I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.
- Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas
I begin every December with a naïve optimism that this will be the year when I finally make it through the entire month without my Christmas spirit waning. But then I find myself endlessly chasing that transcendent feeling of peace and happiness that I’ve perceived in fleeting moments for many holidays past but to which I can never quite hang on.
Usually I run into the emotional wall when there’s about a week left until the big day. That’s when I begin to realize that no matter how many lights I’ve seen or Christmas movies I’ve watched or cookies I’ve made and eaten, I still haven’t found a way to feel enveloped by the warmth and hope of Christmas for more than the occasional moment. No matter how hard I try, I end up sensing on some level that I’m just going through the motions or at least that there’s something else I should have done to make a more satisfying Christmas experience.
There’s really only one thing that ever snaps me out of that funk. I used to make a habit of watching A Charlie Brown Christmas early in the holiday season, but a couple of years ago I realized that it worked much better for me as a grand finale. Now it’s my personal tradition to end Christmas day in front of the television being reminded along with Charlie Brown and his friends what Christmas is all about.
A Work of Art
A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time in 1965, almost 20 years before I was born. I don’t remember how I became aware of Peanuts in the first place, though I imagine it started with a childhood viewing of one of the ubiquitous TV specials. At some point in my early adulthood, my interest in the world of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, etc. not only rekindled but blossomed. Not too long ago, I made it a goal to read all 50-years-worth of the comic strips from start to finish, and I’ve managed to make it from the first strip in 1950 to the late 1970s so far, usually spending about 10 or 15 minutes every morning reading several pages of strips in the collected books. Some people use their quiet morning time to meditate; I read Peanuts.
So I’m undoubtedly biased. But I believe A Charlie Brown Christmas to be among the most underrated works of 20th-century American popular culture. Coca-Cola commissioned the show, and CBS was its original home, airing it on December 9, 1965. The executives at CBS who bought the special were disappointed when they screened it for the first time and vowed not to pursue the rights to any subsequent Peanuts animated specials. They questioned the rather unprecedented use of adult-level language for child characters and felt that the overtly religious message of Linus’ climactic scene might turn off many viewers.
Of course, they were astoundingly wrong. The overwhelmingly positive response from the public—the massive ratings and numerous calls and letters received by the network—changed their minds and the course of TV history. The special has aired on TV at Christmastime every year since.
There’s a good reason for that: A Charlie Brown Christmas embodies two ideals that permeate the Peanuts universe: innocence and sincerity, two things noticeably absent from most of American pop culture post-1950s. The TV specials and the comic strips endure in our psyche not due to narrative complexity or thoroughly-developed characters—hallmarks of high-brow visual entertainment these days—but because of a simplicity that often belies their philosophical depth. A Charlie Brown Christmas makes people feel something. That it’s done so consistently for so many decades that featured such radical cultural change from one era to the next validates its worth not only as a piece of cultural importance but a true work of art.
Innocence and Sincerity
Innocence and sincerity. Come to think of it, perhaps those are the two things that, taken together, compose the warm, Christmasy feeling that I seek every year. I know that whatever that feeling is, there’s one moment I can count on having it for sure: when I watch Linus’ famous speech.
To be honest, it’s not the content of the speech that does it for me. It’s the tone. Linus simply exudes sincerity in a way I’ve rarely ever seen anywhere else. There’s no manipulative intent, no cynical attempt at irony, no frivolous attempt to grab attention for attention’s sake. Just someone communicating a story that he thinks will bring peace to a friend.
So in the world of Peanuts, innocence and sincerity lead to peace. Maybe it would work that way in our world too, if we’d ever be brave enough to try it.
In the end, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on Christmas night is my way of finding closure. It’s a reminder that the Christmas feeling I seek is real, that it’s out there, and that I can’t give up hope on being able to keep it for more than just a moment at a time. Maybe someday I’ll get to kick that metaphorical football. There’s always hope.
That’s what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown.