'Rudolph,' 'Charlie Brown,' and 'The Grinch: Will the great American trilogy of Christmas specials work on a newcomer? (PART 2)

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Hillary: Just think — if Santa knew about headlights, Rudolph would have remained a pariah his whole life!

And sure, I’m happy to change the subject to good ol’ Charlie Brown — or should I say poor, miserable Charlie Brown, who has to be the most melancholy Christmas icon of all time. From the first mournful bars of “Christmas Time Is Here,” I was totally sold on this special, which forgoes simple linear storytelling for something more episodic and dreamy. Between the show’s structure and its perennially downtrodden lead, I actually thought Charlie Brown felt more like an animated, kid-friendlier episode of Louie than anything else. (Clearly, I’m not the only person to have made this connection.)

Actually, wait: I don’t know if I really think Charlie Brown is kid-friendly. Though its characters are, nominally, children, they mostly speak and act like adults, and the special’s themes — the commercialization of Christmas; Charlie Brown’s low-grade depression, which sounds a whole lot like seasonal affective disorder — are about a hundred times more grown-up than Yukon Cornelius. As I watched Lucy wish for a stocking stuffed with real estate deeds and Charlie moan, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” I couldn’t help wondering whether an actual child would be as enchanted by this special as I was. The very reason I liked Charlie Brown was because it was so weirdly sad and mature; I’m pretty sure that if I had watched it when I was a Ren and Stimpy-obsessed elementary schooler, its nuances would have been completely lost on me.

So tell me, Darren — as a kid, did you like Charlie Brown? And do you think it’s actually meant for anyone young enough not to know what a “big eastern syndicate” might be?

Darren: I loved A Charlie Brown Christmas growing up — but I’m pretty sure the vast majority of it went sky-high over my head. In my memory, the special really stuck with me because it conjured a vivid world that felt like my own childhood. Charles M. Schulz’s semi-abstract small town felt about two doors down from my own slightly-less-abstract suburban town. The characters’ concerns about Christmas were my own concerns: presents, letters to Santa, the annual Christmas play, tree-shopping. Also, I dance exactly like Linus, present-tense intended.

Viewed as an adult, though, I think you have the right take: There’s something appealingly modern and Louie-esque about Charlie Brown as a character, the only kid who feels depressed during what’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year. Since basically every adult I know feels stressed out during the holidays — family, ugh, shopping, ugh, unrealistic societal expectations, aaugh!!! — Charlie Brown’s search for the “true meaning of Christmas” is an emotional journey we can all take.

But I’d be intrigued to know, Hillary: Did the ultimate message of Charlie Brown resonate with you? Do you even think there is a message? Is it weird that the kids magically turn the runty little tree into a beautiful Christmas tree, which seems to destroy the intrinsic thesis that runty little trees need love specifically because they’re not beautiful? And is it difficult to figure out how Charlie Brown could come off as such an anti-consumerist hippie pinko just one year after he exhorted the benefits of the 1964 Ford Falcon?

Hillary: You know, I was moved by Charlie Brown’s ultimate message. Even though I’m Jewish, Linus’s simple reading of that passage from the Gospel of Luke touched me — as I’m sure it’s touched plenty of Christians who deplore the materialism and secularization of most modern Christmas entertainments. That said, it also sort of came out of left field — Charles Schulz was religious? Is Charlie Brown really supposed to be a modern-day Job?! Discuss.

It’s pretty bold, though, for the special to explicitly state that the “true meaning of Christmas” is, you know, the birth of Christ — unlike basically every other mainstream Xmas special ever made. In a weird way, I really appreciated Linus’s straightforwardness. Though I never felt left out as a kid while the vast majority of Americans celebrated Christmas, I always did resent the TV shows and movies that asserted the holiday was some sort of universal celebration with no real religious trappings. (To wit, here’s Uncle Jesse in Full House’s “Very First Christmas Show”: “Christmas isn’t about presents or Santa Claus or cows. It’s about a feeling. It’s about people. It’s about us forgetting about our problems and reaching out to help other people.” Dude, it’s called Christmas, not Peoplemas.)

So thumbs up on that. The anti-commercialism stuff, though, rang a little more falsely; I had never seen that car commercial before, but I have spotted plenty of shirts and mugs and Pez dispensers decked out with Peanuts characters. Then again, I guess most of that merchandise features Snoopy — the brand’s most obviously commercial character — rather than commie pinko Charlie Brown.

Oh, and one more thing: I hereby retract my harsh words about Vince Guaraldi and his jazzy soundtrack, which is in no way bland enough for a dentist’s office. (Unless that dentist is a grown-up Schroeder, who gave up his dreams of classical music stardom long ago.) The way the music underscored the entire special without pause was really interesting, and I appreciated finally hearing “Linus and Lucy” in context. Does it please you to see me eat a piece of humble pie?

Darren: There’s a whole sub-conversation to be had about the history of Peanuts, and how the comic strip became less sharp, less cynical, and more obviously kid-friendly over the years — basically, as it became less about Charlie Brown and more about Snoopy. (By comparison, imagine if Seinfeld gradually morphed into a show about Kramer’s crazy schemes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) That evolution is reflected in the Charlie Brown TV specials, which got way goofier as they went along. (Five words: It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown.)

So, as much as it pleases me to see you admit you were wrong, DEAD WRONG about the great Vince Guaraldi, I’m actually more happy to see that A Charlie Brown Christmas is exactly as pure, unadorned, and weird as I remember it. Even the Bible quote feels relatively universalist in context. The key line which Linus ends on is “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to men.” Speaking as a lapsed Catholic, I agree with the second half of that sentence — so who cares if I have doubts about the first half?

That said, I think you’re hitting on one of the most interesting things about the whole Christmas Special subgenre: They all have to have a message, but that message also has to be broadly appealing, and the end result is that the message becomes a vaguely defined ode to Being Excellent to Each Other. This might be why A Charlie Brown Christmas resonates so much. It’s basically a series of episodes of Charlie Brown having frustrated conversations, followed by a speech by Linus, followed by a very brief happy moment in Charlie Brown’s life when people don’t completely hate him, followed by singing. (If you followed the 3eanuts rule and cut it off a minute early, it would be a sad French farce.)

In context, the message seems to be: “Christmas is a time when life becomes very annoying, and then more annoying, and then briefly magical. So enjoy that last bit.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CBS top brass apparently didn’t think very much about the special when they first got a look at it, for all the reasons we like it: Too slow, too weird, too much jazz, etc. So chalk this one up as another win for the misfits!

But that brings us to the biggest misfit of them all, Hillary. After a pair of specials about characters who literally and figuratively save Christmas, what did you think of the Grinch’s attempt to steal the holiday away from those smug Whos down in Whoville?

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