Happy 50th Anniversary to “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
It’s been a holiday staple in millions of American households since December 9, 1965. And it’s called “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This December, it celebrates a 50-year run on TV. That’s pretty impressive for this cartoon featuring the Peanuts Gang, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And, even more than that, it remains pretty counter culture, if religion can be termed counter culture today.
Centering around the perennial late-to-the dance, sad sack Charlie Brown, asking the question, “What is Christmas all about?,” he struggles with an unsettling sadness come holiday time, when all about him, society says that he’s supposed to be joyful – and he’s not. Charlie Brown was a perceptive kid, even 50 years ago!
That is a pretty existential question that cartoonist Charles M. Schulz of the Peanuts Comic strip fame had the courage to ask, via this simple cartoon, with longevity and heft.
And a sponsor, Coca Cola to be exact, a huge corporation then and now, was open to “commissioning and supporting” the production of this type of programming some 50 years ago.
A profound answer finally is given to Charlie’s subliminal question of “What is Christmas all about?,” and it’s provided by the blue-blanket-loving Linus, on a spotlit stage, in his unapologetic recitation of the oft repeated description of Christmas night, quoted from the Bible.
There were obvious concerns about the use of religious material even in 1965 on a Christmas special. Yet, Director Bill Melendez recalls that Charles M. Schulz was adamant about including the Linus reading from the Bible with his famous quote, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
But, before the cartoon’s denouement hitting the perfect mark in its utter simplicity, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offers a series of scenes showing what Christmas tends to mean in the secular culture.
And The Peanuts Gang are all in – save Linus – who is a great listener to the qualms of Charlie Brown, about the modern themes surrounding the celebration of Christmas.
Charlie starts his quest for the meaning of Christmas by consulting experts that give psychological answers to his glumness in the guise of instant-psychiatrist-for-a-nickel, Lucy, his sister, Sally, with her “long list of gifts” gives small comfort, and even Snoopy, the beagle, is “buying” in big time.
But a play seems to be one thing that may capture the essence of the holy day.
But even that is co opted by the group’s definition of what the mood-play-provider Christmas tree should look like.
Seeking and finding leads the group ultimately to the Peanuts Gang fashioning themselves a perfect tree from a little bedraggled fir that simply needs a lot of love.
And that leads to a hushed moment and a realization, in Linus’s childlike reading, of ancient words that are pretty profound.
For it is in that still, small moment, and also, as the Peanuts Gang gather about Charlie’s fouled up, previously deadened, single red-balled fir tree, that this small gem hits home.
They have all finally, and lovingly, tended and been tended, and renewed, with Linus providing the final love wrap via his Widow’s Mite of a blanket at the fir tree’s base.
The small, simple tree dispels and warms the growing darkness that settles around the tiny group. Beautiful!
I find myself wanting to belt out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” right along with the group as they carol amid larger-than-life snow flakes, as the credits roll.
It seems Coca Cola was looking for “a special for advertising during the holidays.” It provided the dollars necessary for the shoot, and sponsored it, originally. I just found that out. It seems they were looking for a holiday production to air in early December.
So, Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, and TV producer Lee Mendelson, began preparing to pitch their ideas for this special to Coke.
After hearing jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s Trio play their wonderful, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, Lee Mendelson called and hired Mr. Guaraldi to provide background music to fit the show. It’s hard to imagine this special without his jaunty, jazzy piano themes, including “Christmas Time is Here” that helped enlarge and define the cartoon and its participants, with a series of unforgettable piano riffs. His soundtrack music also filled many of the Charlie Brown specials
The concept of Charles M. Schulz and Lee Mendelson was accepted by Coke, after a wary wait of several days, as Coke eventually confirmed they were in.
The team was given six months to deliver. And they did. And we are the happy recipients of that 50 year-old decision by Coca Cola. That was a pretty bold move, even then.
But I have to ask myself this question. And it is something to ponder.
Would Coke have the courage to do something so simple, yet so definitive today, in a world that is so consumed with not offending anyone, that it forgets to stand for anything? I wonder.
Kids love the skating scene early on in the cartoon that’s supposedly based on memories of places in the St. Paul, Minnesota winters of Schulz’s childhood.
Do kids still play “Whip” on the ice, as the last person in a long line gets snapped across it? I used to love that – as long as I was not on the end.
The United States Post Office has even gotten onboard this 50th Anniversary homage, with the issuance on October 1st 2015, of a special booklet of 20 Peanuts stamps featuring 10 still frames from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Each one features an iconic scene from the show that you may use on a holiday card. Featured among them are the skating scene, Charlie checking out his empty, echoing mailbox, Snoopy’s overly decorated doghouse, as he strives to win a contest, the simple wooden tree wrapped in Linus’s blanket, and, of course, The Peanuts Gang, in chorus, at the end.
I already have bought the stamps and am rereading the picture book issued from the cartoon, plus Lee Mendelson’s book, “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.”
Why not reintroduce your young reader to the book and cartoon, if they have not yet seen it – and even if they have.
It is a timeless message of peace and love that the world desperately needs today.
Funny how kids continue to ask the really pointed questions, and their ability to seek and find, and see through artifice, hopefully, will never change.
That really is what “Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” It’s a very simple story whose message has lasted over 2,000 years.
Happy 50th Anniversary to “A Charlie Brown Christmas!”
*Be sure to check out the 50th Anniversary airing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” tonight, November 30, on ABC. It will be re-aired on ABC on Christmas Eve as well.
*Here are three of Vince Guaraldi’s piano pieces that made “A Charlie Brown Christmas” an essential classic, including the skating scene music.
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