I curled up last night to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas," practically a moral obligation in my list of Christmas rituals. And I know I am hardly the first person to notice this, and that I've noticed it many times before...but Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ, that shit is depressing.
It kind of strikes me anew, every time. I realize that part of the weird appeal of Peanuts in general is that Charles Schulz was putting these deeply adult sentiments and philosophies in the mouths of teeny little kids. And he wasn't entirely off the mark, either--children are not simply small adults, but they do have complex feelings and they are, of course, capable of tremendous cruelty. I think the Christmas special reflects that quite honestly on some level, even if the script exaggerates deliberately for effect.
But still...man, those kids are BRUTAL to good ol' Charlie Brown...who himself is so wretched, so admittedly lonesome and depressed, he's hard to watch. Today someone would get him a therapist and a drum of Paxil and probably an Individual Education Plan, but trapped in the 1965 cartoon he just suffers, and...was this intended as a kids' show? When the little tree collapses under the weight of its lone ornament, and Charlie Brown moans "Everything I touch gets ruined"? Holy shit, y'all, I practically have to leave the room. The local alternative weekly paper, The Stranger, once claimed that suicide rates, and calls to helplines, spike every year with the annual screening of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and while I think they were joking I would not be even a little surprised, because DUDE.
That said, the good edges out the miserable, I think. The Vince Guaraldi score is magnificent and perfectly suited to the cartoon, alternately melancholy and infectiously giddy. Every year, I have to get up off the couch and do the dance with the kids, whipping my head painfully side-to-side like those mysterious twin girls at the pageant rehearsal--do we ever see them again? And I've seen it so many times that even the movements are surely etched into my DNA; I love Snoopy's dance, not just the jolly, vaguely Russian prancing but the lilting side-to-side skips he first performs atop Schroeder's piano. I love the way Charlie Brown, his faith oh-so-momentarily restored, skips home with his little Christmas twig. I love the "loo-loo-loos" of the singing kids at the end, with their pauses for breath--this year, I noticed that Pigpen stirs up a fresh cloud of dust when he inhales for each verse. (And there is another kid that needs a Child Protective Services intervention, because boy is FILTHY with neglect, good gawd.) I love Charlie Brown's disbelieving squat-and-squint at the transformed tree, how he scootches closer.
I love the roughness of it too: the hand-drawn animation, the real kids haltingly speaking lines they clearly don't comprehend. Some of them were so young that they couldn't read and had to be fed their lines, a few words at a time; it shows, and it is somehow completely charming. (My favorite fact Googled up today: Sally was voiced by a child named Kathy Steinberg, who I suspect might not have been crafting a letter to Santa, this or any year.) The Christmas-tree lot Charlie Brown and Linus visit is gorgeously surreal--the "aluminum trees...maybe painted pink" are also polka-dotted, or harlequin-patterned; they remind me of some of the wilder Fauvist backgrounds in some Warner Brothers cartoons. Funny, that the very commercialized trees scorned in the special now look beautiful and nostalgic to me: what I wouldn't give for a sweet, innocent 1965 pink-and-orange aluminum tree. (Note to self: check eBay.)
Anyway. After the classic cartoon, ABC aired a second Peanuts Christmas special I'd never seen, this one plainly much later and composed of weird, brief little vignettes of the kids engaging in different vaguely Christmassy activities. The animation was slick and smooth; the voice actors were precocious, cloying children or, I suspect in the case of Sally, an adult affecting a shrill "kid" tone a la Elmo. The whole thing was glib and self-aware and leadenly paced with beats for laughter, and I HATED IT SO MUCH it made me ANGRY. It was so plainly a sell-out, literally embodying every polished, commercialized Christma$ quality that the original decries. It straight-up trampled the first special's message. Oh, Sparky, what did you do there? Man. THAT was depressing; my heart shrunk two sizes just watching. I'll stick with my Original-Recipe Charlie Brown Christmas, thanks very much.