The very first words Charlie Brown uttered as an animated character in 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas captures the seasonal despair so many of us feel but are afraid to confess publicly for fear of being labeled a Scrooge or a downer. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” he says. “Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents, sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that. But I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” Have you watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in a while? Are you ready to stream it on Apple this year? If it’s been a minute, get ready for the most honest Christmas special you may not fully remember.
Against Vince Guaraldi’s lovely jazz piano score, everyone’s favorite bald blockhead frets forlornly, and herein lies the brilliance of A Charlie Brown Christmas. For sad sacks like Charles Schultz, Charlie Brown, and many of us, the world can feel like a rollicking party that you were pointedly not invited to year-round. That feeling is particularly intense during the Christmas season when the pressure to be holly and jolly is unrelenting. Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t great in spite of this morose sensibility. It’s great because of it. It may not be the best kids' movie of all time, but it’s one of the best family Christmas specials of all time for a reason: It dares to be sad.
Though the lyrics to the opening song, the irresistible earworm, “Christmas Time is Here” insist, “Christmas time is here/Happiness and cheer/Fun for all that children call/Their favorite time of year”, Charlie Brown’s wonderfully direct opening monologue and the rightfully revered special’s style suggests otherwise. Guaraldi’s music for Peanuts specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is the iconic sound of beautiful sadness. Guaraldi’s classic score sold five million copies, which is remarkable by any standard but is particularly good for a jazz album for children. Director Bill Melendez eschews the fake elation of a laugh track. That fits the bittersweet tone of the special, which is less funny ha-ha than funny and sad.
The animation is painterly in its wintry beauty and the decision to use actual children as voice actors instead of adult pros adds to the pathos and emotional realism. Then there’s Charlie Brown’s distraught expression even before he unloads on Linus about his Yuletide despair. He’s achingly, relatably depressed twelve months out of the year but he’s particularly despondent when Christmas approaches. “I’m in sad shape” our hero moans to his unlicensed therapist Lucy, who responds to his depression by reminding him to pay in advance for the session. “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy but I’m not” Charlie complains. Lucy implores Charlie to figure out precisely what fear is ruling and ruining his life before they settle on Pantophobia, or the fear of literally everything. What a beautiful word for such a horrifyingly common condition.
In a rare, uncharacteristic outburst of solid judgment and useful advice, Lucy tells Charlie that what he needs is “involvement”, to get into the spirit of the season by connecting with other human beings.
Depression may be widespread but it is inherently lonely. That loneliness is starkest during Christmastime when it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the world not giddy with Yuletide cheer. Lucy suggests that Charlie Brown direct their Christmas play. Though putting Charlie Brown in charge of anything seems questionable being able to escape the prison of self and connect with others does wonders for his spirit. The scene where the Peanuts gang dances joyously to Schroeder pounding out “Linus and Lucy” is one of the most perfect pieces of animation ever created.
The movement is simple and repetitive and the character design is similarly muted and understated, but the fusion of sound and image and movement and mood is extraordinary. A Charlie Brown Christmas showed that it was possible to be both simple and spectacular. Indeed, this is spectacular in its simplicity. Charlie Brown has the free-floating, all-consuming holiday blues but he is particularly dispirited by the commercialism of the spirit, as represented by Snoopy decorating his doghouse with tons of tacky tinsel and lights in order to win a contest.
Our lost and lonely hero finds comfort in the words of Luke 2:10-11, specifically, “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which should be to all people. For onto you was born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this should be a sign unto you.”It’s rare to hear scripture quoted on commercial television, particularly in a child’s wavering but steadfast voice but Schultz was a devout Christian as well as a true depressive. Now filled with a renewed sense of purpose, Charlie Brown takes home a little tree that’s a lot like him: sad, lonely, seemingly inadequate, and in desperate need of love and attention.
Charlie Brown and his tree get just that when his friends show up unexpectedly and dress the tree so that it is a glowing, bright and tacky thing of beauty. It’s the rare low-key Christmas miracle that feels both earned and organic. Ironically, given the special’s very convincing anti-commercialism bent, it was commissioned by Coca-Cola and initially featured multiple plugs for the popular soda that were excised from later showings.
A Charlie Brown Christmas set the bar almost impossibly high for holiday-themed animated specials but It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown cleared it a few years later in part by recreating A Charlie Brown Christmas’ unique, delicate and enduring combination of sadness, faith, philosophy, and humanity.
Where to Stream A Charlie Brown Christmas
The only place to catch all the Charlie Brown holiday specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas is on Apple TV+. This means you need a membership to Apple TV+. That said, starting December 2, 2022, a series of holiday shorts called “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales” will stream on Apple for free. Then, on December 22 until December 25, 2022, A Charlie Brown Christmas will stream for free on Apple, too.