I give up: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is a great holiday special

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
A Charlie Brown Christmas

On Thursday night, ABC will air A Charlie Brown Christmas, a rebroadcast of the 1965 special that has charmed children and, especially, their parents for more than a generation now. Based on Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas was adapted by producers Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson in collaboration with Schulz, and features a jazz piano score by Vince Guaraldi. The show won an Emmy and a Peabody award, and is frequently cited as a high point in children’s entertainment on television. And yet for years, I hated this special’s guts.

Why? I thought it dumbed down Schulz’s emotionally complex comic strip, which in 1965 was syndicated in newspapers around the country and had an audience of millions. Its plot involved having Charlie Brown and his pals discover the “true meaning” of Christmas in the face of increasing commercialization. This victory is presented by having Charlie Brown and Linus reject the idea of buying a “great big shiny [Christmas] tree” and instead opting to decorate a bedraggled little wispy one — you know, because it’s real, man! All this, drawn in stiff, cheap-looking limited-animation, and surrounded by Guaraldi’s ersatz jazz piano, which always grated on my ears. And so did the sweet tones of the child actors cast as the character voices. I wrote a whole chapter on how much I disliked A Charlie Brown Christmas in a book in 2005.

But I decided it was time to look at the special again this year. And you know what? I don’t know whether it’s my advancing age or a sunnier view of life, but I have to say I’ve changed my mind: A Charlie Brown Christmas now strikes me as a genuine heart-warmer.

Given how Christmas has become exponentially more commercialized since 1965 (you know, Christmas sales events announced before Thanksgiving, that sort of thing), the message of A Charlie Brown’s Christmas seems both apt and reassuring: If millions of TV viewers keep tuning in to this special every year, many of them probably share its spirit of generosity.

I also appreciate something Charles Schulz insisted on including in this show, over the resistance of its original broadcaster, CBS. CBS wanted to snip the moment when Linus quotes from the King James Bible translation of Luke’s description of the Nativity scene. I say this not as a particularly religious man but as someone who thinks if you’re going to make a Christmas special, you should be free to put some reference to the Christ child in it. I’m glad that Schulz won that battle.

You know, I don’t even mind Guaraldi’s pseudo-jazz score now. Given the avalanche of cornball arrangements of Christmas carols trilled by hundreds of pop singers cashing in on the holiday every year, this instrumental music is downright soothing. So, you’ve won, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’m a convert. Long may you prosper. And of course, the one truly great Christmas TV show remains 1988’s Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.

A Charlie Brown Christmas airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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