A Charlie Brown Christmas is not like other Christmas movies. For over half a century, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been playing a game of chicken and we tune in every year to watch it win again. When will CBS finally cave and remove Linus’s recitation of Luke 2? When will the story of Christ’s birth finally be replaced with some spineless pablum about equality, teamwork, and oblique references to fashionable politics? “Surely this will be the year they cut it,” we say, folding our arms as the spotlight falls on Linus. And yet this twenty-five-minute movie somehow manages to pull off the same simple stunt every year—and every year, it is a little more impressive than the last time.
Of course, Linus’s recitation of Luke 2 isn’t the only thing that keeps us coming back, but after Linus, explaining the appeal gets a bit more difficult. Most Christmas movies are sweeter than frosted fudge, but A Charlie Brown Christmas is actually quite bleak, at least until the last thirty seconds or so, and viewers must be content with a few drops of hope wrung from the film’s final moment. The fact that Charlie Brown is a lovable character is ultimately quite the coup. He is mopey, dour, and in A Charlie Brown Christmas he is more self-involved than ever.
When the film opens, Charlie Brown claims he doesn’t understand Christmas, and despite the fact he enjoys getting presents and sending cards, he always ends up “feeling depressed.” With this, the entire crisis of the film is communicated. Nothing so grand as Santa losing his bag of toys, or Catherine O’Hara abandoning her eight-year-old son to the Wet Bandits, or Hans Gruber stealing $640m in bearer bonds from the vault of the Nakatomi Plaza. No, the crisis at the heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas is the main character’s hurt feelings.
If we’re supposed to feel bad for Charlie Brown and his hurt feelings, the film hardly makes this clear. When Charlie Brown’s friend Linus hears his complaints about Christmas, he responds, “You’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” And Linus is not presented as a stingy, cruel character, but a wise and caring friend who is simply tired of Charlie Brown’s whining. The mild chastisement of Linus falls on deaf ears, though, for in the following scene, Charlie Brown finds his mailbox empty and claims he is nearly vexed enough to wish away the entire holiday season. From here, things get worse on a minute-by-minute basis until just before the credits roll.
While he initially tells Linus he does not know why he gets depressed in December, moments later, Charlie Brown turns solipsist and declares, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Part of what makes Charlie Brown lovable is the fact he isn’t all that likable. Fate is regularly cruel to Charlie Brown, and we pity him for the insults and mockery he endures, but it’s not as though he endures the insults and mockery with good humor. He’s no Ted Lasso. Rather, Charlie Brown is easily embarrassed and spends a good deal of time feeling sorry for himself. Most authors ask us to love their characters for their strengths (while we forgive their shortcomings), but Charlie Brown’s persona leads with very mild vices, followed by even milder virtues. He isn’t meant to inspire us, but neither are we supposed to judge him as harshly as Lucy and company. Instead, we recognize our own faults in Charlie Brown and hope that if we can love him anyway, other people will love us, too, weak as we are.
On the advice of his psychiatrist, Charlie Brown takes over as the director of a Christmas play, but his very first move as director is to insist everyone must pay “strict” attention to him. For a film which is only 25 minutes long, A Charlie Brown Christmas takes its sweet time getting to the moment when Charlie Brown finally does something which inclines the audience to root for him. For my money, this moment is when Linus tells Charlie Brown the upright stick he has chosen to be their Christmas tree “doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit,” and Charlie Brown bravely responds, “I don’t care.” The problem is that he does care, and when everyone makes fun of him for choosing such a wretched tree—as he knew they would—he lapses once more into self-pity and asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” It’s easy to breeze over this question because we are anxious to get to Linus’s daring response, but it must be noted that Charlie Brown frames (and asks) the question in a way that assumes no one but himself knows what Christmas is all about. It’s not an honest question—no more honest than a father who sees two cockeyed racks of plates and loudly bellows, “Isn’t there anyone in this house who knows how to load the dishwasher?”
But Linus responds to his friend in earnest and recites a few verses from St. Luke’s Gospel, after which Charlie Brown silently picks up his tree and heads home, carrying it like a cross. It is on the walk home that a significant shift takes place, for it is here that Charlie Brown goes from claiming he doesn’t know why he gets depressed at Christmas, to claiming, “I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.” And yet, this is the first time Charlie Brown’s depression has been connected with commercialism. From the beginning, he has known that Christmas reminds him of how unloved he is, and that this is what he finds depressing about December.
Earlier, he is disgusted to find his dog is competing in a Christmas lights contest (to win cash prizes) and his little sister is asking Santa for money. Neither of these things is really an example of commercialism per se, though they (somewhat understandably) strike Charlie Brown as crass and get stuck in his craw. Nonetheless, in the end, he thinly tries to justify his self-pity and depression as some sort of protest against commercialism. Immediately after declaring himself against the “commercialism” of Christmas, he sees Snoopy has won the lights contest and says to himself, “This commercial dog is not going to ruin my Christmas.” Even after hearing the Nativity story, Charlie Brown is convinced it’s him versus the world. His problem is that he never pays attention to Linus. With the accusations of commercialism, Charlie Brown is still trying to take “a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”
After seeing (and complaining to himself) that Snoopy has won first prize in the lights competition, Charlie Brown removes a red bulb from the dog house and hangs it on a lonely branch of his Christmas stick. His protest against the commercialism of Christmas is obviously feigned, for it lasts all of three seconds before he caves and steals a “commercial” decoration from his dog to adorn his own organic, free-range tree. The tree bends over, a few needles fall off, and Charlie Brown says, “I killed it,” then glumly walks away.
About this time, the rest of the gang shows up. Unlike Charlie Brown, it seems they have actually been having a long, hard think about the Nativity story—or a harder think than Charlie Brown was having, at any rate. Upon hearing Luke 2, Charlie Brown goes off on his own to exonerate himself, while the same passage prompts everyone else to collectively go looking for him. Instead of finding Charlie Brown, they find his tree, although by this point in the film, the two are nearly interchangeable. Linus judges the stick to be “not bad at all,” and merely in need of “a little love,” but we know who he is actually speaking about. The gang then covers Charlie Brown’s tree with the “commercial” decorations from Snoopy’s prize-winning doghouse and begins singing a hymn. Charlie Brown angrily tromps across the lawn and demands, “What’s going on here?” but is overwhelmed to find his own tree transformed into something beautiful.
Viewers who still take the “anti-commercial” claims seriously at this point might expect Charlie Brown to be enraged that his organic, free-range tree has been tricked out with big corporate capitalism. But he’s not. All that was sheer pretense. The tree looks great, commercial decorations and all. And the gang doesn’t come looking for Charlie Brown to tell him he was right about everything all along. Rather, they come (led by Linus) to give the love they have just heard about in St. Luke’s Gospel, and so they beautify the tree Charlie Brown has obviously identified with himself. This love pulls Charlie Brown out of his fake idealism and self-centeredness, and he forgets himself in the worship of God.
The enduring appeal of A Charlie Brown Christmas is its unwillingness to “turn Christmas into a problem,” as Linus puts it. The problem is not with Christmas, but with us. Christmas is the solution. We tend to remember all the comments about “commercialism” made in the film, but in the end, A Charlie Brown Christmas asks those worried about commercialism to quit soapboxing and sing a hymn. There is so much good sense in this instruction that it must be nearly as offensive to the modern mind as the quotation from St. Luke’s Gospel. It’s so unfashionable, so unsentimental, which is why we keeping coming back.