It has been 43 years since the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special first aired. It was broadcast again the last week of November, and the show holds more power over me now than it did when I was a kid.
I think I know why.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Americans, bolstered by stability and prosperity, married young and had large families. In my neighborhood, we had six kids, the Kreigers five, the Gillens four, the Greenaways four and so on.
The design was simple then for many folks: Many men and women believed that when they married, they became one under God. They believed their role was to sacrifice for their children, so their children could have better lives than they.
Their mission was to teach their kids good values and to provide them with an excellent education. That’s why so many moved into our neighborhood. It was located a few blocks from St. Germaine’s Catholic Church and School.
It was a traditional time, to be sure. Most of the dads went off to work while most of the moms kept an eye on both kids and neighborhood.
And although life for adults certainly had its limitations and challenges, there was no better time to be a kid. Especially during Christmas.
At Catholic school, we kicked off Christmas preparations one month before the big day. We put up decorations, sold items to raise money for the needy and practiced for Christmas concerts (we sang real Christmas songs, too, such as “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”).
We were just as busy at home. My mother was a master at building suspense. She played Mitch Miller’s Christmas albums on the stereo most nights after dinner and whistled to the tunes as we hung decorations and talked over what to get for one another. She celebrated the mystery of giving and taught us that being kind and helping others were the best things we could give.
Silly as it may sound today, the TV Christmas specials were a real event in our home. We all packed into the family room and plugged in the tree. We turned off all the lamps so that the Christmas lights would shine bright. Then we’d wait with great anticipation for the specials.
Every year I laughed out loud when the Grinch’s dog, massive antlers strapped to his tiny head, jumped up on the back of the sleigh, causing the Grinch to grimace. In “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Abominable Snowman terrified me, but I was always relieved when he turned out a lovable fuzz ball.
But the granddaddy of them all was the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special, a show that captured half the viewing audience when it first ran on Dec. 9, 1965. As it goes, Charlie Brown is depressed because everyone around him fails to see the true meaning of Christmas. Lucy complains that she doesn’t want stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes for Christmas, but real estate.
To resolve his depression, Charlie Brown throws himself into work as the director of the Christmas play. But that soon falls apart, too.
Distraught, he follows a light in the east and finds his way to a Christmas tree lot. The only tree he can find is a small sickly one.
When he brings it back, the others mock him. But then Linus comes to the rescue. Linus tells Charlie Brown he knows the real meaning of Christmas. He tells the story of Christ’s birth.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men,” he says, quoting from the Bible.
Suddenly, the other characters are transformed. They become compassionate and concerned. They decorate the tree and transform it into a thing of beauty. They wish Charlie Brown a Merry Christmas and sing a Christmas carol.
This show holds tremendous power over me still because it brings back powerful childhood memories — memories of security and love and the anticipation of Christmas morning.
But I love it for another reason. Despite Christmas being based on the birth of Christ, a historical figure – despite that the show’s innocence, simplicity and honesty still make it a ratings winner — it would never be made today.