It's easy to get bummed out by Christmas -- especially when the "holiday season," with all the crass consumerism, bad music, and awkward family gatherings -- seems to kick off earlier and earlier each year.
But only the "grinchiest" can resist the charms of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Originally aired by CBS in 1965 (ABC now airs the special), the film established Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" characters as synonymous with Christmas, capturing all the joy and lowdown of the holiday with its crude animation, mellow jazz soundtrack (courtesy of Vince Guaraldi), and decidedly traditional message.
"It's sincere," explains Peanuts historian Nat Gertler. "It's not the most beautiful, 'let's polish off every little thing' production, but it goes there; it does what it's trying to do."
Gertler manages the Peanuts news site AAUGH Blog, publishes comics (including non-Peanuts work from Schulz) through his imprint About Comics, and is responsible for Fantagraphics Books' new Peanuts Christmas collection, Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking.
The book features two never-reprinted Peanuts stories, "Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking" and "The Christmas Story," originally published in Good Housekeeping in 1963, and Women's Day in 1968, respectively. The compact book is a pleasure. And its simple green, red, and black color scheme and layout mimick Schulz's Happiness is a Warm Puppy books of the '60s.
"[Schulz] had done a Christmas book, Christmas is Together-Time, using red and green," Gertler says, explaining the minimal color palette. "We wanted to keep that simplicity and Christmas-sense in there."
There is no shortage of Christmas-related Peanuts material -- Gertler's AAUGH blog currently features an advent calendar highlighting the Top 25 Peanuts Christmas Books Which Aren't Adaptations of A Charlie Brown Christmas -- but the strips presented here are rare enough to warrant some special attention.
"It's sort of weird to call them obscure, because those magazines were selling millions back in the 1960s, when things like Good Housekeeping were huge," Gertler says, "but they got recycled, and [these strips] have gone unseen for more than the life of people who are into Peanuts today."
The collection features Linus reciting the Gospel of Luke to Snoopy, and informing the dog, "That's what Christmas is all about, Snoopy!" It's a scene familiar to fans of the animated special, though Snoopy's response, "How gauche of me not to have known that!" and worries that "all this theology" could ruin his holiday point to Schulz's keen ability to poke fun at himself while maintaining his faith.
CBS felt a bit like Snoopy when the network caught wind of the special's religious content.
"Schulz wanted to do a Christmas story directly about what Christmas is all about," Gertler says. "It's not just happiness, generic music, and things like that. Remember, back in that day, there were only a few channels. It was more important to put on something that didn't turn people away. They were probably going to watch your show unless you gave them a reason not to. It's very different than today's market, where there are so many choices at any given moment, with 'YouTubes' and 'Netflix-es.' There was a certain amount of reticence in 1960s TV, [with a prevailing attitude of] 'Well, we can't afford to offend anybody.'"
The special's sponsor, Coca-Cola, sided with Schulz, and Linus' reading of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, King James Version, aired in its entirety.
"I think in retrospect it was probably a good decision," Gertler laughs. "It's been running 47 years now. It's about to be the 48th annual showing. It's hard to second-guess at this point."
It's fitting that Peanuts strips in the '70s would poke fun at those being "loudly, overly theological."
"There were times where Schulz was willing to push back against the pushing of theology," Gertler laughs, describing a strip which features Snoopy writing a book titled, Have You Ever Considered You Could be Wrong? and one where the kids attend a religious summer camp where they are warned about the imminent end of the world, only the camp is also raising funds for a new building, to be built the next year.
Theological concerns aside, religious content of A Charlie Brown Christmas speaks to a search for greater authenticity in the holiday.
"You see that question of 'authenticity' in the Christmas tree," Gertler says. "Lucy wants a fake aluminum tree, which was actually a thing then..."
The aluminum tree, a symbol of a gaudy, showy holiday, took a P.R. beating thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, but also experienced a resurgence in popularity because of the cartoon.
"People were like, 'No, no, we need a real tree!'" Gertler says. "Then several years later people started looking for aluminum Christmas trees because they saw them on A Charlie Brown Christmas and they'd never seen one in their lives and it looked like a good idea."
Gertler continues: "The question of authenticity is central in A Charlie Brown Christmas; you want something simple, pure, and not done for financial motives. Charlie looks down on Snoopy decorating his doghouse because there's a prize to be had -- that's not the reason for it. It should be non-cynical on some level."
The sincere tone of the special continues to resonate with pop culture relevance. Wes Anderson's Royal Tenenbaums featured the special's theme on its soundtrack, and cult TV comedy Arrested Development employed the song and mannerisms of Charlie Brown and company (see if you can spot the Peanuts-inspired Easter Egg in the same episode).
"It communicates instantly," Gertler says of the Arrested Development trivia fact. "The great thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it's such a common experience now, having aired for generations."
The gag illustrates the connection A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Peanuts Christmas material like Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking make directly with viewers and readers, more than a decade after Schulz passed away in 2000.
"Schulz's view was that he was never working for children, that he was always doing Peanuts themed for adults," Gertler says. "He was running off sincere emotions. Look at the way Peanuts characters talk. It's not the way kids talk, but they way they feel is the way that kids feel."
Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking is available from Fantagraphics Books; A Charlie Brown Christmas airs on ABC 15 on Tuesday, December 18, and is available on Hulu.
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