It’s hard to explain what a big deal “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was to me when I was a kid. Or how tenderly I hold it in my heart today.
But of course, I’ll try.
I was 11 years old when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered on CBS in December 9, 1965. I had been reading the daily and Sunday “Peanuts” comic strip for quite a while, and from the time I first read it, I identified strongly with the main character, Charlie Brown. I felt terribly, chronically insecure as a child, like nothing I did was right, like I was a blockhead. In fact, after I discovered “Peanuts,” I started buying collections of the comic strip in paperback going back to the very beginning of the strip in 1950.
In Charlie Brown, I could see myself. Someone who was unlike the other kids, someone who tried really hard, someone who often failed, but someone who would get up and try again. Although the creator, Charles M. Schulz, draw the daily “Peanuts” strip in the traditional 4-panel format of humorous comic strips, he occasionally did have mini-series with the storyline continuing for five or even 10 strips that would build on each other. However, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was different. This was an entire half hour where Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Snoopy, and the rest came to life. Although I recognized that some exchanges in the show came from previous previously published strips — “Peanuts” nerd that I was — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” did have a narrative throughline wherein Charlie Brown was looking for the meaning of Christmas.
Certainly, other children’s Christmas specials of this time have remained important to me including “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” all of which stress the importance of generosity and open-heartedness, but “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the only one that asks the question, in Charlie Brown’s own words, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus answers him by quoting Luke 2: 8–14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Linus finishes, saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie Brown picks up his “not such a bad little tree” and begins to walk home, recalling Linus’s peace, finally comforted and affirmed by a faith in himself and a faith in something larger than himself.
He does stop for a moment, surprised and bemused by the fact that Snoopy has won the Christmas Decorating Contest and is then horrified when he thinks that he has killed his little tree by putting one bulb on it. He walks off in despair, and the other kids, who have been following him, come together to decorate the tree which they reveal in all its splendor to Charlie Brown when he returns. For this one moment, at least, Charlie Brown is accepted exactly as he is.
I know I felt so much as I watched all this at the age pf 11. I hoped that someday I would get that same sort of validation. And I think I realized, in that moment, that a crucial element of making that happen was to find the serenity that Charlie Brown felt as he contemplated the ancient words that Linus said and which had given him solace and purpose.
I certainly have a lot more clarity now about what I felt as I first watched this in that Christmas season over a half century ago, especially this particular clip where Linus is reciting the Gospel of Luke. I do feel very strongly, though, that this was a very important brick, one of many over the years, that laid the foundation of who I would become. And for that reason, to remember the lonely kid I once was, to honor his bravery in going on anyway, and to hold him gently in my heart, I watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year.