I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It just needed a little love, much like A Charlie Brown Christmas itself. It’s hard to believe the animated special celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, and yet being almost 34 myself, I can’t recall a single Christmas without it in my lifetime. From the moment the familiar strains of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” begins, I’m emotionally harkened back to the days of my early childhood and watching it with my grandparents. My family always sanctioned it because of its religious undertones, which are rare to find in a holiday special airing on mainstream TV. I always enjoyed the jazzy music, but like most kids, what I related to the most about it was Charlie Brown himself.
I was never the most popular kid in my class or the belle of the ball. I had many crushes throughout school that I never professed my feelings to, much like he had his Little Red-Haired Girl he was always pining for from afar. I hated that Lucy was always teasing him with a football because I understood and felt his pain. To say I was never the most athletic would be a gross understatement. I was short, chubby and clumsy. I tripped over my own shoelaces (hey, I still do sometimes). I always either missed the ball when it was inexplicably thrown to me or got embarrassingly hit in the head or face by it, no matter what sport we were participating in. As a result, I was always picked last in gym class and the team who was stuck with me usually made it well-known they felt handicapped as a result of my joining said team. Kids can be so cruel. Lucy represents all the kids who tormented me in gym class. Out of all the Charlie Browns in the world, sometimes I felt like the Charlie Browniest in my awkward adolescence.
In typical “blockhead” fashion, Charlie Brown seemingly fails at being his Christmas pageant’s director in A Charlie Brown Christmas. The other kids see him as being a passive doormat, and nobody takes his direction seriously. They pretty much do whatever they want, goofing around and dancing. Sensing his shortcomings as a director, Lucy sends Charlie Brown out to find the biggest, shiniest aluminum Christmas tree he can find to decorate their stage, thinking this is one mission surely not even he can fail at. When he returns with a simple live tree that can’t even sustain the weight of a single ornament without shedding half its needles, Lucy is not pleased. The kids all call him dumb and hopeless, laughing at him and his “pathetic little tree.” And then a beautifully unanticipated thing happens. Linus, the kid who can’t even go five minutes without his security blanket, suddenly stands up in the spotlight and has Charlie Brown’s back. Reciting scriptures, Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas: how it’s symbolic of the birth of Christ and synonymous with the spreading of peace and good will among mankind.
Suddenly, the special takes on some rather heavy-handed topics, primarily the trappings of commercialism and how it kills the true spirit of Christmas. What I always found the most incredible about this special was the fact that a usually soft-spoken kid such as Linus could suddenly become so outspoken and persuasive in his speech. Not only does he shame the kids who made fun of Charlie Brown and his tree with his altruistic message, but they all feel compelled to follow along behind and help Charlie Brown decorate the little tree, which ends up being spectacular once it’s shown a little love. Aren’t we all inwardly spectacular in our own unique ways? Sometimes it just takes a little love to bring out that beauty for the rest of the world to see. Another thing I’ve always admired about Charlie Brown is you just can’t keep him down. You can call him “a failure face” or a “blockhead” all you want, but he’s still out there trying to kick that football to the moon, playing baseball, running for student body president or becoming involved in his Christmas pageant.
Whether you’re a Christian or a fan of the Peanuts gang in general, fewer holiday specials are more memorable or beloved than A Charlie Brown Christmas. The special aired annually on CBS from 1965-2000 until the broadcasting rights were acquired by ABC. ABC aired a 50th anniversary retrospective before airing the special this year. It was fun seeing celebrities like the Obamas and Kristen Bell talking about the cultural impact of it, as well as interviews with animator/writer Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson (the first two were taken from previously recorded interviews). The musical guests were also phenomenal – who didn’t get chills when Sarah McLachlan sang “Christmas Time Is Here” with that boys choir behind her? Glee’s Matthew Morrison singing “Just Like Me” and Pentatonix singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” were some of the other musical highlights. But perhaps the most unexpected pairing was Boyz II Men singing “Joe Cool/Little Birdie.”
It’s astounding to think of anything receiving 45% of television’s entire viewership the night of its original airing, but the times were different in 1965. This was the era before cable television, the Internet and streaming video services like Hulu and Netflix fragmenting the viewing population. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for the entire family to gather around the television set to watch the same programming. If you missed the program, you had to wait until it aired again (which in most cases was a long wait, if ever). While TV executives may not have known what to think of it when it was initially presented to them (a kids’ special with music by a jazz trio and Biblical scriptures!?), it was an overnight hit with audiences and critics alike. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966, paving the way for other animated holiday specials on network TV to follow, and the rest as they say, is history.