We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate

This is a season of traditions: those comforting rituals that we reiterate on an annual basis because no matter how small some of them may be (like the making of home-baked ginger snaps), they have become imbued with powerful memories of home and loved ones, such that these little ceremonies carry a weight of meaning far in excess of their actual ability to signify.

There used to be a coterie of movies that belonged to these same holiday traditions—certain films like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life that were consistently and regularly replayed on commercial television on certain holidays.  You could almost set your watch to them. 

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-7

Since its original broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most enduring and beloved holiday mainstays—and its history has a curious Mobius strip like effect.  When you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas this year—in whatever media you do (broadcast, on-demand, iTunes download, DVD, Blu-Ray, hallucinatory memory)—you are participating in a metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes!  Betcha didn’t even know that!

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-6

As you know, because you’ve probably got his holiday gem memorized like I do, A Charlie Brown Christmas is in part a rumination on the deleterious commercialization of the holiday.  Lucy leads the pro-commercialization brigade, with her hopes for the gaudiest aluminum tree possible, while Charlie helplessly bemoans what he sees as a cultural train barreling unstoppably towards a destination he doesn’t want.  Ultimately, Linus breaks the tension by forcibly reorienting everyone’s attention back on the religious meaning of the holiday.

Before we even get started with the legacy of this television special, it is already mired in ironies from its own pre-history.  For one thing, the network executives at CBS were displeased with Linus’ extended Bible recitation, and tried to have it removed.  Charles Schultz held his ground and insisted the scene stay.

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-9

It’s easy to laugh at the cluelessness of the CBS executives.  The list of things CBS thought were terrible about the special is an almost perfect match to the list of things people have loved about it for nearly 50 years: the jazz score by Vince Guaraldi, the lack of a laugh track, the child actors doing the voices, and Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke.  When director Bill Melendez brought the finished product to CBS, they took a forlorn look at it and said they had no choice but to air it, but figured they’d never run it a second time.

Obviously the joke was on them, and stories like this should give pause to any network suit who feels too certain about their pronouncements of what’s going to be liked or not—Melendez left that meeting believing he’d destroyed the Peanuts, but really the only reason he hadn’t destroyed the Peanuts is he didn’t listen to what CBS said.

But let’s not make too much out of the absurdly wrong-headed network notes—the important detail to take from this story is that A Charlie Brown Christmas may be about the commercialization of Christmas, but it is itself a product of that commercialization.

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-5

CBS just wanted a TV special starring the popular Peanuts gang.  They didn’t want any idiosyncratic ideas or social satire (even though those were the very attributes that made Peanuts popular in the first place).  The TV special was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and plugs for Coke were dutifully laced into the dialogue (these Coke references have since been cut from the film and are no longer shown).

When A Charlie Brown Christmas was then watched by 50% of the TV viewing audience, it wasn’t just a vindication of Melendez’ quirky aesthetics, it was a vindication of CBS’ belief that airing a Peanuts TV special would be a good way to sell ads.  For the next 40-plus years, Charlie Brown would continue to be a solid ratings-getter—its 40th anniversary broadcast in 2005 was the top-rated show in its time-slot.  And over these years, additional cuts would be inflicted—not just to remove the preferential product placement of Coke but to make way for more and more ads.

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-1

That’s not to say that the show is a crass work of commercial intent.  A Charlie Brown Christmas is a paragon of sincerity and intimacy.  The child actors’ halting delivery, the ear-worm quality of the jazz soundtrack, the earnestness of its faith—these things connected to audiences because of their rough edges and idiosyncrasies.  Allegedly the satirical jabs at aluminum trees in the show led to a marked drop-off in sales—people liked aluminum trees until the Peanuts gang lampooned them, which says a lot about the power of this cartoon to get under people’s skin.

When Charlie Brown decries the commercialization of Christmas, what he’s calling for is a focus on the emotional bonds, the memories, the togetherness of the season.  A Charlie Brown Christmas celebrates and promotes those very values—and so it’s no surprise then that generations of families have found themselves gathering at Christmastime together, young and old alike, to watch the same program.

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-3

And this is the paradox—because A Charlie Brown Christmas brings so many people together happily and predictably, that very attribute is valuable to anyone who wishes to access those people.  The sincerity of Charlie Brown makes it a valuable marketing tool.  It is successful commercially by being anti-commercial, in a popular and populist way that brings together mass audiences.

Which brings us to the metatextual aspect I teased above.  When you engage with Charlie Brown Christmas in some other media form—watching a streaming video on your iPad or indulging in a Blu-Ray in your home theater—you will encounter the film in its purest state, stripped free of all the ads.  You no longer need to gather together at an hour appointed by advertisers, and your participation is no longer counted by Nielson.  But does this mean you have escaped the commercialization of A Charlie Brown Christmas?  Surely your very possession of one of those high-tech media devices means you were marketed to at some point, successfully, and if you enjoy Charlie Brown in such a solitary way, disconnected from the larger culture, isn’t that even more alienating?  Maybe the paradox of Charlie Brown’s simultaneous commercial/anti-commercial existence is in perfect harmony, and can only be disrupted by such tampering.

And with that in mind, maybe it’s about time we put the Coca Cola ads back in and saw this thing in its Director’s Cut form!

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-8

(PS–every week when I go to illustrate these entries, I often find myself flummoxed and frustrated by some movie that I had perceived as exceptionally visually dynamic refusing to yield any iconic frame grabs, or something I thought was gripping and dramatic utterly failing to offer up any obvious clips.  This week was a crazy cinch.  I clicked my mouse more or less randomly through the video file and every single time I did it was a perfect frame grab, worthy of standing as a sole representative of what this show is all about.  There isn’t a single bad frame in its entire 25 minute running time.  Utterly fantastic.)

0 Response We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate
Posted By Julie Stapel : December 15, 2012 9:40 am

Great post. Makes me want to go watch the show. Meta-text or not.

Posted By Julie Stapel : December 15, 2012 9:40 am

Great post. Makes me want to go watch the show. Meta-text or not.

Posted By Jenni : December 15, 2012 10:59 am

Count me as one of that generation that grew up watching this lovely Christmas cartoon. I bought the soundtrack cd about 15 years ago and it is part of our Christmas music traditions. I also fondly remember the commercials for Dolley Madison baked goods during this show-love those Zingers!! There is also a new irony this year about the Charlie Brown Christmas that was in the news. A church in Little Rock, AR evidently has shown the cartoon for several years now, inviting younger elementary grades from local schools to view it, making this an annual field trip. Some parents didn’t like it this time, and contacted a group called “Free Thought” who threatened a lawsuit to be filed at the school district. So the church took back their invite to the schools, and decided to show it on a Saturday to whoever in the public wanted to come. Very ironic, imho,that a group who supports “Free Thought” would be so threatened by a cartoon!

Posted By Jenni : December 15, 2012 10:59 am

Count me as one of that generation that grew up watching this lovely Christmas cartoon. I bought the soundtrack cd about 15 years ago and it is part of our Christmas music traditions. I also fondly remember the commercials for Dolley Madison baked goods during this show-love those Zingers!! There is also a new irony this year about the Charlie Brown Christmas that was in the news. A church in Little Rock, AR evidently has shown the cartoon for several years now, inviting younger elementary grades from local schools to view it, making this an annual field trip. Some parents didn’t like it this time, and contacted a group called “Free Thought” who threatened a lawsuit to be filed at the school district. So the church took back their invite to the schools, and decided to show it on a Saturday to whoever in the public wanted to come. Very ironic, imho,that a group who supports “Free Thought” would be so threatened by a cartoon!

Posted By Tom S : December 15, 2012 11:00 am

I really love the animation of everyone dancing to Linus and Lucy in the auditorium- they’re all very simple animation loops individually, mostly the characters flipping back and forth between two poses, but none of them are dancing in the same way or in quite the same rhythm (except the two twins, who are doing the same dance in mirror image), so the overall scene has an amazing complexity. Plus, every single dance is both adorable and something that would be fun to do.

Posted By Tom S : December 15, 2012 11:00 am

I really love the animation of everyone dancing to Linus and Lucy in the auditorium- they’re all very simple animation loops individually, mostly the characters flipping back and forth between two poses, but none of them are dancing in the same way or in quite the same rhythm (except the two twins, who are doing the same dance in mirror image), so the overall scene has an amazing complexity. Plus, every single dance is both adorable and something that would be fun to do.

Posted By Lamar : December 15, 2012 12:12 pm

I second the call for a Director’s Cut with the Coke references restored. I imagine Coca-Cola could be talked into sponsoring it. One of the things was one of the kids flying off the ice pond and hitting a snow covered sign that revealed Coca Cola when it was hit.

Posted By Lamar : December 15, 2012 12:12 pm

I second the call for a Director’s Cut with the Coke references restored. I imagine Coca-Cola could be talked into sponsoring it. One of the things was one of the kids flying off the ice pond and hitting a snow covered sign that revealed Coca Cola when it was hit.

Posted By Doug : December 15, 2012 4:09 pm

Thank you, David, for this fine post! I listened to “Linus and Lucy” just the other night at work. I had never considered what you call the “metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes” but it makes sense. We love a commercial which exploits our love of Christmas and love of Peanuts, which means that the commercial has done its job.
We don’t mind-considering the era, the “Charlie Brown Christmas” may have been conceived by ‘Mad Men’ such as inhabit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising. There’s some more meta for another textual.
I’m glad that Charles Schultz stood his ground about Linus reciting the passage from Luke. It does indeed separate “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from all other holiday evergreens.

Posted By Doug : December 15, 2012 4:09 pm

Thank you, David, for this fine post! I listened to “Linus and Lucy” just the other night at work. I had never considered what you call the “metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes” but it makes sense. We love a commercial which exploits our love of Christmas and love of Peanuts, which means that the commercial has done its job.
We don’t mind-considering the era, the “Charlie Brown Christmas” may have been conceived by ‘Mad Men’ such as inhabit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising. There’s some more meta for another textual.
I’m glad that Charles Schultz stood his ground about Linus reciting the passage from Luke. It does indeed separate “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from all other holiday evergreens.

Posted By robbushblog : December 16, 2012 2:59 am

I don’t care if I’ve been a victim of commercialization in this case. I’ve bought the special twice and also own the soundtrack. I even had one of the small Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but it broke. I love this special and it’s usually the first or second special I watch each year.

Posted By robbushblog : December 16, 2012 2:59 am

I don’t care if I’ve been a victim of commercialization in this case. I’ve bought the special twice and also own the soundtrack. I even had one of the small Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but it broke. I love this special and it’s usually the first or second special I watch each year.

Posted By Tom S : December 16, 2012 1:29 pm

The soundtrack is absolutely amazing, one of the only Christmas music things that never seems to get annoying.

Posted By Tom S : December 16, 2012 1:29 pm

The soundtrack is absolutely amazing, one of the only Christmas music things that never seems to get annoying.

Posted By Heidi : December 17, 2012 1:22 pm

Completely sucked into the commercialization of this one. I remember sitting in front of the tv with the whole family to watch it. I don’t recall the Coke ads, though. They must have been cut by then, or I just don’t remember them. I do remember decorating my dog’s house with lights one year. I watch this, Desk Set, two versions of Christmas Carol, White Christmas, The Shop around the Corner, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas every year. The Grinch is my Christmas eve tradition. I would love to see the restoration of Charlie Brown Christmas with the product placement. I own the vinyl album of Snoopy’s Christmas, too. It is the only place I have found Snoopy and the Red Baron. It is the first Christmas music played in my house! As for the “Free Thinkers” group, I have found, in general, that groups that proclaim themselves free thinking, or open minded, often are the exact opposite. THey think freely of their own beliefs, or moral code, but the mind snaps shut when confronted with a differing view. Who needs ‘em! Charlie Brown and the gang are welcome in my house any time.

Posted By Heidi : December 17, 2012 1:22 pm

Completely sucked into the commercialization of this one. I remember sitting in front of the tv with the whole family to watch it. I don’t recall the Coke ads, though. They must have been cut by then, or I just don’t remember them. I do remember decorating my dog’s house with lights one year. I watch this, Desk Set, two versions of Christmas Carol, White Christmas, The Shop around the Corner, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas every year. The Grinch is my Christmas eve tradition. I would love to see the restoration of Charlie Brown Christmas with the product placement. I own the vinyl album of Snoopy’s Christmas, too. It is the only place I have found Snoopy and the Red Baron. It is the first Christmas music played in my house! As for the “Free Thinkers” group, I have found, in general, that groups that proclaim themselves free thinking, or open minded, often are the exact opposite. THey think freely of their own beliefs, or moral code, but the mind snaps shut when confronted with a differing view. Who needs ‘em! Charlie Brown and the gang are welcome in my house any time.

Posted By robbushblog : December 17, 2012 8:32 pm

Everyone is close-minded in some way or another. I never claim to be open-minded because I know I am not. Few other people have the honesty to admit as much.

Posted By robbushblog : December 17, 2012 8:32 pm

Everyone is close-minded in some way or another. I never claim to be open-minded because I know I am not. Few other people have the honesty to admit as much.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 3:18 pm

I think there’s a pretty fair reason that people might protest having a public school sponsored trip to a Church, and I think Free Thinkers has historically meant people who don’t like the idea of coercive religion. I doubt it was Charlie Brown they were especially opposed to.

Everyone has built in prejudices and blinders, but the problem comes in when one refuses to make any attempt to see around them.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2012 3:18 pm

I think there’s a pretty fair reason that people might protest having a public school sponsored trip to a Church, and I think Free Thinkers has historically meant people who don’t like the idea of coercive religion. I doubt it was Charlie Brown they were especially opposed to.

Everyone has built in prejudices and blinders, but the problem comes in when one refuses to make any attempt to see around them.

Posted By swac44 : December 18, 2012 4:47 pm

As that special about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas points out, the very first Peanuts animation came about because the characters were licensed for use in Ford ads:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nndFzfzI1Ik

And here they are 20 years later, hawking those Dolly Madison cakes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9m61oMqPKY

Too bad none of the Coca Cola footage has surfaced, all I could find on YouTube was the show’s final fade out with a “brought to you by the bottlers of Coca Cola” voiceover.

Posted By swac44 : December 18, 2012 4:47 pm

As that special about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas points out, the very first Peanuts animation came about because the characters were licensed for use in Ford ads:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nndFzfzI1Ik

And here they are 20 years later, hawking those Dolly Madison cakes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9m61oMqPKY

Too bad none of the Coca Cola footage has surfaced, all I could find on YouTube was the show’s final fade out with a “brought to you by the bottlers of Coca Cola” voiceover.

Posted By Jenni : December 19, 2012 12:34 am

The Zingers ad! Thanks for finding that! :)

Posted By Jenni : December 19, 2012 12:34 am

The Zingers ad! Thanks for finding that! :)

Posted By Doug : December 19, 2012 3:24 am

swac44-thank you! I’m still grinning from that Ford ad! To see not only Lucy and Charlie Brown, but also the 1960 mighty Falcon!

Posted By Doug : December 19, 2012 3:24 am

swac44-thank you! I’m still grinning from that Ford ad! To see not only Lucy and Charlie Brown, but also the 1960 mighty Falcon!

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies