Gosh, somebody is taking a supposedly beloved holiday ritual and saying it's really awful and depressing. Who ever had that idea before? Oh, right: Charlies Schulz.
Calling bullshit on A Charlie Brown Christmas because the mood is dark is like calling bullshit on gingerbread because it's fattening. Look out the window. You have maybe four hours between lunch and sunset. In Charles Schulz's hometown of St. Paul, Minn., in this part of December, the daylight lasts eight-and-three-quarters hours. Here in New York, I was in the toy store late Sunday afternoon, dusk was falling, I hadn't bought dinner or a Christmas tree yet, and a bunch of carolers in Santa hats were set up by the cash registers, belting out seasonal numbers so loudly I couldn't hear the baby-soothing sounds that some $30 stuffed sheep was supposed to be making. How was I supposed to make a decision about soothing the baby with all that racket?
I love Christmas and Christmas is stressful as a motherfucker and A Charlie Brown Christmas is exactly right about the whole deal. I saved it on the DVR last year and my kid—my older kid, now—watched it pretty much every other day, clear past Valentine's Day. Fine with me. The kid loves Peanuts. I got him the book of all the original 1950-51 strips, where, gosh, yes, the cruelty between the children is relentless, and where Charlie Brown gives as good as he gets.
And we've got the complete collections from 1998 and 1999, the last two years of Schulz's life, which ... OK, here's a late Peanuts Christmas gag, which ran in more than 2,000 newspapers, alongside the likes of Blondie and Garfield: It stars Snoopy's brother Spike, the crazy one who lives all alone in the desert and talks to cactuses that never ever talk back, because he doesn't have a rich fantasy life, like Snoopy, where the battlefields and cafes of World War I come into being around him; he's just completely crazy and solitary and no matter how much he talks to the cactuses, they're only cactuses. So for Christmas, lonesome insane Spike climbs a saguaro, panel by panel, yelping in pain from the spines all the way, so he can put a Christmas star on top of this cactus in the middle of the desert. Here's the thought-balloon monologue: "Ouch! Ow! Ooo! Ouch! Ouch! Ow! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ow! Ouch! 'Joy to the World' Ouch!"
So, you know, A Charlie Brown Christmas is relatively upbeat. The kids are terrible? Lucy is bossy? Congratulations, you are able to comprehend the basic themes and characterizations of an animated cartoon.
What world are you coming from, where watching a depiction of meanness and despair is a surprise or a problem? You think more recent children's entertainment is an improvement on this? What, the stultifying Safe Space occupied by the meticulously engineered Dora the Explorer, whose numbed-out emotional range runs all the way from peppy enthusiasm to mild and transient dismay? Dora, the ideal citizen of the zero-tolerance state? Or do you prefer the screaming banging aggro-consumer stuff, full of pop-culture jokes and double entendres written by 28-year-old dickheads who are aiming over the purported audience at the grownups, so you can condescend toward the kids together?
The striking thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it could never, ever have gotten made in our own smug era of Open-Mindedness b/w Transgression. The culture warriors—or preemptive fear of the culture warriors—would have suppressed the whole project, from both sides. It's an all-out scathing leftist attack on commerce and capitalism, built around a faithful recitation from the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Luke. It would be unimaginable if it hadn't already been on our TVs, decade after decade.
That was Peanuts. Charles Schulz was able to put this all across—the bleakness, the anger, the fumbling and tentative hopefulness—while somehow making people think it was innocent and jolly. It was jolly, really. I've watched or overheard A Charlie Brown Christmas dozens of times—"Dog germs!!"—and I'm always glad to hear it. (When Dora comes on, I have to leave the room after a minute and a half, because it's so grating and sinister.)
A Charlie Brown Christmas understands you, even if you don't understand it. Even as Charlie Brown tramps home happily by starlight, uplifted by the radical simplicity of Linus's preaching, he sees that Snoopy's doghouse has won the gross commercialized Christmas decorating contest. And that's good for Snoopy; Snoopy doesn't have to care about Jesus. Or: You can buy a musical replica of Charlie Brown's spindly, inadequate, anti-consumerist Christmas tree from SkyMall. Charles Schulz didn't mind making a buck. He was a mad despairing genius, but he wasn't crazy. Humans are complicated, even little ones.
Earlier: Fuck You, Charlie Brown