Since it first debuted in Dec. 1965 on CBS, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become such an iconic symbol of the holiday season that many people feel like something is missing if Christmas passes by without a viewing of this much-loved animated classic. It’s become like the star on top of the tree. People grew up with it and re-watch it year after year while new generations are discovering it for the first time.
Of course, there are a lot of other movies and shows that air annually, such as Its a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story. But those are full-fledged movies. What is it about this little cartoon with a bare-bones script and (admittedly) simplistic animation that makes it so beloved? How did Charles Schulz—creator of the Peanuts—manage to make it so timeless?
One reason may be because Charlie Brown is such a relatable character and he says what many viewers are thinking. He has seasonal holiday depression, which is something many people suffer from. Charlie Brown feels that something is missing…Why do other people seem happier than he is? Why isn’t he getting Christmas cards? Why isn’t this much-hyped season meeting up to his expectations? These are thoughts we can relate to. We’re with him as he wanders through the hubbub and hoopla of the holiday season and wonders what it’s all about. He’s appalled that everyone around him—including his little sister and even his dog—is getting sucked into the crass commercialism of Christmas. (His sister Sally asks Santa for “tens and twenties”.) Hasn’t everyone asked at some point in their life “Is this all there is?” We connect with Charlie Brown’s discontent and we root for him as he struggles to make Christmas into something special and satisfying, rather than being overwhelmed by the hectic pace of the season.
Another reason may be the simplicity of the story. There’s no villain or major crisis. This cartoon is a perfect example of the Charles Schulz slice-of-life style of storytelling. It’s a series of episodic scenes where Charlie Brown experiences amusing but exasperating situations that befuddle him about how the spirit of Christmas seems to be lost. Schulz created the Peanuts to be a very laid-back series of small events that show us this young boy learning about life, mostly through disappointments. It’s not epic or exciting but it is poignant. That’s always been part of the magic of Schulz’s work. It doesn’t jump out at you; instead in seeps in slowly and before you know it, you’re hooked!
The main thing about Charlie Brown that makes him such a perfect character to represent the Christmas season is because he has always represented optimism and hope. He is a metaphor for never giving up and the belief that things will get better if you keep trying. Think about it: Charlie Brown always seems to fail in the end. He never kicks the football; he never wins a baseball game; he can never fly his kite without it getting stuck in a tree; he can never ask out that little red-haired girl without embarrassing himself. It’s as if there’s some grand cosmic conspiracy that always sabotages his efforts. He may come close sometimes (he got to the finals in the Spelling Bee but he choked at the last word) but never really reaches home base without getting tagged out.
Yet through it all, Charlie Brown never gives up. Sure he may get depressed for a while but by the end of the show, he’s ready to face the world again. Other people in his place might be taking anti-depressants but Charlie Brown is an eternal optimist who believes that good things are right around the corner if he just perseveres. He is convinced that one day he’ll win a baseball game and that one day he’ll kick that football. No matter how many times he fails he never stops trying. He’s the epitome of hope and faith. Christmas is about faith. As we head into the New Year, we all hope for a better future, which is the mantra Charlie Brown embraces.
Whereas everyone else looks at the scrawny little tree that Charlie Brown chooses and sees a useless waste of money, Charlie Brown sees something special that no one else sees. “I think it needs me,” he tells Linus. His faith is rewarded when, with some help from his friends, the puny tree is turned into a beautiful tree. His optimism about the unwanted tree is reminiscent of his optimism toward life…with a little extra hard work, it can be beautiful.
So that’s why we love the message of this cheap, simple holiday cartoon. Because if you take the time to watch it and really understand it, you’ll see that there’s something beautiful under its unimpressive ‘first-glance’ appearance. We see in Charlie Brown what he saw in the twiggy tree. It’s special without appearing to be special. He knew he needed to pick that tree just as we know that Christmas isn’t Christmas unless you watch a Charlie Brown Christmas.