Almost anyone who was between five and ten years old on December 9, 1965, can recall this now famous line of dialogue from A Charlie Brown Christmas (at least every kid I knew back then watched it that night it premiered). Charlie Brown stands on an empty stage in the vast school auditorium and pleads for help. At that point in the show he has been used and abused by his friends, sickened by his sister Sally’s greed (“All I want is what I having coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”), and even his dog has turned on him.
With a script written by Peanuts comic strip creator Charles M. Schulz and the venerable music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, director Bill Melendez’s now classic television special is held dear in the hearts of millions of children and former children. I believe the main reason why this cartoon special found an audience immediately and still captures new fans today is that it tells the story of one boy’s search for the meaning of Christmas. There is nothing flamboyant about this show; it is told in a rather simple format with no special effects or over the top drama. I think what makes it work so well is that it takes a child’s view of the holiday and shows that even kids can be confused by all the hype and furor surrounding it.
From the start Charlie is wondering about commercialism spoiling Christmas: “…it’s run by a big eastern syndicate.” Snoopy has taken to over-decorating his dog house in hopes of winning a contest. Charlie Brown’s mail box is empty, and his anxiety over receiving no Christmas cards reaches a breaking point when he thanks Violet for sending him a card. Of course, she tells him she hasn’t sent him one, and he explains that she doesn’t understand sarcasm (a big word for this kindergartener at the time). His reaction is a defense mechanism and then some.
Charlie Brown is a little boy who is really hurting, and kids recognize themselves in his desire to make sense of all the holiday hoopla (and if this struck kids as familiar in 1965, can you imagine how much more apropos it is now in 2005?). After being named the director of the school Christmas play, Charlie Brown hopes that he will somehow connect with the meaning of the season, but there is nothing but trouble from his cast and the “script girl” Lucy who has her own ideas about Christmas (a romance with Schroeder perhaps?). When rehearsals seem to go nowhere, Lucy suggests that Charlie Brown go buy a “big, shiny aluminum” Christmas tree.
Charlie Brown and Linus proceed to the Christmas tree lot where pink and yellow and white aluminum trees abound, but Charlie Brown has other ideas. He rejects the notion of an artificial tree in his quest to get back to the real meaning of Christmas; unfortunately, the real tree he selects (he says it “…looks like it needs a home”) is nothing more than a sprig with a few almost bare branches. Linus cautions him but Charlie Brown returns to the school and proudly shows everyone what he has purchased.
After being lambasted by Lucy and the rest of the gang, in desperation Charlie asks his famous question, and Linus comes forth, a sage with trusty blanket in tow, and says, “Lights please.” Then bathed in a spotlight, Linus begins reciting the Biblical passage (Luke 2:8-14) recalling the birth of Jesus. When he is finished Linus turns to his friend and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Now, as an adult I recently watched this show with my four year old, and I didn’t expect her to be as taken in as she was by it. She just seemed very happy with her viewing experience as she went off to bed. After tucking her in and kissing her goodnight, I wondered how come she didn’t ask why Santa Claus wasn’t in the show. Up until that point almost every Christmas special and DVD we’ve watched has somehow involved Santa. I imagined that in her little mind she had to equate Santa with Christmas more than anything else. Santa is only mentioned when Sally is writing her long letter to the jolly old elf; otherwise, Santa does not figure into the plotline.
The next morning I asked her what she thought about the movie we watched the night before. She said, “Charlie is sad; those kids are mean to him; his dog is being bad; those kids are bad to him, and the Christmas tree is nice.” Of course, she is referring to that little sprig Charlie Brown so foolishly bought: the one that, when given the right attention and care, becomes a large, vibrant tree. As Linus says, “All it needed was a little love.”
My daughter picked up on that and I was happy that she did, but I was still wondering why she didn’t miss Santa being in the show, so I asked if she was disappointed about that. She looked at me, put her hands on her hips, and frowned as she said, “No, Daddy, it was about Baby Jesus.”
And, of course, she is absolutely right. The show is about a little boy trying to find the meaning of Christmas, and in the end it actually helps other little boys (and girls) do exactly that. This Christmas special is truly special because it confronts the crass sensationalism that threatens to almost overwhelm the holiday every year; it peels back the veneer of glitter and gold and focuses on what makes Christmas really important: the birth of one small child in a bed of straw inside a barn on a cold night roughly two thousand years ago. Now, that is what Christmas is all about, my friends.