50 Years Ago, The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special Got Weird, Honest, And Way Too Deep
For Charlie Brown, the holidays are all about sadness, rejection, and disappointment.
When it comes to family TV specials that involve depression and cannibalism, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has it all. Because this 1973 TV special has become the de facto thing to always put on in the background on Turkey Day, it’s possible that some parents have forgotten not only how ruminative and dark the special is, but also, how gross it can get. What have you forgotten about A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving? Other than the fakeout thing with Lucy and the football, the answer is, likely, everything.
“Holidays always depress me” broods Charlie Brown early in the special. Life tends to bum out the iconic depressive but, as is often the case, holidays can be uniquely dispiriting because of the unrelenting pressure to be happy, social, and thankful. Needless to say, those are not three qualities that come naturally to Charlie Brown. For Charles Schultz’s beloved creation the holidays are something to dread, not look forward to. For poor Chuck, holidays are another one of life’s afflictions. For Charles Schultz, holidays, and life, were about sadness, rejection, and disappointment. That’s why specials like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and A Charlie Brown Christmas ring so true for adults.
Sure, Schultz’s November perennial eventually doles out happy endings for everyone involved but true to form, it first makes Charlie Brown suffer mightily. Charlie endures a crucible of humiliation that begins with Lucy, his old tormentor, offering to hold the football for him to kick. (This one we all know.) When it comes to Lucy and her football, the question is never WHAT will happen but rather what rationale Lucy will offer for her casual sadism.
Lucy tailors both her spiel and her explanation for Thanksgiving. She tells Charlie that the holiday is all about tradition and rituals and no ritual is more sacred to the American people than the big football game, with the possible exception of the kick-off. The pint-sized master of manipulation and unlicensed psychologist convinces Charlie Brown that there is no honor greater than literally kicking off the big holiday game. She cagily plays to Charlie Brown’s ego and need to feel important and wanted, only to snatch the pigskin away mere moments before he would have made contact. With hilarious, horrifying inevitability, Lucy then explains her actions: “Isn’t it peculiar, Charlie Brown, how some traditions just slowly fade away?” It’s the perfect, iconic introduction to a special about the bifurcated nature of tradition, how it can fill us with a warm sense of continuity, belonging, and purpose but also make us feel inadequate, overwhelmed, and lost.
The premise of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving could double as the plot of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm: our cursed hero gets an unwanted phone call from a friend he doesn’t actually like and also is clearly in love with him. She shamelessly invites herself over for a Thanksgiving feast, explaining that her dad is out of town, and for good measure, invites two more of her friends to the dinner despite the protagonist having a hard out at 4 PM to go to his grandma’s for supper. The ingrate then flies into a rage because of the sub-par nature of the dinner that she invited herself to.
It’s a dog’s dinner in more ways than one in that it was literally made by Snoopy, who is forced to act as a servant and chef for his master and his guests. The first Thanksgiving also provides the special’s biggest, weirdest laugh when Linus, in full-on professorial mode, says of Charlie Brown’s sad little attempt at Thanksgiving, “This is not unlike another famous Thanksgiving episode. Do you remember the story of John Olden, Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish?” This leads Peppermint to snap, hilariously, “This isn’t like that AT ALL!” with wonderfully misplaced outrage.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is driven less by plot or dialogue than by music and mood. Peanuts maestro Vince Guaraldi’s piano-heavy jazz score establishes the perfect autumnal vibe. The man behind “Linus and Lucy,” even contributes the vocals for “Little Birdy”, a laid-back exercise in woozy funk about Woodstock that epitomizes the groovy hipness of his Peanuts music. Thanksgiving is about family as much as it is about tradition. Charlie Brown’s mom and dad are consequently as conspicuous in their absence as the Great Pumpkin was in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown learns the depressing (if true) lesson here that surrogate families can be every bit as pushy, annoying, intrusive, and demanding as the nuclear variety.
Charlie’s unseen grandma, who communicates, like all adults in the Peanuts universe, through sub-verbal honking noises, graciously volunteers to feed the freeloaders who have attached themselves parasitically to Charlie Brown in addition to her grandkids. Snoopy triumphs, as always, by making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a giant turkey and pumpkin pie, for himself and Woodstock once Charlie and his friends have left for grandma’s house. Snoopy is who we want to be. Charlie Brown is who we are. Snoopy’s happy ending, consequently, is the product of guile and calculation while Charlie Brown’s is attributable to luck and God having mercy on him for once. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is self-consciously modest and minor.
It’s not as substantive as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas but its low-key, low-stakes charm makes it every bit as re-watchable. Holidays may depress Charlie Brown but they brought out the best in Charles Schultz’s multi-media empire of childhood innocence and adult pessimism.
What about the gross Mayflower Voyagers?
Hazy childhood memories may cause many readers to remember an extended sequence in which the Peanuts gang travels on the Mayflower. Complete with vomiting scenes on the titular ship, The Mayflower Voyagers got hardcore about the “First Thanksgiving.” The thing is, his special is separate from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. While sometimes aired as a double-feature on network TV back in the day, and bundled with various home video releases, The Mayflower Voyagers is its own thing.
Instead, The Mayflower Voyagers was part of a series of educational Peanuts episodes called “This is America, Charlie Brown,” which aired from 1988 to 1989, well over a decade after A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. These episodes are not currently streaming on Apple TV or any other major streaming service. However, you can track down some grainy uploaded versions on Vimeo and elsewhere.
Where to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
As with all the Peanuts holiday specials, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving no longer airs on traditional network television. Instead, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving streams on Apple TV+.
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