Is A Charlie Brown Christmas Overrated?
December 8, 2015
(Shortened intro plays)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. Some Christmas specials we watch because they're so well done that we love them.
(Image from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is shown)
NC: Others we watch because they're so odd and strange we can't help but love them.
(Image from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is shown)
NC: But every once in a while, you get one that's kind of in-between, one that you feel like a little effort went into, but somehow also a lot of effort went into. And the crowning champion of that is the Charlie Brown Christmas*.
- The special from 1965, not to be confused with It's Christmas Again, Charlie Brown from 1992, which will be mentioned later
(Mellow and calm music plays over footage from the mentioned special)
NC (vo): Every year we watch this simple, sweet, but, let's face it, kind of cheap short. While it's beloved by millions all over the world, there are some people who scratch their heads and simply say, "I don't get it." Not the obvious message or the fact that it's supposed to be simple in its approach, but they don't get why this is a holiday classic. Why is there merchandise selling like mad for it every Christmas, why does everybody show it to their kids, why do people act like it's the greatest holiday special ever made with no problems at all?
NC: I'll admit, growing up, I liked Peanuts fine, but I got more into their other projects like...
(Images from Snoopy Come Home, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and It's Christmas Again, Charlie Brown are followed)
NC (vo): ...Snoopy Come Home, or the Halloween special. Hell, even their second Christmas special I thought was actually a little bit more interesting than the first one. I just thought they had a lot more atmosphere and character to them.
NC: And while I didn't mind the original Christmas special, I'll admit I was kind of confused why everybody obsessed over it as well.
(Footage from A Charlie Brown Christmas is shown)
NC (vo): What was the magic formula that seemed to win everybody over, and more importantly, as a lot of people are starting to ask, is it overrated?
NC: Well, first, a quick rundown of the special.
(More footage is shown)
NC (vo): Charlie Brown is feeling very Charlie Brown-y as he wants to understand the true meaning of Christmas. He's told that by directing the Christmas pageant, he'll be forced to understand what the true meaning is all about, and under a time limit as well. As expected, he's not a very good director, unable to control his actors and also bringing in a very sickly-looking tree. But after Linus explains the very literal meaning of Christmas, quoting the Bible, everyone, including Charlie Brown, find the beauty in the tiny tree and make it up to look nice. And...it just sorta ends there. Yeah, we never get to see the pageant, we have no idea if it goes well or not, it just sorta ends on them just singing. That's it! To some, this would seem like lazy writing. Why have a pageant if you're never going to show it? Hell, even the things going wrong with the pageant are not traditionally funny, they just keep dancing while he shouts directions. And the fact that the acting is often stilted, the animation's obviously on a tight budget, and several seques with Snoopy, Schroeder and others that tie in little to the plot... Hey, this is bad for the same reason a lot of our things we don't like are bad.
NC: So what are the elements that make people love it so much?
NC (vo): Well, let's look at the technicals first, for example, the music. The music is wonderful, bringing a low-key, but still very warm, jazzy feel to the entire thing. As soon as it opens and we hear a soft children's choir sing about the arrival of Christmas, it sets a very particular mood that signals from the very beginning it's not going to be like your typical, happy, super-energetic Christmas special. It's not bouncy or overly emotional, it's very mellow and calm. This music is such a staple at Christmas that even the Peanuts piano theme is played on the radio around this time, and that's in every Peanuts special, yet we still associate it with this one the most. We just sorta group it in with how good the rest of the music is.
NC: Next, let's talk about those detours, like Lucy...
(Footage of the characters is shown)
NC (vo): ...forcing Schroeder to find the perfect song, or Charlie Brown just talking to himself about Christmas, or Snoopy just being Snoopy. A lot of these don't really further the plot that much, so why have it? Well, much like the Halloween special, it helps establish the environment of Christmas.
(Stills from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are shown)
NC (vo): We watch The Great Pumpkin every Halloween because they do all the things you're supposed to do on Halloween: go trick-or-treating, bob for apples, make costumes, it's impossible not to think of the holiday.
(Back to footage of the Charlie Brown Christmas special)
NC (vo): The Christmas special does this, too, just in a different way. There's tons of specials that show Santa, opening gifts, hugging family, so this one decides not to go that route. It instead focuses on the mixed feelings children can have this time of year. During a holiday about loving and caring for people, it's easy to get lost in an emotional whirlwind. With all the charities and stories about the less fortunate, people forget there is a very grim side to the idea of Christmas, and the greatest Christmas specials always point that out. This one captures an element of childhood that not a lot of other specials do: the confusion, and not simple stuff you see like in Family Circus, like, "Oh, what does this word mean?", I mean, like, emotional confusion. Childhood isn't all fun and games, it's a strange and uncertain time, and because we teach kids that Christmas is more than just Santa and presents, it forces their minds to venture to deeper and more thought-provoking places. That's what Peanuts usually got so well: the uncertainty. Sometimes, there are clear answers, sometimes, there aren't. We don't know why things never go right for Charlie Brown, it's just kind of what life throws at him. Which steps into another element of childhood that's rarely talked about in specials...
NC: Cruelty! (smiles kind of sadistically)
NC (vo): The other kids are relentless to him. They never let up, they are just so mean, and a lot of people would say, "Oh, those kids are just so mean to him, why?". But people forget they are judgmental, they are mocking, they do tease anything that's different. And since Charlie Brown is not your typical upbeat kid, of course they're gonna make fun of him, but they're not just typical bullies, they're kids like any other kids. If they were bullies, that would make them very black and white and not as interesting, but every single one is relatable and has some aspect of childhood that you remembered and probably happened in your childhood. Now, Charlie Brown's not happy about this, but he keeps going, hoping one day, he'll find answers to all the questions he doesn't know, but is open to the very real probability that he won't.
(Image of black and white comic strip with Charlie Brown getting his kite stuck in a tree while sighing)
NC (vo): So he has to take comfort in the little things like the optimism of not getting his kite wrecked, or...
(Still of Charlie Brown flying up after Lucy takes the football from him)
NC (vo): ...one day being able to kick the football, or...
(Back to the Christmas special)
NC (vo): ...a tiny tree that can be seen as beautiful.
NC: And it wasn't until I really thought about that tree and embracing its simplicity that I realized...that's what I'm doing with this special!
(Stills from the Christmas special)
NC (vo): When the animators finished making this, they showed it to the studio, and they hated it. They thought it wasn't gonna work at all and it was awful, but, eh, they already paid for it, so might as well run it. But because it was so simple and so different than anything else that was on TV, people really enjoyed it. And afterwards, the studio just shrugged and said, "Eh, what do we know?". It's like the studio was all the kids that were making fun of the tree and the tree itself was this special. Remember when I was talking about how you never see the pageant go on in this? Well, maybe the reason is because you're watching the pageant right now. Think about it: literal kids, many of them amateurish, giving wooden performances against simple backgrounds with piano music talking about the meaning of Christmas.
NC: This is a Christmas pageant, just on TV!
NC (vo): And the same way you admire the effort and simple love that goes into a pageant, the same way you admire this. Even when Linus states the very obvious meaning of Christmas, he cues the lights, talking to an audience that isn't there. Look at that, nobody's in those seats, so where's the audience? Well, it's us. We're the parents of this well-meaning special. And while the message is very clear about not letting marketing get in the way of the true meaning, people forget this came out in 1965, and this was not a common message yet, especially for younger kids.
(Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas!)
NC (vo): Even The Grinch, which came out a year later, focuses more on Christmas not being about materials.
(More footage from Charlie Brown Christmas)
NC (vo): This directly says it's not about advertising, being much more specific than most specials were at the time. Even the quoting of the Bible, this was seen as kind of a daring thing to do, you didn't see this in many Christmas specials, surprisingly; again, especially for children. But that's exactly why they did it, because nobody else was.
NC: And I think that's what most people relate the most to with this special: there's no bullshit about it.
NC (vo): Every production has some manipulation in order to make you feel something, but this one covers it up less than the others. It's not trying to dazzle you with big songs, grand animation or hilarious jokes, it's letting you appreciate how much you can get with so little. The same way Charlie Brown found a lot of worth in a seemingly simple tree, the same way we find a lot of worth in a seemingly simple special. Its perfection is in its imperfection, and just like our main characters' understanding of Christmas, it can't always be explained, it just kind of has to be felt. It would have been so easy if Linus quotes the Bible, and Charlie Brown goes to a nativity scene, and they all sing around that; but, no, he's taking what Linus said and applies it. He's inspired by the story of beauty coming from such simple places, and he goes to prove that with the tree. In doing so, his simple act inspires the rest of the kids to see that same beauty and apply it themselves.
(Two pictures of stern-looking priests preaching the word are shown)
NC (vo): We've all seen nutjobs quote their religion, but never actually follow what they preach. Say they're supposed to be kind to others, but be really mean-spirited and judgmental instead.
(Back to Charlie Brown)
NC (vo): This is showing the importance of following through with your actions, not just saying it, but actually practicing it. Putting it to use in real life.
NC: Shit, this is really good!
NC (vo): It's really good because it does everything in its own simple way, and it's a way we're not used to on Christmas specials, but we can still very easily relate to. Is it gonna win everybody over? No, but it's not supposed to. Some people will find great joy in its simplicity, others will want something more challenging and complex, and there's nothing wrong with that.
(Posters of Arthur Christmas and A Christmas Carol (1984) are shown)
NC (vo): You can find that in the Arthur Christmas, or the Christmas Carols, or whatever.
(More footage from Charile Brown)
NC (vo): But to its credit, I think there's more to this special than meets the eye, just like there's more to Christmas than meets the eye. It isn't just about spreading the story of Christmas, it's about practicing it yourself. It's showing the importance of applying it, as well as celebrating it. It's about putting that effort and love towards the things that are most important. Anyone can just quote scripture, but it takes a special talent to inspire and make others do better. And for a lot of people, that's what this special does. Yeah, it's basic, yeah, it's stilted, yeah, it's not that funny, but I can't help but feel like it tapped into something more than the majority of other Christmas specials do. Something simple, but still speaks to the majority of people watching. In the end, maybe it isn't such a bad little special after all.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic, I remember it so you don't have to.
(He gets up and leaves. Credits roll)