I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?
… All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.
Forty-four years ago – on December 9, 1965 – cartoonist Charles M. Schulz brought life to his comic strip “Peanuts” and gave the world its first anti-capitalist Christmas special. As the Cold War raged and LBJ reportedly made the world safe for democracy, pop culture received an unexpected push leftward with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It seems pretty clear that the CBS executives who approved of the special viewed it as simple family fare, but the show broke ground on several levels, not the least of which was the stand against the corporate opportunism which has become the hallmark of Christmas, indeed all of our major holidays. And this in a time before items such as outdoor lights for Halloween or Valentine’s Day existed. Back in 1965 and even into the ’70s, NO Christmas-themed commercial aired on television until Thanksgiving evening. My, how times have changed.
Schulz’s message throughout this powerful cartoon is the search for the true meaning of Christmas and to illustrate this, his protagonist Charlie Brown encounters a series of overtly commercial angles, schemes and machinations, attempts to baldly profit by the holiday. While Charlie Brown rebels against these at every turn, his friends, his little sister and even his dog are roped in and become a part of the glitz.
Ever the dysfunctional depressive, Charlie seeks out faux psychiatric help and is encouraged to serve as director of his school’s Christmas play. But even the so-called “doctor,” schoolmate Lucy Van Pelt, offers that she is regularly disappointed with the holiday take, for she never gets the gift she seeks: real estate. Lucy tells Charlie that Christmas has indeed gone commercial as it is “run by an eastern syndicate,” apparently exposing the very Madison Avenue businesses which sponsored the program. Schulz was brilliant. More so, Charlie Brown’s seemingly innocent sister, Sally, turns out to be the preeminent profit-seeker, crafting a letter to Santa which states that she has been very good and thus expects an exceptionally long list of gifts, but ultimately will settle for cash. When her brother gasps at this crass display of self-indulgence, Sally’s absurdly candid reply – “I just want what’s coming to me” – stands as metaphor for the worst kind of greed. Sally just wants what she feels is due her; there really is no innocence after all.
Charlie Brown’s attempts at organizing his friends in the play are earnest; momentarily, he has a sense of purpose and feels his talents can help to forge a worthy production. But here again Schulz throws a monkey wrench into the works when Charlie “the Organizer” is thwarted almost immediately after rehearsal begins by Lucy’s interrupting shout of “Lunch break! Lunch break!” in the classic union shop style. Yes, the Organizer is stymied, it would seem, by the Shop Steward. Is this another display of attempts to trump the worker or perhaps Charlie, now in the director’s chair, takes on the role of boss and in this sense becomes the target for rebellion? It’s anybody’s guess. Schulz was certain to never really let on what his political views were.
Charles Schulz was a quite religious man who, for many years, taught in Sunday School. Christian values were important to him and this is evidenced by the moving speech Linus makes in the “Charlie Brown Christmas” special, a direct Biblical quote from the Gospel of Luke. Later, however, Schulz described himself as simply a “secular humanist.” Charlie Brown, at his core, was a symbol of man’s isolation and whether we see that as a struggle for recognition of the common worker in the face of capitalist greed or simply as loneliness, the message remains the same. We can’t make it out there alone. But the meaning of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” more than any other, is how the true beauty of such a holy day can be crushed in one fell swoop of commercialization, how the spiritual and community-based holiday has been pre-empted by corporate greed. The rising popularity of “Peanuts” and all of its characters during the later 1960s, embraced by the counter-culture even more so than the children of the day, also speaks to the message inherent in it.
Perhaps the saddest example of corporate greed as it relates to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the airing that happened this year on ABC, when a variety of lines were cut from the show to make room for … more commercials.
Hark, the herald advertising executives sing.
This article was originally published on the Conducive Chronicle blog, 12/9/09.