A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS: I Never Thought it Was Such a Bad Little Tree

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Directed by Bill Melendez – Starring Peter Robbins, Chris Shea, Tracy Stratford, Kathy Steinberg, Chris Doran, Geoffrey Ornstein, Karen Mendelson, Sally Dryer, Ann Altieri, and Bill Melendez.

“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards, decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy’s right – of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS has always struck a powerful chord with me, but the power of the special has changed as I’ve aged. When I was a kid, it was the humor, the music, and the hopeful ending. There’s something beautiful and primal about Charlie rescuing and championing that pathetic little tree in the face of what he knows will be Lucy’s anger and full-frontal derision from the other kids. Linus tries to tell him this, but Charlie still buys that tree, determined to make it work, and it does.

As a kid, I was less concerned with why Chuck bought that tree or what happened between the mocking and teasing and their eventual move to transform the tree as I was with the happy ending. This was a Christmas special, after all, and like Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS starts with someone at a low point, drives them over the edge, and then lets them soar to new heights of happiness.

Christmas was the agent of change. Christmas was the transformative power that could take the depressed and angry and isolated and make them joyful and happy and part of the crowd. That appealed to me in ways that I couldn’t voice, but gradually came to recognize as I grew older.

From my teens right through my twenties I was a right cynical bastard, always ready to tear something apart and stomp on anything deemed uncool. (Which was pretty silly, given that I was never actually cool, myself.) December was a blessed relief from the wariness of snark, however, as if all the little bits of good and hopefulness and decency that I kept locked away from January to November were let out. I didn’t always show it, of course, and at other times I wasn’t allowed to show it (it’s a bit hard for the wolf to convince everyone he’s really, sincerely, honestly going to be a sheep for 31 days), but I always remember finding some peace during the holiday season.

Most people do, I suppose, and I don’t mean to say my relationship with Christmas was anything special or unique, but rather to point out that silly things like emotions that I mocked the other eleven months of the year were embraced for the month. Once Thanksgiving was over, I couldn’t wait until the Christmas tree was put up. You know how there’s often that scene of someone in a Christmas special grousing about having to unfurl the tangled string of lights? I was the opposite of that guy. I loved it. I loved pulling those green strings out of the box in which they were stored in the cellar’s workroom. I loved bringing up the coffee can full of assorted lights that burned so hot you could only leave them on for a couple hours at a time. I loved all of the crazy and haphazard ornaments that we’d jam all over the tree. I swore I would never have one of those “department store” trees with color-coordinated ornaments. (And now, that’s exactly what I have.) I loved grabbing a stack of comics and reading them by the Christmas tree as John Denver and the Muppets spun on the record player … cassette player … CD player.

I guess I was using Christmas to overcompensate for not liking myself very much the rest of the year.

Now that I’m closer to 40 than 30, and I’m much more the ordinary bastard than the cynical kind, I’m struck by how strongly A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS still resonates with me, but now instead of the hope and joy it’s Chuck’s sadness, his realization that he’s walking around out of step with everyone else, and his desire to feel something real. All of this is manifested by the Christmas season. Perhaps the most psychologically insightful moment of the special comes after Lucy has convinced Charlie Brown to direct the Christmas play. Chuck embraces the dictator-ness of being in charge, and when Schroeder starts playing and everyone starts dancing and having a great time, it’s the man with the megaphone who squashes all of their fun.

And that’s Charlie Brown – even when he gets included, even when everyone is having a great time, he just can’t commit to letting go and enjoying the moment.

I’ve never been big on the idea of needing to relate to a character to enjoy a story, but it’s hard not to the above sequence as a big ol’ mirror staring back at me. It wasn’t all that long ago that I had a night where I felt exactly what Charlie felt; I wasn’t asked to direct a play, but I was standing on the edge of others’ good time, feeling disconnected and unsteady. Do you jump in or do you move away? Do you attempt to become part of the whole or do you embrace your place outside of it? In the special, Chuck decides to move away and go buy his pathetic little tree; in reality, I decided to jump in and experienced the kind of disastrous results you thankfully never see in a PEANUTS special (though I did hit a point in the night where most people sounded like the adults in these specials: WAUGH WAUGH WAH WHA WAUGH). Charlie Brown has Lucy to go to for psychiatric help; I had Moscow Mules, shots of Jameson, and whatever anyone else was shoving in front of me. I’m not too proud to say that this cartoon kid handled his business in a much more mature manner than I did. It’s both tragic and fitting, however, that both Chuck and I managed to lose our temper.

Somedays, you just can’t get out of your own way.

For me, my connection with Charlie Brown comes more generally than directly; I can understand his depression, his sense of being alone and feeling that he doesn’t belong, but the particulars are different.

“Hello in there!” Charlie calls into his empty mailbox. “Rats,” he laments, disappointed but not surprised. “Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

I’ve long been more of a loner than a member of a pack, and while there are individual moments that arise throughout the year that make me wish the opposite was true (and while the Christmas season is certainly one of those times), the self-pity he exhibits is a ride I jumped off a long time ago. Sure, I hop on again for a brief run every now and then, but I’ve mellowed (and possibly matured) over the last decade and lost the sharp peaks and valleys that can come with only partly wanting to be part of a scene that doesn’t want you. And that’s totally on me and my unwillingness to trust groups.

I am not a joiner. I don’t like large, affiliated groups. I don’t like having to trust a mass of people over an individual. I don’t like being associated with an entity that’s going to act without my consent. Yet there are times when I question that; there was a night early in my undergrad life at Syracuse where some friends and I ended up at a raging house party. I remember walking up the rising front lawn to this large house, people idly hanging out on the grass as music played from somewhere in the back and thinking, “I could get used to this.” And then I remember walking around the side of the house to the backyard where hundreds of people were all jammed together, getting plastered and generally acting like idiots.

I didn’t want any part of it. I think.

At the time I blamed it on a kind of sensory overload and, of course, my childish desire to not do what the cool kids were doing out of spite. I wasn’t going to be a cliche and go to college and spend all my time partying. Post-undergrad, I eventually came around to the notion that what made me turn away from that backyard kegger wasn’t an unwillingness to be a cliche, but rather an uncomfortableness with a gathering that loud, that fun, and that out of control. I couldn’t simply let go and be stupid. I thought I was too smart for that, but I was wrong; I was too unwilling to not be too smart for that. That’s never really left, and I think Charlie Brown and I do have that in common, as Chuck never feels comfortable in group settings in CHRISTMAS. He feels much more comfortable dealing with people as individuals; put him near a group and his desire to control it overcomes him. He can’t let go.

One never really knows how much of our childhood experience becomes imprinted on us, or how whether any connections we see looking back on our childhood are merely coincidences, but I was noticed something in watching CHRISTMAS about 12 times tonight that I’d never picked up on before – most meaningful relationships I’ve had with women are exemplified pretty strongly by the Charlie Brown-Lucy relationship in CHRISTMAS.

Lucy is kind of awesome, but also kind of a b*tch. She’s willing to play psychoanalyst to Charlie, but only on her terms. She offers the role of director to Chuck, and doesn’t bat an eye when others question her decision, but her strength of self is matched by occasional bouts of extreme neediness. When Charlie is in directing dictator mode, he complains to Lucy that they’ve got to get on track and do the play. “That’s right,” Lucy realizes. “What about my part?” she demands, then with a smile and rapidly blinking eyes, asks, “What about the Christmas Queen, hmm?” When Chuck doesn’t immediately reply, Lucy is back in aggressive mode. “Are you going to let all this beauty go to waste?” she wants to know with a frown, which is immediately transformed back into a smile. “You do think I’m beautiful, don’t you, Charlie Brown?” When Chuck again doesn’t immediately respond, Lucy becomes confused and then angry: “You didn’t answer right away. You had to think about it first. If you thought I was beautiful, you would have spoken right up. I know when I’ve been insulted!”

She storms off without waiting for a response, leaving Charlie alone to look skyward and lament, “Good grief.”

Good grief, indeed, as Chuck bears the brunt of Lucy’s neediness even though she’s in love with Schroeder. And there is my history with women in a nutshell – too many Lucys and too much time spent playing Charlie Brown instead of Schroeder, too often willing to be someone else’s back-up plan instead of forcing myself into a leading role.

That’s on me. You can say that it’s silly to keep trying to kick a football when your Lucy keeps yanking it away, but if you want to kick that football and there’s no other way … if you stop trying you might stop looking silly, but you’re also resigning yourself to never making that kick. Once you resign yourself to never making that kick, you can become content with your failure, and once you become content with failure, failure can become debilitating. That party that you couldn’t decide if you wanted to join or not has decided you’re worse than unwanted – you’re irrelevant.

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS ends on a high note after Chuck’s lowest moment. Taking his tiny tree and going home, he decides to decorate the tree with some of the exorbitant ornaments on Snoopy’s doghouse, but when he places a single red ball on the tree, the weight of the ornament bends the thin trunk to the ground. “Everything I touch gets ruined!” he screams and abandons his tree and his hopes. The other kids come along and fix up the tree and while I dislike the transformation of the wispy tree into a more traditionally-formed triangular tree (I don’t like the message that the way to become “good” is to conform to expectations), it signifies the other kids acceptance of everything Charlie Brown has been preaching all special long. Lucy still calls him a blockhead but admits “he did get a nice tree,” and then they offer Chuck a hearty, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” when he wanders back.

The special ends with Chuck finding his place in the group, as everyone joins in for a rousing rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!”

There is no sense of Charlie Brown becoming wholly integrated into the group, but there is a powerful and heartwarming acknowledgment that Christmas has a power to bring people together.

Even if it’s only for a night.

And sometimes that’s enough – for you and the group.

Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.

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