When my son was a pre-schooler, we watched a video of A Charlie Brown Christmas a lot. So much so, in fact, I decided to become a student of the piece. (It was either that, or smash the video with a hammer out of frustration.)
It’s an incredibly endearing and complicated cartoon. In many ways the show was a product of the era it premiered in 1965 and I’ll speak of that later. The qualities I’d like to explore first, however, are the elements that were well ahead of their time:
Anti-Commercialization. ACBC confronted the commercialism of Christmas long before it became a genuine cause. In fact, the show treated the exploitation as an established pattern with children longing for real estate and currency in denominations of tens and twenties. It was very sharp satire for the period.
Mental Health Issues / Holiday Blues. ACBC struck a blow for mental-health counseling in a time when the practice was viewed with skepticism at best. A depressed Charlie Brown stops by Lucy’s psychiatric care stand and receives some very sound advice. (The fact that Peanuts creator Charles Schultz was a depression-sufferer is surely no coincidence.)
Children as Voice-Actors. Actual children were used to speak the lines rather than adults talking like kids a revolutionary technique at that time. In fact, the show employed age-specific children in relation to their characters. Most of the kids had to learn and deliver their lines phonetically (because many were too young too read), which resulted in a unique, unpolished dialog.
A Jazz Score. ACBC features a jazz score, particularly a lounge version of Oh Christmas Tree. The choice of music was bold and unprecedented, particularly for a children’s show. ACBC probably still provides most kids with their first exposure to jazz.
No Laugh-Track. The show was produced without a laugh-track, which was unheard of for comedies and especially show-length cartoons of the 60s. This advancement helped to make the jazz score a more central part of the special.
Religious Controversy. People tend to believe that a blatantly Christian cartoon such as ACBC couldn’t be produced today for a network special. Actually, even in 1965 network executives questioned whether the program was too religious. The show was finished very close to its first announced airing (and after the original sponsor, Coca-Cola, was committed); otherwise, the special might’ve been pulled from the schedule.
As advanced as ACBC was, the special was also a product of its time:
Aluminum Trees. A running gag in ACBC regards aluminum Christmas trees. Actually, in the mid-60s aluminum trees were all the rage. Artificial trees in general were just coming into vogue, and silver aluminum trees especially were popular. Most came with a spotlight that rotated red, blue, and green so that the trees continuously changed color. I recall seeing a few when I was very young.
Lack of Minorities. No minorities are depicted in ACBC. Some are shown in later Charlie Brown specials.
Blatant Violence. The show has some violent touches that probably wouldn’t be produced today for young children. Charlie Brown gets hurled into a post. Lucy shakes a fist in her brother’s face and later throws a punch at Snoopy.
Dated Clothing. The clothing matches the mid-60s. None of the children wear athletic shoes. (In fact, some of the girls are depicted as wearing old-style saddle shoes.) All of the girls wear skirts, and none of the boys have baseball caps.
Obviously, I’ve watched the show many, many times. While my son is no longer addicted to it, I still don’t miss a chance to watch it. (Now who’s addicted?) The next time you view the special, here are some other cool elements to look for:
Linus recites a Biblical passage as a way to explain the meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown. When Linus says the words Fear not, he lets go of his security blanket.
When Charlie Brown is laughed out of the auditorium with his scrawny little Christmas tree, note how the other trees appear outside; they’re all bent as the little tree will look when Charlie Brown hangs an ornament on it.
The little girl who says Sally’s lines was especially young. She flubs one line noticeably and has a hard time speaking most of her dialog in general. It’s an adorable touch, however.
At one point while Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown in the auditorium, she calls him Charlie. That’s the only time in any of the shows that someone drops the Brown. Peppermint Patty calls him Chuck in subsequent specials, but no one ever again calls him simply Charlie.