A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanuts special, capitalizing on the popularity of the comic strip in 1965. By this point, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts had been running for 15 years with the same basic premise: here are some children, one of them has a dog. Not much happens in a typical Peanuts plot. The larger world of the children barely exists.
The appeal of Peanuts was, and still is, in simply being with these children and understanding their rhythms. As Umberto Eco wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1985, “over this basic scheme” of watching children and a dog go about daily life, “there is a steady flow of variations, following a rhythm ... thus you could never grasp the poetic power of Schulz’s work by reading only one or two or ten episodes: you must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations, for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns, and from fidelity to the fundamental inspirations.”
A daily cartoon strip turned out to be the perfect medium for infinitely shifting repetition. The first ongoing Peanuts gag is perhaps its most famous: Charlie Brown missing the football every Fall season. While its first iteration wasn’t a trick, it soon became a routine: Lucy van Pelt holds out a football for Charlie Brown and comes up with some excuse to convince him to kick it. Charlie Brown comes to believe her excuse, and decides to approach kicking the football with all his might. As he prepares for a mighty kick, Lucy pulls away and Charlie Brown goes flying into the air, tricked again.
As Sarah Boxer has noted in The Atlantic, Lucy was, for Schulz, “in essence, society itself.” She was manipulative, cruel, and seemed more interested in transactional help, as seen in her psychiatric booth where she’ll see any patient “who has a problem and a nickel.” Described in a jokey essay published in the medical journal The Lancet as the “best-known psychiatrist of the 20th century,” Lucy’s advice is at times more concerned with getting five cents than any actual help.
That’s how things start in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown is depressed, even though it’s Christmastime. After failing to knock a can down with snowballs, he goes to Lucy’s booth and drops in a nickel. Before she helps him out, she rattles around her can and proclaims how much she loves the sound of nickels rattling around. But eventually she sets Charlie Brown on a path: he needs an activity. And, lucky enough, her Christmas play needs a director.
Before airing on CBS, both animator Bill Melendez and network executives were worried about several aspects of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Everyone thought it was too slow, the plot seemed threadbare, the music didn’t seem to match the setting, the animation was stilted, and the children’s voices sounded like amateurs.
All of these critiques are more or less true. The show is disjointed, loosely centered around Charlie Brown discovering the meaning of Christmas. Snoopy thinks it’s decorating his doghouse, Lucy thinks it’s about getting a big shiny aluminum tree she can paint pink. But the true meaning of Christmas is uttered very straightforwardly by Linus: Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, as described in the Book of Luke.
Yet the special’s stilted nature simply adds to the charm half a century later. Perhaps the fact that there were only three TV channels when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired helped solidify it as a classic. But even today, as one Apple TV Plus’ exclusives, and in a sea of family-friendly content, it stands out. The children sound like real children. They spend time doing nothing in worlds of their own creation, like real children. And like real children, they get sad.
There’s also Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack, which has a richness that carries the special. The haunting vocals of “Christmas Time is Here” let the viewer into Charlie Brown’s head as we watch the children skate (Pig Pen’s dust clouds following him on the ice is a wonderful touch), and on the flip-side, the bubbling optimism of “Linus and Lucy” seems to encourage warmth and camaraderie.
Like individual panels in a strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas is all about tiny moments. The children dancing when they should be rehearsing. The suave style of the aluminum Christmas tree lot (an actual fad during the Sixties which this special helped kill). Charlie Brown abandoning his sad, little tree after an ornament makes it droop over, and the rest of the gang getting together and fixing it.
Linus is right, Charlie Brown decides at the end: Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Yet he doesn’t make his way to a church. Rather, he sees that his friends, cruel and irresponsible as they can be, have found something broken and given it the love that it needs to flourish. That kind of earnestness can cut across any culture, any moment in time, and any viewer.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is available to stream on Apple TV Plus.