Year after year, when readers of newspapers or Web sites are asked to choose their all-time favorite Christmas special, it is almost always “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
And there are good reasons for that, even though, when it comes to holiday perennials, the competition posed by a handful of other beloved animated specials is stiff. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” came out in 1965, during a period of several years in which the most fondly remembered Christmas specials were produced: “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” (1964), narrated by Burl Ives; “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966), featuring the voice of Boris Karloff; “Frosty the Snowman” (1969 – Jimmy Durante); and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1970 – Fred Astaire).
Those other ones all rate high on people’s personal lists (particularly Baby Boomers who were kids back then), but “A Charlie Brown Christmas” stands alone. Here’s why:
The glory that was “Peanuts”: One of the pleasures of watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is listening to the dialogue, much of which had already appeared in print in the newspaper comic strips written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz. The peculiar dialogue is what made “Peanuts” so great: Here was this cute comic strip featuring a bunch of small children, but the children talked like adults. Thus, you have Charlie Brown – what was he? A first-grader? – talking like a grown-up about how depressed he is about the commercialism afflicting Christmas. It’s just priceless.
Art and craft: At first glance, this animated creation seems simple enough. But when you look closely, you discover that some of the artwork that was made for this cartoon was truly special. Our favorite example: The Christmas tree scene, in which Charlie Brown and Linus go shopping for a tree and find a “grove” of hollow aluminum Christmas trees done up in all kinds of abstract colors and patterns. Of course, the wilder the aluminum trees were, the more Charlie Brown’s choice stood out: A tiny, homely “real” tree already losing what was left of its needles.
Linus and Lucy: And oh, that music. The original music for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was composed by Vince Guaraldi, who scored 16 “Peanuts” TV specials and died in 1976 at the age of 47. The most famous piece is the jazz-piano music that’s come to be known as “The ‘Peanuts’ Theme,” but whose actual name is “Linus and Lucy.”
Charles Schulz, the man who put Christ back in Christmas: Here’s the thing that really sets “A Charlie Brown Christmas” apart – not only from the other Christmas specials of its era, but from most of television generally: Linus’ recital of an actual passage from the New Testament about the birth of Christ (it was seven verses of Luke – Chapter 2, Verses 8-14). It was revolutionary then and would be today. TV networks, then as now, tend to shy away from subject matter you might describe as “specifically religious.” But Schulz, who was a religious man, insisted upon the passage’s inclusion and CBS acquiesced after first resisting. It’s likely Schulz was well-aware of the power he possessed: “Peanuts” was a pop culture phenomenon, especially by the mid-1960s, and this was to be his comic strip’s first TV special. The last thing CBS wanted was to lose it to another network.
And the rest is history. After a number of years, CBS relinquished the rights to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and they were obtained by ABC, which airs the special several times between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Where do you place “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the pantheon of beloved Christmas specials? Have you watched it yet this season?