On The Contrary: How Charlie Brown taught me to stop worrying and love Christmas
When I was a kid, I loved everything about Christmas—the weather, the pageantry, the food, but most of all the annual Christmas specials that aired on T.V. All, that is, save one. I could not understand the appeal of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS.
I was much more of a fan of Rankin and Bass cartoons and claymations like RUDOLPH, SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, and THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS. They had simple morals and lovable characters. Best of all, they always had a life affirming (and Christmas affirming) ending in which the world was set to right.
CHARLIE BROWN had none of this. No Santa. No magic. Mean kids who never have any kind of comeuppance. A brooding and self-pitying main character. It didn’t even have much in the way of festive songs, opting instead for a downbeat jazz score. Most of all, it was depressing. And how was that Christmas-y? How could anyone be sad when Santa was coming to bring the payoff for another year of (perceived) good behavior?
Oh how times have changed. I still love Christmas, but now I realize that Charlie Brown’s story wasn’t for me when I was little. It’s for me now. It is the special that is perhaps the best in any medium at capturing the adult experience of Christmas.
Charlie complains throughout the special about Christmas going commercial. We still hear that worry espoused. However, for my generation (and probably all generations since the Industrial Revolution) Christmas has never been anything but commercial. As a kid I dreamed not of peace on earth, but the cornucopia of presents awaiting me under the tree the morning of December 25. Sure, there was usually some Church service involved the night before, but the real heart of the holiday rested in getting stuff, giving stuff, eating stuff, and decorating the house with stuff. As a kid this feels totally natural and right. It’s only when we become adults that we somehow start to feel uneasy about a holiday so dominated by commercial interests. We turn into Charlie Brown.
Charlie feels depressed, but he can’t say why. He knows he is supposed to be happy because everyone and everything around him is telling him he should be. He also probably remembers being happy during this time in the past, but for some reason this year the season is just not doing it for him. He lashes out at commercialism, but that’s not really the problem. He wants to get Christmas cards. He wants to decorate a tree. His disgust with the kids around him enjoying the holiday is partly a result of him envying their easy enjoyment of it. The other kids are annoyed and dismissive of him, but actually seem more enlightened. They’re not ignorant to the things that bother Charlie Brown—they just don’t care. They enjoy the holiday for what it is, not what they expect of it Lucy openly acknowledges that of course Christmas is commercial. And when Linus recites the Nativity Story, it’s for Charlie Brown’s benefit, not for the rest of the kids.
What Charlie’s existential crisis really captures so well is the disillusionment adulthood brings to Christmas. The holiday itself hasn’t changed much over the years, despite what many would claim. We still watch the same movies and specials every year, we decorate the same way, and we sing the same songs. Christmas doesn’t change—we do. We grow up, and the season loses its luster a bit. We can worry about this, thinking there is something wrong with us, or we can try to put it off on outside influences changing our beloved holiday, but really all we can do is accept that Christmas won’t stay magical forever.
That’s one of the things I like most about A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. Nothing is resolved at in the end, and nothing really has changed, other than the kids have fixed up the tree for Charlie’s benefit and sing Christmas songs with him. The message seems to be to just relax, sing a song, and enjoy the lights. Maybe you do something nice for others to make them feel special. Christmas doesn’t have to have a grand meaning—it’s still a pleasant time of the year. “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”
As a kid, I didn’t want to hear this message. I wanted the magic. As an adult, I need to hear it. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is perhaps the most pitch perfect expression of the melancholy and hope that permeates the season. It tells us that it’s ok to feel a little sad at Christmas. In fact, it’s normal. But all you really have to do is force yourself to go through the motions of the holiday, and the spirit of it might just catch up with you.
Happy Holidays everybody!
Now Let’s DANCE!
Note: I realize that this is an intensely secular reading of what is a major Christian holiday, but I think the majority Americans that celebrate Christmas, especially children, experience the day primarily apart from its religious origins. We still decorate with nativity scenes, but their significance is really not much greater than the pagan evergreen trees we also adorn our houses with.
If you missed it on T.V., you can watch A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS in its entirety on Hulu until the end of the year.