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In Praise of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

This post has been making the rounds this week and I had to respond. Not so much because it needs defending, but because I believe this post fundamentally misunderstands Peanuts and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“F*ck You, Charlie Brown.” Poor Charles Schultz would cringe to see that; he was a pretty old fashioned guy for whom outbursts like “Darn it!” were strong language. But these days, when coarseness and vulgarity are the order of the day, Schultz is an anachronism. He grew up in Minnesota after all, where being nice is the state religion.

What Peanuts brought to the funny pages was only rarely more than mildly funny, but the occasional wry chuckle it evoked was just a spoonful of sugar to make the strip’s exploration of human failings more palatable. Charlie Brown was insecure and depressed, a victim of the thoughtless cruelty of his friends and his own self-doubt. Lucy was sadistic, self-centered and vain. Linus was in his own world, clinging to his blanket and sucking his thumb. Peppermint Patty was well-meaning but clueless, oblivious to the embarrassment her misguided, blustery invasion of Charlie Brown’s life caused him. Snoopy was just plain nuts, a chymera of doggish impulses and fantasy. Schroeder was self involved, and the only person whose indifference could wound Lucy emotionally.

These characters were the only ones with any emotional authenticity in the funny pages. Peanuts could be occasionally jokey, but it always had heart. Schulz was a committed Christian — one of the real ones who actually worried about what Jesus would do, instead of wearing a plastic bracelet about it. The Peanuts kids had conflicts, indulged in each of the Seven Deadly Sins, but they each had a saving grace: Linus’ compassion, Lucy’s fearlessness, Charlie Brown’s humility, Sally’s innocence, Peppermint Patty’s good cheer. Moreover, Schulz’ treated his characters with loving kindness, even as he looked directly at their failings.

All of the qualities that made Peanuts special were on display in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe you had to be there, but when this show came out in 1965, it was a revelation. There were kids who were sad, angry, cruel, vain, and silly. If you’d grown up on Frosty The Snowman, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and even Miracle Of 34th Street, you were used to candy-colored fantasies and, not to put too fine a point on it, being lied to. Peanuts kids were like the children you knew. They felt real, and you could share their point of view.

There was funny bits, like the Snoopy Dance, and oddly touching stuff, like Linus’ long quote from Luke 2. The message of A Charlie Brown Christmas was that people can set aside their differences and baser impulses and join in community, with compassion for each other and shared joy.

As a Thomas Jefferson Christian, I have learned to appreciate what feels like the true Christian spirit of caritas and let all the supernatural stuff slide. Life and history are stories we tell each other, and reality (as Paul told the Corinthians) is essentially unknowable. Peanuts illustrated the uncertainty, loneliness, and anxiety of life, but also the loving kindness that is the only thing (as Paul said) that abides.

Another thing about Drew Magary’s post: he dismisses the work of Vince Guaraldi as “horrible slow Jazz.” Dude, seriously. I’m admittedly biased because my dad commissioned an orchestral arrangement of the Guaraldi’s music for the Peanuts special, called “The Charlie Brown Suite”, which Guaraldi performed with my dad conducting. Guaraldi used to come to parties at our house and play my mom’s Steinway, before climbing underneath and falling asleep.

“Christmastime is Here” is my favorite modern Christmas song, and Guaraldi’s version of “O Tannenbaum” rescues it from a million hideous Muzak rendition. “Linus and Lucy” is as close to perfect as a Jazz pop song can be. His “A Child Is Born” (Greensleeves) extrapolates the traditional chord sequence into something unexpected and exciting. I loved this music as a child, and as an adult I hear a rare emotional depth in it.

As my Grandmother taught me, it’s impolite to say “I don’t like tomatoes.” One should rather say “I don’t care for tomatoes, thank you.” It’s OK to not enjoy the Peanuts TV specials. Frankly they started out strong with the Christmas and Halloween specials and devolved into annoying kicking-a-dead-horse potboilers. But if you can’t appreciate a work of art in the spirit in which it was intended, “F*ck you” seems like a pretty mean way to address it.

8 replies on “In Praise of “A Charlie Brown Christmas””

It’s OK to have an opinion about something without having a complete context for it. That’s rather a requirement for navigating life — making judgements based on incomplete information. The problem with that Deadspin dude, is that he probably didn’t give a thought to Guaraldi’s music, other than as another part of A Charlie Brown Christmas to sneer at.

BTW, if you want some inside dope on Guaraldi — the guy who wrote the Charlie Brown Suite, Lynn Shurtleff, originally wrote it in ‘standard’ orchestral keys like C and G. Guaraldi didn’t read music, and his comfort zone was ‘black notey’ keys like Eb and Ab, so Shurtleff had to transpose the whole score and recopy parts — in the days before computer music typesetting.

Kent — understood. I was thinking more of folks who, because “smooth jazz” (Kenny G, et. al.) is garbage, have decided that _all_ jazz is noodly wallpaper.

True. But at least Kenny G provided the sample for one of Marumari’s best tracks “Baby M”

i’m not religious and tend to dislike anything christmas-related… i also tend to dislike Peanuts because i take Charlie Brown’s suffering too personally… which is why i had to say i really appreciated your brief analysis of Peanuts as a whole. it’s really quite smart. good work. it almost makes me want to go read some Peanuts ;-)

I read that your dad commissioned an orchestral arrangement of “Charlie Brown Suite”… I am looking for the sheet music score/parts for study and performance, do you know who I should contact to get more information and possibly obtain the music?

I will ask my dad about Charlie Brown Suite scores. The man who actually wrote/arranged it in collaboration with Guaraldi is a man named Lynn Shurtleff. He is still around, but I don’t have contact information about him.

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