holiday cartoons, appearing just one year after “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And yet, unlike “Rudolph,” in “Charlie Brown” very little happens. The special opens with a long, almost meditative take of children skating loops on the pond, the wistful original song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in the background. Many of the scenes that follow have a similar fragmented, ephemeral quality. Kids talk about Christmas cards, their lists for Santa; they throw snowballs; they dance; they talk some more. There is an almost documentary-like verisimilitude to the project. Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” and Melendez capture perfectly that peaceable aimlessness, that numinous timelessness that many American children experience during the holidays, their lives hushed like the landscape under a thick blanket of snow.
Into that wintry reserve trudges Charlie Brown, Schulz’s bald, moon-faced loser. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” he says at the start. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” Imagine the Coca-Cola executives who hired Mendelson and Schulz discovering that their new Christmas special was about a kid trying to figure out why Christmas made him depressed. Who is going to want a soda pop after that?
Not only does Charlie Brown keep talking about how sad he is, he spends most of his Christmas special spotlighting and attacking the ways commercialism has crept into the holiday. Things like Snoopy entering his doghouse in a Christmas decorating contest to win a cash prize; Lucy complaining that all she ever gets at Christmas are “stupid toys or clothes or a bicycle,” when what she really wants is “real estate” (you have to love Lucy); or little Sally writing to Santa that if gifts are too much trouble, “make it easy on yourself, just send money.” When Charlie Brown challenges this, she explains, with her absolute innocence, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
Like I said, all of that heretical subtext takes place BEFORE the shocking use of unedited Christian scripture in prime time.
If “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was controversial in 1965, just imagine how hard it would be to produce this special these days.
Of course, this special is now a piece of the Christmas fabric of American culture. It makes news when people try to take scissors to this script. For example see this 2015 GetReligion post about news coverage of an effort by public-school leaders in Johnson County, Kentucky, to remove that chunk of Luke’s Gospel from an elementary-school performance of the script.
You won’t believe what folks at the Lexington Herald-Leader left out of that hard-news report:
What readers need to know is this: What are educators proposing as the content of the Linus speech in this new, edited version of the script, which presumably contains zero offensive trigger language linked to St. Luke or anyone else tied to Christmas.
Think about this: They can't leave a hole in the script, since the speech by Linus is the turning point of the entire story arc.
So what does Linus say? Did anyone ask? Did school officials refuse to answer? I think we can assume that Linus is not allowed to recite the First Amendment. If the answer to the question, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" is not linked to the Christmas story, then what do the script editors have him say?
Raise you hand if you think readers – secular and religious – would want to know.
Anyway, that short essay at America is must reading. As it has been said, many times, in many ways, if the Christmas story doesn’t shock or even offend you, then you’re not paying attention. Every now and then, this shock factor makes news.