It’s never really the holiday season until A Charlie Brown Christmas airs. It’s my favorite holiday special and made me think that I might actually like jazz. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t look back on that fondly, but Skating is probably my favorite Christmas song of all time so I’m sure it isn’t some weird The Graduate/Lord of the Flies hybrid with both Christian proselytizing and granola-crunching, anti-consumerism hippiness all topped off with dated cultural references. That would be weird.
(By the way, this is the full-length, original version and not that hacked up one they show now because they have to get more commercials in than they did in 1965. So there’s extra dated goodness.)
We open on snowblobs falling as the children are skating in a tight circle on a huge pond as a funeral dirge plays in the background. Oh, no. That’s a “Christmas” song called, unconvincingly, Christmastime Is Here. No wonder those kids hate each other so much. Spoiler?
As the other kids skate, Charlie Brown and Linus decide to go for a walk, at night, in the dead of winter, while it’s snowing. Don’t these kids have parents? Anyway, they walk through the unplowed streets and take up residence on a wall to mull the meaning of Christmas. Charlie Brown and his prematurely sagging eyes is feeling melancholy because of the holidays. This was in 1965 so they didn’t know what seasonal affective disorder was or that all you had to do to treat it was sit two feet from a klieg light. So instead, all Charlie Brown can do is talk about it to his friend Linus, who’s bored out of his mind by Charlie Brown’s whining that he’s sucking his thumb and catching a short nap.
Eventually, Charlie Brown’s droning about his depression wakes Linus and they continue their walk to nowhere as Charlie Brown continues to complain. I know we’re supposed to identify with the lonely boy, but he really is kind of a drag. Even Linus thinks so and tells him that only he could take a wonderful time like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Charlie Brown’s the only one who can hear the funereal music? Seriously, where’s Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus when you need it? Then Linus plunges the dagger deeper into Charlie Brown, telling him that “Maybe Lucy’s right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.” Et tu, Linus?
So Charlie Brown and Linus finally make their way to the giant, frozen pond where the kids are still skating in the crowded clump, listening to that Morrissey-sounding Christmas song when Snoopy slides up and punks all the kids. First he forms a human chain and whips them around until he spies Linus and his blanket, grabs on and drags poor Linus around the ice before wrapping Charlie Brown up in it. He yanks them around for a while before flipping Charlie Brown into a snowbank and knocking him silly when he slams into a tree. Y’all. Snoopy kind of sucks.
Charlie Brown’s watching the snow still fall, even though it’s the next day but in Peanutsville the snow never covers front doors or cars or ices over causing you to fall and bruise your tailbone, it just falls in giant blobs without ever landing. That Natalie-Merchant-sounding, morose Christmas song is still playing as he surreptitiously goes out to his mailbox to see that no one has sent him a card. Despite not expecting a card, Charlie Brown is still just a little boy so it makes him sad and he actually says, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” How did I not spend every Christmas vacation bawling my eyes out over how sad and lonely Charlie Brown is?
Still, he forges on when he sees Violet smiling as she’s reading a Christmas card. He decides he’s going to guilt her by “thanking” her for the card she sent him, but the kids in Peanutsville act like they live in Thunderdome and she just snots at him that she didn’t send him one then walks off. Charlie Brown keeps on walking, passing Pig Pen, a filthy little boy who probably reeks and yet HE has friends, and Snoopy, busy reading the paper and chomping on his stack of bones. Charlie Brown seems surprised by this, but isn’t Snoopy his dog? Cesar Millan would not approve of this role reversal, Charlie Brown.
FINALLY, the greatest Christmas song ever, Skating, kicks in and the children aren’t as morose. They’re trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues and I have so many fond memories of doing that. If you’ve never lived in a snowy place, I’m sorry. I can still vividly remember looking out my bedroom window after it snowed all night but before the plows cleared the streets. We lived on a canal and I could see through to the street on the other side and the whole neighborhood would be blanketed in white while little icicles started forming on the branch outside my window and would sparkle in the sunlight. That’s what Skating reminds me of.
Linus thinks the snowflakes need sugar, but Lucy complains that she NEVER eats December snowflakes she waits until January. Then she remembers she’s only eight years old and throws snowballs at an empty can. Schroder and Charlie Brown join in but they all miss, so Linus decides to show them what’s what by wrapping a snowball in his blanket and using it like a slingshot. Then he sashays off as Lucy complains about how special he thinks he is with his blanket. Those two are weird.
Oh, geez. That awful Leonard-Cohen-sounding Christmas song starts up again reminding Charlie Brown he’s depressed. He walks over to Lucy’s psychiatric booth. Lucy runs over and clears off the snow, and flips her sign to say “The Doctor is real in.” Groovy times, Daddy-O. Groovy times.
Charlie Brown starts to talk about what a downer he is because of Christmas, but Lucy’s shaking her can in his face, telling him to pay in advance. He fishes around in his pocket and finds the nickel he needs to get horrible advice from a mean little girl. Before she’ll listen, though, she has to wax profound about what a beautiful sound change makes because it sounds like money.
With that out of the way, she’s ready to listen. He goes into his spiel but she cuts him off to tell him that the mere fact that he knows he has a problem means he’s not too far gone. Then she rattles off a bunch of fears that might afflict Charlie Brown until she lands on pantophobia, which is not a fear of bad British comedy as I thought. It’s a fear of everything. Charlie Brown has a eureka moment that sends Lucy flying into the snow.
But now that he’s managed to shut her up briefly, he continues on that Christmas depresses him. Lucy manages to land on a good piece of advice and tells him he needs involvement. She suggests he direct the Christmas play. They already have all the performers in place, they just need someone to direct it. Charlie Brown gets all googly-eyed at the idea but is a little scared since he has no experience, and these are some feral kids. Lucy says she’ll help him and then tries to bond that Christmas depresses her, too, because all she ever gets are toys or clothes or a bicycle but what she really wants is “real estate.” Was this the blueprint for The Graduate? So much jadedness and ennui for a bunch of third graders.
Snoopy saunters back past Lucy and Charlie Brown carrying a large box of decorations so Charlie Brown follows his dog to his dog house to see what the beagle is getting up into this time. He has about five boxes of decorations splayed around the doghouse while he puts up lights. Charlie Brown, who’s lost all control of his own dog, wonders what it’s about. It’s about the true meaning of Christmas: a light and decoration contest with a money, money, money, cash prize. Charlie Brown’s disgusted at Snoopy, but this was before people were brawling over waffle irons.
Charlie Brown leaves his dog to wallow in his gross materialism because he has to get to the school to direct the play. Sally corners her brother to help her write a letter to Santa. She’s very sweet, asking Santa how his summer was, but she quickly segues into firing off a long list of presents she wants because she was extra good this year, then she decides to make it easy on Santa and asks for cash, lots of it, saying “All she wants is her fair share.” She is the 99%.
Over at the school, Schroder’s playing Christmas Is Coming, with Snoopy on guitar and Pig Pen on stand-up bass, so all the little Lord of the Flies kids can do their weird, ritualistic dances. My favorite is Shermie’s sleep-walking zombie dance and Violet’s shadow boxing. Lucy calls them to order so she can announce that Charlie Brown’s the play’s director and he’ll be there any minute. Violet says they’re doomed but the kids all applaud when Charlie Brown comes in. The only booing is from Snoopy. Told you that dog kind of sucked. Charlie Brown has notes he wants to read to the cast, explaining his stage directions and trying to inspire them, but Christmas Is Coming starts back up and the kids are back to dancing and ignoring Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown lets them go on for a while but snaps them to attention, asking “the script girl” to hand out the costumes. He does realize he’s just a figurehead for them to blame, right? Well, Lucy indulges him and hands out the different costumes while the children reinforce their different types. The animators realize this is supposed to be a children’s special so they have Lucy ask Snoopy if he can play all the barnyard animals, including a penguin. Then he sits on her head like a vulture. This sends Lucy into one of her bossy fits about how they have to listen to the director which prompts Snoopy to mock her. But when she threatens to slug him he licks her and she runs around screaming about dog germs. That was my favorite scene when I was in first grade because six-year-olds aren’t very bright.
While Lucy’s screaming like a loon Charlie Brown tries to get them back on track telling her to continue handing out the scripts. She gets to Linus and yells at him to get rid of his blue blanket while handing him an orange one. Then she bosses him around telling him to memorize his lines but when he gets shirty with her to give him one good reason to memorize them she says she’ll give him five, making a fist and threatening to beat him up. It gets better?
Lucy’s finished bullying the other kids and threatening her little brother, so Charlie Brown tries to direct. First he asks Schroder to set the tone with music, but he starts up Christmas Is Coming again so Charlie Brown puts the kibosh on that. Then he tries to get Frieda and Pig Pen to rehears their lines but he’s filthy and she’s vain so she’s just worried his filth will ruin her naturally curly hair. Charlie Brown talks out of his butt about it being the dirt of ancient Babylon and Pig Pen likes that theory, but Frieda calls him an “absolute mess” and makes him look at himself. Like any little boy, he’s not seeing the problem.
After Charlie Brown quickly alienates Linus by assigning Sally to be his “wife,” Lucy calls lunch break because Diva Snoopy’s playing soccer with his food bowl. Charlie Brown thinks they need to get serious and rehearse but this just reminds Lucy that she, as the Christmas Queen, doesn’t have a part in the play. Then she tries to make Charlie Brown tell her she’s beautiful, and don’t go down that road, Charlie Brown. It leads to ice picks and boiled bunnies. Lucy storms off and Charlie Brown tries to get the show back on track.
But, again, they’re eight years old and probably have been on a steady diet of Christmas cookies and candies so they all start dancing again. Kids, they’re the worst. Lucy’s insane so she’s already gotten over her hissy fit because she loves the cool jazz that Schroder throws down. Charlie Brown, though, wants them to concentrate on the play. But no one ever listens to him, so this wasn’t as good an idea as I thought.
Lucy wonders what’s wrong with Charlie Brown, and he thinks they’re approaching it all wrong. Lucy gets real with him pointing out it’s all a commercial racket and it’s run by an Eastern syndicate, which I think might be a cold war joke but also might be a dig at the liberal elite. Charlie Brown just wants to set the right mood so he suggests they get a tree. Lucy LOVES that idea because they can get a shiny, aluminum tree. I’ll assume that was a thing in the 60s. They all agree that Charlie Brown should go and buy the biggest, shiniest, aluminum tree he can find and the Lord of the Flies starts coming out when some random girl tells Charlie Brown to do something right for a change. But if she would look at the title card, it’s called A Charlie Brown Christmas not Some Random, No-Name Girl with a Plaid Bow Christmas so zip it, No-Name Girl.
Charlie Brown and Linus set out, from school, unsupervised, after dark, looking for an aluminum Christmas tree, and where are all the adults? This is how they become feral, people. Next thing you know they’re eating jelly beans and toast for Thanksgiving and inviting over those Birkenstock wearing girls from down the street. Linus suggest they follow the giant searchlights, but why would they sell metal trees from an outdoor lot? Didn’t they see A Christmas Story? Small boys and cold metal are a bad combination.
They find their way, alone and in the dark, to the Christmas tree lot and it’s filled to the gills with pastel painted trees. It’s like someone vomited an entire Sanrio store on them. Linus is another tree-hugging, anti-consumerism hippy like Charlie Brown so they bond over how much better they are than pink aluminum trees. Because nothing brings people closer than bonding over how much better they are than everyone else.
And then we get to the heart of what we all remember about this special and not all the 60s weirdness and Charles Schultz own NorCal granola crunching: Charlie Brown and Linus spy the lonely little real pine tree amid the aluminum monstrosities. Eschewing the ecological concerns about cutting down live trees for Christmas, Charlie Brown decides he wants to take the real tree, even though Linus implies he’ll get killed for it once he gets back to Thunderdome Elementary. He makes the executive decision as director to get the naked little tree because it needs him. Ah yes, ascribing human feelings to inanimate objects. The tree sheds some needles in protest.
As Charlie Brown, Linus and their real tree head back to face destiny, Lucy’s replenishing her evil supply by lounging on Schroder’s piano while he plays Für Elise. Lucy puts the “ass” in class and doesn’t like the song. She doesn’t think Beethoven was great because he never had his picture on bubblegum cards. Realizing it’s a losing battle Schroder starts tinkling away at some jazz because eight year olds like that better? Maybe not, but obnoxious beagles do and Snoopy slinks on over to the piano to start dancing his little heart out. This does not amuse them so he slinks back off.
As Schroder tries to play Für Elise, again, Lucy asks him to play Jingle Bells instead. He’s in the holiday mood so he does, but it’s too fancy and East Coast Elite for her so she turns into Bill O’Reilly barking that he doesn’t get it at all, she wants to hear Jingle Bells. This sets Schroder’s Keith Olbermann loving heart into overdrive so he plinks out the basic tune like he’s playing a toy piano, but Lucy’s too smart for him, because that’s what she wanted to hear.
Charlie Brown and Linus are back with their sad, little, real tree just in time for the Joan-Baez-sounding Christmas song starts up again signaling bad things on the horizon. Charlie Brown puts the tree on Schroder’s piano, prompting it to shed a few more needles while the kids congregate around Charlie Brown in case he wants to escape.
Before poor Charlie Brown can even take off his coat, Violet’s already calling him stupid, while Lucy wonders if he even knows what a good tree is and the no-named girl and Frieda call him hopeless. Yay, Christmas! Having nearly fully shamed him, they all, including Snoopy his DOG but not including Linus, walk off, laughing at him derisively. He concedes that Linus was right about the tree and then loses what little self esteem he has by saying everything he does is a disaster, plaintively wondering what Christmas is all about. Linus says he knows, taking center stage and ordering a spotlight (Who was working the lights?) to tell his story. Was Linus always such a diva?
Umm, then he starts proselytizing, giving his testimony about unto this day in the city of David a baby shall be born, peace on earth, good will toward all men, and I had no idea that Linus was Tim Tebow. When he’s finished, he ignores the awkward silence and walks over to Charlie Brown to tell him that’s what Christmas is all about. The he starts sucking his thumb, in case we forgot he’s only six.
All Charlie Brown wanted was one friend not to call him a blockhead, but Linus’ speech filled Charlie Brown with Christmas joy so he takes his little tree and walks off to the jazzed up, bittersweet strains of O Tannenbaum, metaphorically flipping off all those little feral kids he’s been trying to impress. The kids kind of realize they’re all a bunch of jerks and follow him.
He keep walking, smiling and cradling his little tree, while the little jerks trail behind him. He stops to look at the sky full of stars while remembering Linus’ words and he won’t let the other kids bring him down. He’ll take his little tree home, and decorate it and prove to them that it’s a good tree. As he first starts to skip home but then jogs down his street my vision is suddenly a little blurry. I can’t figure out why.
Charlie Brown gets home to see that Snoopy’s garishly decorated doghouse, which may or may not have a BDSM theme going on, has won first prize. He’s briefly repulsed but decides to use Snoopy’s decorations for his tree. As soon as he hangs one ornament, though, it droops from the weight and Charlie Brown runs off, doubting himself again.
Once gone, the wandering horde arrives. They gawk at the sad, little tree but Linus thinks it’s not that sad, it just needs some love. As he straightens the tree and wraps his blanket around the stump the other children deconstruct Snoopy’s work to decorate the tree. Through love and animation the tree grows about a hundred new branches to accommodate the decorations.
Lucy proclaims that while Charlie Brown might be a blockhead he did get a good tree and then the children start baying Hark the Herald Angels Sing. This prompts Charlie Brown to come running out, wondering why they can’t just leave him alone. Instead, he sees the decorated tree and they all wish him a Merry Christmas before they all start singing.
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