I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas every year throughout my childhood. It was an actual event — this was before there were VCRs, much less DVDs or TiVo, and you had to wait an entire year before you could see it again. My family didn't celebrate Christmas and yet this Yuletide classic made a huge, lifelong impact on me. It's quite a subversive little piece of work.
The set-up is when Charlie Brown goes to his familiar brick wall and confides to Linus that he's "depressed" because he can't relate to the holiday spirit. He's alienated by the "commercialism" — a five-syllable concept I needed my parents to explain — of Christmas. That was a heady idea for an eight-year-old. In today's parlance, it occupied my mind.
Everyone around Charlie Brown has been sucked in by commercialism. For Christmas, Lucy wants "real estate"; Charlie Brown's little sister Sally wants cash — "in 10s and 20s." Even Snoopy decks out his doghouse with several gaudy box-fulls of decorations and wins first prize — "money, money, money," grumbles Charlie Brown — in the neighborhood's lights-and-display contest. Charlie Brown's alienation is so profound, he seeks psychiatric help (from Lucy, who, naturally, is more excited about collecting her five-cent fee than she is about helping her patient). His therapy is to direct the school Christmas play, a non-commercial statement of the holiday's true meaning.
(The show is larded with sarcasm, yet another intellectual conceit I was just starting to get my head around. Linus knocks his little fist on a fake Christmas tree with a hollow metallic clang and remarks, his adorable little lisp bearing all the bitterness it can muster, "This really brings Christmas close to a person.")
Commercialism, it turns out, is everywhere and has devalued everything: Lucy even complains to the piano-playing Schroeder that no musician is great unless they've been on a bubblegum card.
Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz felt this commercialism thing deeply, and his objection pervades the show in many, sometimes not-so-obvious ways. The purposely slow pace, simple artwork, deadpan humor and long silences all defy modern glitz and velocity. In Schultz's biography, producer Lee Mendelson recalled the cartoonist adamantly refusing to allow a laugh track, then de rigeur for network television comedy — Schulz, Mendelson said, wanted to "let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way." Which is entirely, ingeniously in keeping with the show's message.
Mendelson objected to Linus' speech from the Gospel of Luke, feeling it would narrow the audience for the show. Schulz insisted, and it became a classic moment in television history — and not necessarily because it directly preached Christian doctrine. That speech affected me deeply, and still does. It showed me — very, very early in life — that consumerism can infiltrate personal relationships, and even your own heart and soul, but that you can refuse and resist even the most powerful forces. All you have to do is think for yourself. It changed me forever.
It's ironic, then, that the reason why the show-closing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" fades out before the final line is that originally an announcer broke in to proclaim that this enduring ode to anti-commercialism was "Brought to you by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola!" As Charlie Brown would say… AAUGH!