It’s ironic, really, when you think about how A Charlie Brown Christmas has endured as a staple of the holiday season for 44 years. Leaning on a simple – even naive – theme of anti-consumerism, the Christmas special has emerged as one of the most recognizable – and profitable – brand names in holiday entertainment. It’s become, in some ways, the very thing it so convincingly critiques.
The special returns to ABC for its second and final airing of 2009 on Tuesday night, and when I recently had the chance to speak with long-time Charlie Brown producer Lee Mendelson, I asked him just what it was about this special that for generations has made it a staple of our American Christmas festivities. “From the beginning, it was ironic, because there’s nothing more commercial than Charlie Brown, but the whole show was about anti-commercialism, about turning your back on all the shopping and buying. And that was part of the point, that Charles Schulz never really dealt with the commercial side of his business. He drew stuff and if people wanted to buy it fine, but it has always been a funny juxtaposition,” Mendelson says.
Like all Charlie Brown specials, the Christmas episode views the trappings of the holiday through the children’s perspective, and Mendelson says that in hard economic times such as these, the larger message of A Charlie Brown Christmas becomes particularly poignant. “It’s obvious in some ways: They don’t buy a toy or something but instead this little tree that nobody wants. And then Linus reads about the true meaning of Christmas, and doesn’t mention anything about toys or commercialism. And I think it was sticking true to that themes that make up Charlie Brown: This isn’t about Santa Clause or the flashiest new toy, it’s about the Bible, and I think people take great comfort in that in bad times.”
Given the decades that have passed since the show first aired, the plot might now seem second nature. But Mendelson says the structure of the holiday episode was anything but obvious when Schulz and director Bill Melendez first set about devising a Christmas tale. “When it came on the air in 1965, there were only three networks and there were lots of live Christmas specials and there might have been the occasional cartoon Christmas special. But in those days, cartoonists did not really deal with Christmas at a kids level and so we weren’t sure what to do. And then Schulz just said to Melendez: Have Linus read from the Bible about the true meaning of Christmas, otherwise why bother even doing the special? And we looked at teach other and Melendez said: I don’t think we can animate something from the Bible. But then I remember what Schulz said: If we don’t do it, who will? So that’s how it got there, and I think we’ve continued to be such a popular holiday special because nothing better ever came along after us. We won by default. We were willing to do something that no one else had done.”
If it was ironic that Schulz was able to use such a popular brand to produce an anti-corporate message, Mendelson says the ever-increasing popularity of the Christmas episode has gone past irony, straight into the absurd. “Today they even sell models of that little tree, which of course misses the point entirely,” he says.”In the show, they pick that tree to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, and now it’s a marketing gimmick.”
Schulz’s vision is ideal, but today perhaps a bit outdated. In the 21st century, there’s always someone looking to make a quick buck.