I don’t watch TV very much and I don’t really celebrate Christmas except depending on who I’m dating at the time and if they celebrate. I do certainly admire the season though, especially if I’m spending it in an environment that’s nice and chilly and cold and bonus points if it’s snowing. It is certainly my favorite time of year. And regardless of if I’m attending a Christmas party that year or not, I’m gonna be spending more than a little bit of time watching certain favorites as a force of habit, namely holiday TV specials. Y’know, the kind that were animated and best made in the 1960s (though not by any “objective” standard. Even today, TV animation on a budget is pretty rough as is but Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion certainly tried to circumvent this). They’re short and sweet so I can watch enough to fill an hour before I sleep the night before Christmas and they’re a nice little amount of mood to continue on for the rest of the season. And I’ll especially give TV specials one thing over films:
If it weren’t for TV specials, I wouldn’t enter every winter season without the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in my head. And I’m very happy to have that be the theme song of my winters, nice and falling singular piano notes apply a melody in my head to the imagery of snowflakes gently dropping to the ground. Just one piano tune over and over, something to cement early in my life the idea that jazz is always the best Christmas music, and Vince Guaraldi was the genius to make me think that.
Guaraldi’s soundtrack – which also includes “Linus and Lucy” another very close theme song to my childhood and a children’s choir performing the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (there is also a children’s choir involved in “Christmastime Is Here” but my mind just goes to the piano underneath and its wonderful and evocative simplicity) – is not the only great thing that the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas gave me, but it is the thing that sticks most to me. If it were not for the special, I don’t see myself being so enamored with jazz at such a young age that I would find it calming or atmospheric and all through the best kind of minimalism.
If it weren’t for A Charlie Brown Christmas, I also would probably be a lot more cynical about Christmas than I actually am as an adult who has no intentions of religious alignment in his life and is in many ways actively against religious institution. I’m sure one more cynical about religion than I am could probably be dissatisfied as the makers feared with the solution to the loveable child blockhead Charlie Brown’s usual depressive woes, this time centered around the Christmas season, as simple as (SPOILERS FOR A TELEVISION SPECIAL OLDER THAN MY DAD WHICH I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WATCH FOR THE PLOT ANYMORE) the blanket-dragging child Linus reciting from the Gospel According to Luke and poof! There’s Charlie Brown’s answer to the missing meaning of Christmas, but it IS true in a literal sense and it’s a spirited and confident reading from a child! A legit child actor, Chris Shea, was able to stand and deliver the Bible communicating the full and expressive meaning of the Shepherds’ Annunciation of the Nativity of Jesus and as somebody who grew up in Islamic Sunday School watching a lot of fellow kids trying to memorize Qur’an, I can’t imagine most of my teachers would have deigned for that sort of awareness of the material and declarative reading.
That’s kind of the miracle of A Charlie Brown Christmas that makes it so pleasant for me. The entire cast from Peter Robbins as Charlie on down to Sally Dryer in a one-scene part delivering a proud insistence she never sent Charlie a “Merry Christmas” are all young children around the 9-to-11-year-old range and they have these blocks of dialogue expressing existential crises and criticisms of capitalism and “commercialism” (I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “commercialism” at their ages) that they have to deliver and they ace it with flying colors. Emphasis on the right elements while still sounding wholly like the stuff children would say with only the slightest hint of a hand tipped in maturity.
Credit it to director Bill Melendez for knowing how to direct voice acting, credit it to Charles M. Schulz – creator of the original Peanuts comic strips series that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of and writer of the special (the television special was made right at the height of the franchise’s popularity) – who would know these characters better than anybody else in the world and knows just the right amount of character and youth to imbue into the writing, credit it to whichever casting director was able to pull in this many intelligent young actors who could certainly know how to express thoughts like these, and of course credit it to these kids for pulling it off most of all and instantly sticking to our ideas of how these characters sound. The moroseness in Brown’s voice, the bold egotism in Lucy’s, these are just impossible to remove from the characters as I remember them, even when I’m just looking at the comic strip that reliably entertained me from my own childhood onward.
I am, truth be told, shocked that I’m nearing the end of my praise for my definitive work of Christmas-based pop culture and only now mentioned Melendez. Melendez’s animation work makes the best with what little they had, pushing the budget and month as far as he could, maintaining the flat 2-dimensional primitive stylizations of the hand-drawn comic strip so that it’s all in one plane, thereby establishing the style that every single Peanuts production since would have to live by lest they mess with tradition. And yet there’s still motion and spacing that Melendez is willing to play with, filling out an entire skating rink with individual (if still repeated motions) including a wonderful amount of liberty taken with Charlie’s beloved beagle Snoopy as he glides over the light blue ice (including a wonderful moment where he drags the other characters in a line all across the shimmering screen) or the memorable setpiece of everybody dancing to Linus, Pig Pen, and Snoopy playing “Linus and Lucy”. In fact, if it probably wasn’t for Melendez’s conservative usage of lines and colors in a manner that feels lovingly personal, it probably be able to sell the cuteness behind Charlie Brown’s choice of Christmas tree for the Christmas play, a lonely bent stick with barely peeking out of its branches. In a special that’s hardly the stuff of immaculate craft, this little tree that somehow means something to Charlie Brown doesn’t feel quite as bad and that means we sympathize with the care and adoration he wants his friends to give to the tree as well.
So, yeah, it’s not perfect. The audio feels like an unfinished element with missing sounds from what we’re viewing and very apparent seams where we hear what lines of dialogue are put together from separate takes (although there is a terrific gag of Snoopy giving his best impression of several different animals). And I’m sure some look for a more detailed design or fluid kind of animation from their animation, but I can’t see myself ever being dissatisfied with a Christmas night sitting down and playing this. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a television special that wants us to understand the meaning of Christmas and delivers it not just in substance but in the amount of soul that every single person involved in this special put into it. Melendez, Schulz, Guarini, and all their company gave us this one undiluted package of Christmas joy. I couldn’t feel any more merry after watching it if I tried.