One of the pleasures of the holiday season is feeling nostalgic, and indulging in the annual rituals that remind us of past happy times.
For those of us who love pop culture, those rituals include watching the annual airings of vintage holiday TV programs. Which may explain the incredible longevity of such specials as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which marked its 50th anniversary last year, and "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
In honor of that milestone, ABC (2) is presenting "It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!," a special preceding the network's showing of the animated classic. "It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!" is hosted by Kristen Bell, and includes musical performances by guests Kristen Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison.
That's all well and good. But there are other reasons to make time to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on its 50th anniversary, again, whether you catch the Monday, Nov. 30 broadcast, or just fire up your own DVD copy. Here are some of them:
1. It's a trailblazer: "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez broke new ground. Instead of following the usual animation model of hiring adult actors to voice the characters, they cast actual children. It was an inspired choice. The innocence and sometimes clunky line readings by the young voices are far more affecting than it would have been to hearJune Foray as Lucy, or Morey Amsterdam as Charlie Brown.
2. It captures the "Peanuts" magic: Recent years have brought us plenty of animated movies that try to appeal both to parents and children. Too often, that means wised-up jokes for the adults tacked on to stories meant to engage kids. But what made "Peanuts" such a phenomenon -- notably in the early 1960s, when the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special was made -- was Schulz' genius for blending kid-friendly humor (Snoopy's antcis) with mature themes (Charlie Brown's neuroses, Lucy's 5-cents psychiatric help stand.)
3. The "Mad Men" connection you didn't know about: In a 2008 making-of documentary included with the "Charlie Brown Christmas" 50th anniversary DVD, Mendelson recalls getting a call from the ad agency McCann Erickson in the early '60s, saying their client, Coca-Cola, was looking for a Christmas special. Mendelson said yes, he recalls, and the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special was born. The film begins with a scene of the kids playing "Crack the Whip" while ice-skating. Charlie Brown is shown crashing into a tree. In the original version, Linus crashed into a Coca-Cola sign, Mendelson says. "Mad Men" fans will recall that the AMC series saw Don Draper (Jon Hamm) working for McCann Erickson, and, in the series finale, having a vision of the agency's famous 1971 "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial. Maybe Charlie Brown made an impression on Don Draper?
4. That fabulous music: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" might not have had such staying power without the utterly infectious musical score by jazz musician and composer Vince Guaraldi.
5.It incorporates Bible verse without being divisive: We've all heard about the supposed "war on Christmas," a favorite seasonal topic of Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly, who argues that mainstream American culture is trying to remove any religious connotations from the holiday. Religious faith was important to Schulz, and when Charlie Brown is despairing over how Christmas has become too commercial and lost its meaning, Linus says: "I can tell you what Christmas is all about." Linus walks onto an elementary-school stage and recites from the King James version of the Bible's Book of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-14, including the line: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." Linus finishes, says, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Without getting into politicized arguments, Charlie Brown responds: "Linus is right. I won't let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas."
6. It's a Learning Opportunity: Charlie Brown has self-esteem problems that won't quit. He frets over not getting Christmas cards in the mail. "I know nobody likes me," he says. "Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?" When Charlie Brown returns with the skimpy Christmas tree he's bought, this is what he gets: "Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown." "You're hopeless, Charlie Brown. Completely hopeless." Parents, this is a good time to tell your own kids not to be so mean, for crying out loud.
7. Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree: That pitifully sparse little tree has become a holiday icon. As Linus says, it's not such a bad little tree -- maybe it just needs some love. The kids gather round, decorate it, and the pathetic tree becomes festive. Then they happily shout, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"
"It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown" airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30 on ABC (2); "A Charlie Brown Christmas" follows, at 9 p.m.
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