And in the 1970s, the Monday before any holiday at 8pm on CBS was reserved for Charlie Brown.
It was a threshold. When you saw a Charlie Brown special, some kind of special occasion was almost here: one week away at most. And you didn’t just watch it; you prepared for it.
You had to acquire permission from parents to stay up late, perhaps promising good behavior, or a more civil attitude towards siblings. Your parents might even allow you to have a mug of hot cocoa, not having yet discovered the link between sugar and hyperactivity. You’d wrap yourself in a blanket, knees tucked under your chin, and sit on the floor three feet from the console television (which, if you asked it, truly wanted to be in a wood case, but was forced to don plastic molded wood-grain instead). You made camp on a shag rug with an ill-advised color scheme–an amalgam of heavily saturated citrus fruit colors–waiting for the opening credits and theme music.
The experience was so regularly tinged with anticipation and excitement, that today I have a near-physical reaction to music from the shows. I become involuntarily nostalgic whenever I hear the Vince Guaraldi Trio, even when they’re not playing their signature Charlie Brown themes; even in settings where nostalgia is inappropriate: the dentist’s office, for instance, or while examining produce.
Programming specifically for children? On network prime time (when there were only seven channels, anyway)? It was nearly unheard of; and for a half hour, you felt so special.
I admit that when I watch kids’ Christmas specials now, I expect to feel the same excitement I did as a child. As the years go by, you rely on external triggers to drum up the old Christmas spirit, having exhausted that old internal energy. You become jaded from nights traversing the puzzling and neon-sprinkled aisles of Toys R Us. You just know that Steven Seagal will star in a made-for-tv Christmas movie on Lifetime, and someone will buy your kid a toy that is very loud, and your holiday stuffing will somehow fail, despite being comprised mainly of fat and starch and salt. After forty-some years of Christmases, it gets harder and harder to achieve a full month’s worth of excitement and wonder. It just feels like work.
So, I recently sat down and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. Oh, who am I kidding? I watch this video every year.
(I have it on VHS. Probably about 20 years ago, there was a sale on Christmas movies. I acquired the Charlie Brown movie as well as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer; The Year Without a Santa Claus; Miracle on 34th Street; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; and Frosty Returns, a disappointing cartoon that was clearly trying to capitalize on the success of the original Frosty, with bargain-priced animation and a plot that’s about as joyful as a broken ornament. I kept it anyway.)
I’d bought them, telling myself that I would gather the children of friends’ families over to watch it, while their parents went shopping for gifts. Then later, even though my brothers live in distant states, I imagined we’d get together over the holidays and have a “Christmas Movie Night” with their kids. Now with my own child, the obligation of the Christmas Movie Fantasy Experience has now landed on her, but she seems less than interested (unless, perhaps, I bribe her with a late bedtime and hot cocoa).
There comes a time when you just have to admit that, yes, you bought childrens’ movies–not for friends’ or siblings’ or your own children, but for yourself–and yes, you watch them alone, with a hot buttered rum, a quantity of gingerbread cookies, and a wistful notion that the miracle of a child’s December can be recaptured.
In 1974, my favorite songs–which still take me back to matchbox cars and mud pies–were “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin and “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks. Both songs were, essentially, about death. Now, watching and re-watching my then-favorite Christmas movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, I realize that beneath the pigtails and Little House on the Prairie dresses that my mother had a thing for, I must have been an extremely morose child.
As an adult, I note Charlie Brown’s chronic complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, and his whining that he can’t quite capture the Christmas spirit. I sit alone, slurping a hot toddy on my 10-year-old couch, and think that perhaps I should be thankful for the ironic adult themes that stand conspicuously amid Snoopy’s pratfalls. Maybe I should be laughing at the illustrated ridiculousness that is the self-importance of childhood, and enjoying their Christmastime antics.
Instead, I become sad that any child could be as sullen and tortured as Charlie Brown. I scold my inner child for ever having enjoyed this show. I get more and more upset about the human condition, and I’m reminded of bullying, and isolation, and holiday depression. I must have been a horrible kid, I think, and the adult writers of this show should have been monitored for any number of troubling conditions.
As a result, every single time I watch this show, I end up feeling awful about myself and the parents who raised me. What kind of family turns out a kid who enjoys the suffering of others? I think about many of my relatives, and wonder if my entire extended family takes most of their life enjoyment out of schadenfreude. It dawns on me that the dark sense of humor that slowly creeps into most of my writing and conversations (truly, making me a weird–yet oddly entertaining–party guest, and a mandatory invitee for the host who values variety) probably started from at least the age of four, and possibly earlier.
I start to question nature vs. nurture, and my very humanity.
Merry Damn Christmas.
So this year, let me tell you what I learned. I decided to do a very detailed analysis of my favorite half hour of Christmas programming, and out of all the characters, the best one, the one who displays the most caring part of the human spirit is…
The character who is the Peanuts’ icon of selfishness and duplicity is the one who first validates Charlie Brown’s feelings of depression, and then offers possible solutions. Sure, she charges him five cents and spends too much time declaring her love of money and real estate. But she also becomes Charlie Brown’s advocate, staunchly defending him against the naysayers. She gives him a position of authority, and shows unusual faith in her supposed not-really-a-friend.
Though she succumbs to her vain nature, deciding that Charlie Brown should make her the Christmas Queen of the neighborhood Christmas play, and insulting his choice of Christmas trees (though complimenting him at the end), she really is the only person who truly tries to help him. And she’s the one we’re supposed to dislike.
We focus on Linus’ recitation of the Bible’s Christmas story at the end, but the true humanity of the show is really exemplified by Lucy–helpful and caring but flawed, and unashamedly true to herself.
If this were a review, I’d say that the musicality of the show was superior to all other Christmas specials, and the characters–for children–were complex and troubled. I’d say that the message was confusing but managed to end on a positive note, and that the main character was a difficult one to root for, not even really liked by his own dog.
One wonders how it got to be the beloved show that it is. Perhaps the small joy that Charlie Brown feels at the end is good enough for us, since most of his life is an awful mess. Maybe we’re really just in this whole thing for the happy ending, or for the small happy moments, no matter when they come. Perhaps Charles Shultz’ idea of Christmas spirit is just about finding one moment out of a thousand crappy ones, and being thankful for that.
If that’s so, I think I can convince myself that even as a child, I understood that idea; and instead of being a horrible kid, I was insightful and unusually perceptive. Or maybe I was just another kid who liked to stay up late, cuddle under a blanket, drink hot cocoa, and laugh at the misdeeds of an ice-skating beagle.
This article is the last in a series on holiday entertainment.
Ceil Kessler is a writer, analyst, marketing and social media consultant, and lover of home-baked banana breads. Read her other work at ceilk.wordpress.com, or here at the Nose. Follow her on Twitter at @ceilck. (Yes, we’re sure that’s her handle.)