“What Is Christmas All About?”: A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Aired on December 9, 1965 on CBS, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first television special stemmed from the popular four-column comic strip, Peanuts. Although CBS was not particularly optimistic about the TV movie, in particular about its religious message, it was a great success. Almost half of America’s televisions tuned into the half-hour program, and letters poured into Coca Cola, the sponsor, to express the viewers’ gratitude. Together, the producer Lee Mendelson, director Bill Melendez, Charles M. Shultz, and composer/musician Vince Guaraldi created one of the most popular Christmas special in television history.

The plot is a cute story about the depressed Charlie Brown, frustrated with commercialism taking over the holiday, looking for the true meaning of Christmas.

Charlie Brown: I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

Linus Van Pelt: Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy's right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest.

He goes to Lucy’s psychiatrist’s stand for advice. At Lucy’s suggestion that he needs to be involved in something (and the school play needs a director), he agrees to direct the play and hopes to find meaning in the involvement.

The rehearsal, however, goes rather terribly. Lucy wants to be the Queen, the music was too jazzy instead of Christmas-y, and the dusty room ruins Frieda’s curly hair.

As Charlie Brown and Linus set out to find a tree, they brings back a sad, evergreen tree that brings more ridicule. With desperation, Charlie Brown shouts “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

To answer his question, Linus, who is often the philosopher among the characters, reads from the Scripture. Charlie Brown’s faith is temporarily restored and goes home to decorate the tree. The tree however collapses and send him into another despair. His friends then shows up to decorate the tree. They shout “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” and sing together. All is well again!

While this story sounds cute and naive, the religious message directly from the Scripture, spoken by Linus, reveals the turmoil in the 1960s.

As Stephen Lind explains in his book A Charlie Brown Religion, the 1960s was a tension-filled decade. Going through the Cold War, Civil Rights Movements, War on Poverty, the United States was facing many changes, and authorities, including the Church, were challenged and reexamined.

Including the Biblical scripture was a bold move insisted by Schulz.

The end result was surprisingly well-received. Many viewers embraced the rare focus on a religious message, perhaps because most of other programs either shied away from religious messages or brought them up in passing.

While the religious message answers Charlie Brown’s question, the drama surrounding the Christmas trees elucidates the market trend at the time. Many viewers in the twenty-first century might not realize that the shiny, pink trees that Charlie Brown decides not to buy are aluminum, not plastic, as hinted by the clunk sound the tree makes.

As Lind points out, the popular trend at that time was to use aluminum trees; when Linus is surprised when he sees the evergreen tree, he exclaims, “do they still make wooden Christmas tree?” Charlie Brown’s choosing a natural treealbeit a sad little onepoints to the market’s starting to turn from artificial trees back to real ones. 

Music and its Meaning in A Charlie Brown Christmas

Besides the religious meaning, what is Christmas all about? To me, the music, composed by Vince Guaraldi and performed by him (piano, Hammond organ, arrangement), Jerry Granelli (drums), and Fred Marshall (double bass), gives us some more clues.

The combination of jazz and traditional music suggests that Christmas is about the perfect mixture of tradition and novelty, an attitude that accepts and welcomes changes.

Also, many songs portray children’s friendshiplove is always the central theme of Christmas. Let’s take a look at five of my favorite tracks and they show the new, the old, and the friendship.

The tradition and the friendship

"Christmas Time Is Here" by Vince Guaraldi

This song opens the movie, with children skating. The song of a more traditional style brings forth the old style, and the children skating together points to the warm feeling of being with the loved ones.

To make the recording, Vince Guaraldi recruited children from the children’s choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. They were treated ice cream after the recording was completed, and each was given $5 for every session. Although they were not professional singers, their voice was just the perfect fit for this song of purity and simplicity.

"Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" by Charles Wesley

This song again symbolizes the traditional Christmas, but, with a new arrangement, the spirit of new and old is at play. The pure, not-necessarily-professional children’s voices are almost otherworldly. The combination of voice and Hammond organ brings a simple, elegant joy, evoking the Christmas spirit. (If you want to hear its original classical version, we have a video tutorial performing and teaching it. 

The novelty and the friendship

"Linus and Lucy" by Vince Guaraldi

This song opens with cheerful melody and upbeat rhythm. The middle section, in which the piano improvises, evokes a free spirit that is not necessarily Christmas. But it is too brief to be distracting. When the music returns to the opening, almost festive, section, my mind can see the children dancing on stage again. The song brings a new spirit to this traditional holiday.

Moreover, even though the rehearsal does not go well, the friendship among the children is a reminder of the Christmas spirit. Although this song is too jazzy for Charlie Brown, it is THE Christmas music to me and probably many others, perhaps because of its symbol of novelty and friendship.

"Skating" by Vince Guaraldi

This is another jazzy song. A falling motif opens the song and is repeated throughout the song, seemingly portraying the falling snow. Again, an improvisational middle section breaks away from the Christmas spirit but is nonetheless lively and refreshing. The music quickly returns to the opening section with the falling motif, recalling the winter scene, in which children are skating. Winter, happy children, music—some of the reminders of Christmas.

The Beethoven

"Für Elise" by Ludwig van Beethoven

This is perhaps not traditional Christmas music, but it’s Beethoven! Beethoven goes with any holidays! Plus, Beethoven is Schroeder’s signature. As Lucy complains, “What has Beethoven got to do with Christmas? Everyone talks about how ‘great’ Beethoven was. Beethoven wasn't so great. . . . He never got his picture on bubblegum cards, did he? Have you ever seen his picture on a bubblegum card? Hmmm? How can you say someone is great who's never had his picture on bubblegum cards?” To this, Schroeder says, “Good Grief!”

What's Christmas all about?

So what’s Christmas all about? Over fifty years after the television special aired, this holiday still seems quite commercialized. As Linus says, “Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” But, maybe with friends, music, and an attitude to embrace changes, the holiday can bring some warmth and sweet memories to us all. This Christmas, perhaps re-watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with your loved ones!

Sources:

“A Charlie Brown Christmas, Quotes.” IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059026/quotes. Accessed 15 December 2016.

Lind, Stephen J. A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz. The University Press of Mississippi, 2015.

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