"Auggh! I've killed it!"
Back in the 1960s, when social consciousness was rising, Charlie Brown represented every kid who looked out at the world and said, “I don’t get it.” Never more so than in the 1965 network TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
It’s the big holiday, and all the “perennial loser” sees is a desperate rush to get all you can, to have the fashionable, manufactured Christmas tree, to put up Christmas lights for cash prizes and bragging rights.
Peanuts creator and writer Charles M. Schulz doesn’t engage in any 60s-style, blanket condemnation of market-driven society. But with his first foray into TV, he’s been given a soapbox in the middle of the marketplace at the busiest time of year. Apparently he decided, like Bruce Springsteen a decade later in producing Born To Run, to swing for the fences. He broke a number of conventions of the time: no laugh track, child actors instead of adults, a jazz score, and use of biblical text, which today would be encouraged for cynical ends, but then ran counter to the rising sensitivities to American diversity.
In this 25-minute cartoon, Schulz uses satire and gentle humor to address the problem of commercialism and marketing coming to dominate our lives and to crowd out the civic aspects of society. And although Schulz keeps the focus on the Christian tradition, the piece can be appreciated no matter your view of the existence of God or the divine, the great spirit (or spirits), the creator or however you want to think of it. Maybe it comes down to something as simple as your relationship with your fellow man and woman – how you treat them and what you can contribute to the well-being of society.
The Peanuts kids, other than Charlie Brown and Linus, represent the cynical adult view – they speak like adults and have adult problems. Especially Lucy, who realizes the game is corrupt (“it’s run by a big, Eastern syndicate, you know”) but finds the answer in real estate ownership, observers of her specialness, and pop psychology. The rest of the kids engage in consumerist fantasies and casual cruelty. They’ll grow up to be perfect serfs to Queen Lucy.
Charlie Brown feels “let down” by it all. The cure is “involvement” by directing the Christmas play. But that requires that he conform, and he can’t do it. The kids are too self-centered and self-indulgent. They aren’t the least bit interested in working together to pull off the nativity play.
When Charlie Brown’s frustration boils over, Lucy diffuses the situation by sending him and Linus to get a Christmas tree – a big, shiny, aluminum one. "Yeah, do something right for a change, Charlie Brown," sneers one of his tormentors.
What confronts Charlie Brown and Linus at the tree lot is the spectacle of shiny surfaces and fake stand-ins for the real thing. (Ironic that Coca-Cola sponsored the initial airing of the special).
Charlie Brown is troubled by a loss he doesn’t understand. However, when he sees the small, natural tree among the mass-produced ones, he knows it to be something simple, humble, and authentic, something that doesn’t demand your money or your attention, but just waits to be discovered.
But no one else can see it, just as they are not bothered by the trampling of the simple message of love and giving that is at the core of the Christian holiday, and, indeed, all religions. So of course when Charlie Brown and Linus bring the tree back to the auditorium the Peanuts laugh at them, and it’s like they are laughing at the notion of Christmas ever having anything to do with spiritual values.
But right after that laughter from the crowd, you have the lone voice of Linus reading the bible passage, unafraid of being laughed at.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the City of Bethlehem, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men".
(It’s the voice of the child reading it that gets you, just as it was the barely suppressed smirk that got to me in a completely opposite fashion when Bush used the same phrase --“good will to men” -- to end his speech Sunday, injecting a little “we’re killing for Christ with God on our side” reminder to the faithfully brainwashed.)
In any case, Linus affects the peanuts. They realize they’ve been caught up in the commercialism – and they’ve been having a good time, the film doesn’t begrudge that – but they realize they’ve also given in to cynicism and casual cruelty. So they see the tree in a new light, they are able to see its value and its beauty. And their love of that, of the tree, rescues it. They even find a creative way to incorporate the commercial aspects of Christmas – Snoopy’s doghouse decorations – into the spiritual – the tree. And the tree and the kids become stronger and more beautiful for it, and so they break out in spontaneous, joyful song, having not only realized, but enacted the meaning of Christmas. When they yell, "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown," they mean it.
Or as Linus says, “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”