Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"Isn't There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas Is All About?"
(Edited to add link to USA Today story.)
Forty years ago, many people perceived that Christmas was under attack by the annual frenzy of commercialism--our national obsession with shopping and decorations that threatened to swamp the true meaning of the season. Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, and Lee Mendelson were three of those people, and so in 1965 they produced A Charlie Brown Christmas in response--a quiet little television special that found everyman/outsider Charlie Brown searching for that true meaning, and finding it, thanks to his friend Linus. Since then, the program has become the quintessential holiday TV special--and it's back tonight on ABC.

Nowadays, we're used to entertainment ostensibly aimed at children that contains content adults can enjoy, too--think of the in-jokes that pepper animated theatrical films and shows on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Forty years ago, such programs were rare. So when CBS executives first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas, it wasn't what they were expecting, and they didn't like it. Not enough jokes, no laugh track, too slow-moving, too religious. It can be argued that the program isn't really a kids' show at all--but whatever it was, network executives saw it as that most deadly of things then and now: a thoughtful television program. But they put it on anyway, and despite their doubts, it was a hit. Pre-empting Gilligan's Island on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the second-highest rated program of the week, and TV critics adored it. Eventually, it won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

Another reason CBS objected to the show at first involved its contemporary jazz soundtrack, which was radically different from the norm for kids' TV. Even before I knew the first thing about jazz, I knew that I loved the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's a mix of traditional carols and original pieces, on which Vince Guaraldi's piano runs the spectrum from contemplative and cool to energetic and joyful. But give some love, too, to Jerry Granelli, whose percussion work is mostly done with brushes, which give the album the distinctive feel of falling snow throughout, and to bassist Fred Marshall, whose stuttering solo on "Christmas Time Is Here" and delicate swing on "O Tannenbaum" are highlights. (Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut recorded his own version of the soundtrack album a few years ago, and a new 40th annniversary tribute CD is out now--packaged in some stores with the original 1965 soundtrack.)

Even though A Charlie Brown Christmas was and is subversively anti-commercial, it needed sponsors to get on the air. Coca-Cola originally commissioned it, and its first broadcast contained two Coca-Cola product placements. When you watch it now, there's a scene at the beginning in which Snoopy tosses Linus off the skating rink. You see the toss but not the landing because originally, Linus crashed into a Coca-Cola sign. After the first broadcast in 1965, the scene was edited out, as was the message at the end, "Merry Christmas from your local Coca-Cola bottler," so as not to scare away other potential sponsors--such as Dolly Madison snack cakes, which sponsored the program throughout most of the 70s and 80s.

I expect that I'm not alone in saying that I've rarely missed a year watching A Charlie Brown Christmas since it first premiered. And for a long time, the program's concerns about commercialism seemed as dated as its reference to "a big, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree, maybe painted pink." In most American households, Santa and Jesus have long since co-existed peacefully, making no demands on one another. The last couple of years, of course, we've witnessed a hysterical and ridiculous attempt to "reclaim" Christmas from the evil secularists, the ironic effect of which, as a New York Times column noted over the weekend, is to re-commercialize the season. So it's appropriate that A Charlie Brown Christmas should return tonight for its 40th anniversary broadcast. It represents a moment of quiet contemplation during a season--and in a country--that doesn't have enough time for quiet contemplation.

(For much more on the show, the music, and other Peanuts animated specials, you couldn't do better than Scott McGuire's Peanuts Animation and Video Page, so click already. USA Today has an extensive piece on the show, too.)

Milestone: This post is the 1000th since The Daily Aneurysm began appearing on Blogspot on October 21, 2003. That's 1000 posts in 778 days (so at least our name is accurate). It represents an awful lot of shouting into the void--and I thank all denizens of the void.

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