Christmas has inspired countless films and television specials over the decades. Some great, some good, many terrible. And while these many stories have inspired their own legions of followers and made many special statements on the holiday season, there is one story that outdoes them all. It’s not due to a mega budget, a huge star in the lead role, or a subversive take on the Christmas holiday. It’s due to the genuine and honest nature of the story at hand.
Coming up on 50 years, A Charlie Brown Christmas has endured and inspired countless generations of viewers since it first aired on December 9, 1965 on CBS. Its message of the toll that commercialism takes on Christmas and the people who celebrate it, the true joy of the holiday, and the real meaning of Christmas still resonate today. In fact, they may be more powerful than ever.
The story of little Charlie Brown, depressed and directionless as Christmas approaches, is a warm and magical tale, filled with charming animation, lovely acting, and an exquisite score. There are so many reasons why this is a truly special story.
Searching for the True Meaning of Christmas
It seems as if everyone has watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, so I’ll keep the synopsis brief. Charlie Brown ponders his life as Christmas approaches and feels incredibly depressed. While his friends half-heartedly try to cheer him up, Lucy recruits him to be the director of the upcoming Christmas play to give him direction in hopes of cheering him up. But he’s faced head on with the commercialization of Christmas, which only fuels his depression and frustration.
It seems like everyone around him is obsessed with money, presents, and the showy nature of commercial Christmas. Even good hearted Snoopy is involved in a Christmas decoration contest with a flyer that reads “Find the true meaning of Christmas. Win money, money money!”
Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, outlines her materialistic take on Christmas with her letter to Santa Claus, dictated to Chuck. While it starts off pandering to Santa, it ends with “Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”
When asked by Charlie why she wants money, she adorably replies, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
Charlie seems lost in it all. Overwhelmed by the wants of others and unable to keep up with the haphazard demands of his friends in the Christmas play, who consistently point out his failings, especially when he chooses the smallest and saddest Christmas tree in the lot.
There’s a sense of sadness throughout the TV special, with The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack being appropriately melancholy for the story. Charlie himself faces rejection and discusses his feelings out loud while everyone around him seems to be consistently happy, which only highlights the difficulties he faces on his own.
The pace of A Charlie Brown Christmas itself adds to the melancholy feel. While it may partially be a reflection of the style of the time, the way the story takes its time in unfolding a simple narrative helps it from rushing past the emotion. Staying in the moments of melancholy and slowly progressing through the season adds to the power of it all.
Visually, there are still vibrant colors, especially when it comes to the winter clothes and hats that the children wear. However, the backgrounds are muted, with icy blues and whites covering the outdoors. Snowflakes dance and fall throughout many of the seasons, chasing away the warmth that may have otherwise invaded. Inside, many of the houses and the auditorium are warm and bright, but the feeling is undercut by the difficulties faced by Charlie.
That’s not to say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is not fun. In fact, it’s incredibly enjoyable; no matter how many times someone has watched it, which is why it has lasted for half a century. It’s also incredibly beautiful, with the special feeling like a warm hug with every viewing.
A Timeless Jazz Soundtrack
Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi had recently broken through to the mainstream with his hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” when production began on the Christmas special. Producer Lee Mendelson had been a fan, leading him to hire Guaraldi and The Vince Guaraldi Trio to score the animated story. It was a stroke of genius, quickly setting the special apart and adding another classy layer to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Featuring mostly a piano, bass, and drums, the score for the special is both simple and deceptively complex. Guaraldi created jazz adaptations of classic Christmas tunes as well as brand new songs for the show. Tracks such as “Skating” and “The Christmas Song” are joyful and light, feeling like the cascade of snow that falls on Charlie and his friends, while “Christmas is Coming” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are propulsive, adding energy to the proceedings without overtaking the action and dialogue happening at the same time. In fact, almost all of A Charlie Brown Christmas is scored, with the soft jazz sounds weaving a tapestry in the background while the plot progresses.
Of course, the standout piece is “Linus and Lucy,” which became the unofficial theme song for Charlie Brown and was featured in almost every following special for decades in one way or another. While Guaraldi died at the young age of 47 in 1976, with many Charlie Brown specials created afterward, his music remained a major influence on the many stories to follow. Not only that, but the Charlie Brown jazz soundtracks have been noted by many famous jazz musicians as the reason why they became involved in the genre in the first place.
The soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is pitch perfect during the holiday season, but it’s also wonderful at any time of year.
Lasting Love for the Peanuts Gang
Quality of production aside, the real reason A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest Christmas story ever made for television or film is because it is all heart. In the end, the story is all about making both the Peanutscharacters and the audience remember what Christmas is all about.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock 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 you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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 and goodwill towards men.
… That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It was a bold move back then and it seems even bolder now, with the message of The Bible put front and center in the tale. It was Peanuts author Charles Schulz who insisted that it be part of the story, even when network executives balked at the idea. But his focus on The Bible carried over from the comic strips and became the very center of the story, tying it all together in a powerful way and leading Charlie Brown and the rest of the cast to gather around the refurbished little Christmas tree and sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the night.
When the special was original produced, its creation was done with little planning, stemming from a last minute request by CBS and sponsor Coca Cola for a Christmas special starring Charlie Brown, who had never been adapted from the comic strips before. But author Charles Schulz was hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration and worked with producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez to create something amazing.
The look and feel of A Charlie Brown Christmas perfectly brought the Peanuts gang to life in animation. The overwhelming success of the special led to countless more animated adaptations, many of which as classics in their own right, such as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown. But it’s the very first that created a special spot in the hearts of millions for Charlie Brown and his friends. In fact, the influence of Charles Schulz’ creation has resulted in the upcoming The Peanuts Movie. A 3D computer animated film replicating the look of the comic strip and animated specials for the big screen.
Whatever the future holds for good old Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas will have a special place in the holidays for decades to come.