It hardly seems possible that the Big Three Christmas specials of my youth – “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – still attract such large audiences nearly fifty years after their first airing. They all won their time slots again this year, with “Grinch” attracting 5.5 million viewers, “Charlie Brown” getting 7.1 million and “Rudolph” leading the bunch with 11.4 million. And these numbers are surely much higher with timeshifted ratings added in.
According to all conventional wisdom, these shows should not do so well. They are not broadcast live, have no major stars, are not edgy or ironic, and have no sex appeal. Moreover, most of the audience has seen the shows multiple times.
Obviously these classics benefit from being part of the Holiday Tradition. Many families reflexively do the same thing every year, hanging the same stockings in the same place, making the same cookies and watching the same TV specials. Still, there must be something profound about these shows to make generations watch them again and again.
Certainly the fact that all three specials are animated makes them seem timeless, with no weird haircuts or fashion choices to date them. Curiously, even with their rudimentary production values they all feel retro-modern, as if they they had been produced last year.
Of the three, my favorite is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Over the years, I have owned this in every format, from Betamax tape to VHS tape to DVR to DVD. I have the story in book form. Overall, I’ve watched this program at least 25-35 times, far more than any other TV program.
For me, nostalgia is definitely part of the appeal. I grew up in the Northeast in the 1960s and when I see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” now I think, “Yes, that’s just what it was like”: the snow, the chain link fences, that school auditorium, the absence of adults, the skating on the pond. I even had a hat with ear flaps just like Charlie Brown.
Vince Guaraldi’s music is also essential to the appeal of the show. “Christmastime is Here” is clearly the best Christmas song of the past 50 years and the rest of the soundtrack helps evoke the innocence, hope and joy of the Christmas season. And in a show that’s already slow-moving and peaceful, the music supports the mellow vibe.
But the enduring appeal of the show lies within the melancholy many of us feel at some point during the run-up to December 25. Christmas actually does feel commercialized (even more now than then!) and too many people do approach the holiday as a time of gift-getting rather than gift-giving. We all feel like Charlie Brown sometime and wonder if we understand the true meaning of Christmas.
To that end, the climax of the show – Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 – remains one of the most extraordinary and subversive moments in television history. To have an animated character spend two-and-a-half minutes of primetime network television reading from the Bible – and from the original King James version itself, no less – was a daring act of defiance on the part of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Contrary to myth, CBS did not object to the passage, but Schulz’ co-producers worried it would turn off the audience.
The “epiphany” is a literary device identified and popularized by James Joyce in “The Dubliners” and “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in which characters come to sudden recognitions that change their view of themselves or their social condition, which often spark a reversal or change of heart. This is exactly what happens to Charlie Brown and the other characters in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – Linus’ version of the Nativity story catalyzes a new understanding of Christmas, not only in the characters, but in anyone who watches the show.
I think that’s why we continue to watch – to have our own epiphanies. The deliberate pacing, combined with the mild jokes and the smooth jazz soundtrack, lowers our blood pressure, lulls us into a state of emotional vulnerability and opens us up to Linus’ revolutionary message. Merry Christmas Charlie Brown indeed!