In a world of dazzling CGI special effects and ever more postmodern, cleverly-interwoven stories, the beautiful simplicity of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is striking.
Holding close to the look and spirit of Charlie Schulz’s immortally-brilliant comic strip Peanuts, the animated Christmas special features, as you might expect given the title, Charlie Brown as the very centre of its story.
Poor put-upon, existentially-torn Charlie Brown – the kid with no friends (he does but they’re a tad fickle or in the case of Snoopy, hilariously contrary), little self-belief and an almost-constant sense that life is out to get him.
Who of us hasn’t, at some point or another, or for much of our lives, felt like Charlie Brown?
As a kid who was horrifically bullied right throughout school, largely for being gay and not fitting in with the crowd, who, stupidly or not, refused to sell himself out for even a modicum of “popularity”, I identified with Charlie Brown from the moment I met him.
Sure I loved Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and Sally and the rest of the Peanuts gang, but it was Charlie Brown who made the most sense to me, the kid who wanted so much more from life than it seemed willing to give and who struggled with how he was often left feeling by its seemingly unfathomable twists, turns and permutations.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is so affecting, and so popular all these years later, not simply out of nostalgia alone.
Quite apart from its quirky sweetness – the skating scene at the beginning, as with the dancing on stage sequence later on, is pure exuberant, contented joy – it taps into this very real sense we all have that we’re not always feeling the way we think we should be feeling.
Or more accurately, how we want to feel.
Throughout A Charlie Brown Christmas our eponymous hero of the moment, and he is the hero, do not for a second think he’s not, struggles with the fact that he should be feeling happier than he is.
After all, it’s Christmas – lights are sparkling, decorations are up (especially on Snoopy’s gorgeously-decorated, lit-up kennel which naturally wins first prize in the neighbourhood Christmas decorating competition (as always Snoopy is the yin to Charlie Brown’s yang), he’s directing the Christmas play and by every possible marker, he should be feeling great.
But he’s not, and he struggles, with no help from Lucy who’s more concerned with the nickel he pays her that dispensing actual advice – this is but one of the tropes of the comic strip that makes an appearance, reaffirming that we are in a Peanuts world, after all – to feel inside in a way that matches the festive glitz and glamour of a world in which everyone is getting Christmas cards but him.
It’s only really when he comes across a poor bedraggled Christmas tree in a lot filled with glitzy, extravagantly-decorated companions that he realises that he is not alone.
He must know the others, bar Linus, will mock his choice; after all, the tree is small, has only a few branches and is losing pine needles by the dozen at a time, hardly the sort of impressive tree that should be the centrepiece of the big Christmas pageant.
Yet he persists with his choice, a brave decision which comes to fruition when the other kids, including Snoopy who, humourously and yet a little cruelly, doesn’t quite get the whole “man’s best friend” thing, come to mock him once again (thanks guys) only to come around and realise what a beautiful tree it could be.
It’s then that Charlie Brown, included, accepted and loved, though a little late for my liking (yeah, it’s the bullied kid in me coming out), feels the full extent of Christmas, which is, after all, about acceptance and love, and embracing those who have no home, or friends or sense of place.
That is the greatest gift of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is full of all kinds of life and faith-affirming goodness – witness Linus delivering the evocative verses from Luke 2 in a spotlight on stage, blanket in hand – but especially the idea that we all have worth and value, no matter how the world mocks us, and that if any time of the year should be inclusive and loving (honestly I would like all year but I, and I suspect Charlie Brown too, will take what I can get), it should be Christmas.