[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 22.]
I used to like sentimental-type movies (think Lifetime Channel, tug-on-your-heartstrings, push-your-emotional buttons-type things). Or it would be songs like Randy Stonehill’s “Christmas at Denny’s.” At some point I got tired of having my feelings manipulated and I wanted something real. If that’s your thing, fine by me. I’m not judging. (Well, maybe a little, now and then.)
Christmas is almost the worst time for sentimentality—or best, depending on your view. Who doesn’t have at least one memory from some Christmas past that inspires some sort of nostalgia? Nostalgia has its place. At its best, it’s related to C.S. Lewis’ conception of joy, for which he was always searching. Surprised by Joy resonates because it’s an experience true to life. And Christmas is connected to an almost universal experience (although, I suppose Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews would quibble with that point). Otherwise, why would nearly every musician and band—Christian or not—produce some kind of Christmas album? Why do debates about Christmas movies rage every year? Why are there a billion movies about some sort of Christmas magic? Something clearly appeals about “this time of year.”
My children and I watched A Christmas Story Live this past Sunday night. Ever since TBS has aired 24 hours of A Christmas Story—and even before that—my childhood memories involve that movie. Sure, the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas was present, and A Charlie Brown Christmas as well, but A Christmas Story has always been my favorite. I think, now, that what made it unique was the combination of humorous childhood half-memory, witty narration, and a generation gap that made the events of the story both foreign and familiar. I’ve never (yet) read any of Jean Shepherd’s books, and I never heard him on the radio, but A Christmas Story is a classic as far as I’m concerned.
A Christmas Story Live, however, while it has its moments (I think Maya Rudolph pretty much does a perfect job), is just flat compared to the original. My children were bored—probably, at least in part, because of the commercials. My youngest son said he didn’t like all the “videos in between.” Talk about a generation gap! My kids, raised in the age of Netflix, have no sense of commercial breaks or, for that matter, of waiting an entire week for the next episode. And who has time to spend three hours watching a less-than-90-minute movie?
Part of the charm of the original is ruined for me by the not-so-subtle updating. Yes, we caught the radio news about Republicans. Yes, we get it, it’s all a “boys’ world.” That world probably was stifling for women in a lot of ways. And the mildly racist stereotype of the Chinese restaurant singers in the original would never be replicated today. For today’s woke audiences, the only acceptable jokes to retain are those about the chauvinistic fathers of the time. But did they go far enough? Surely 2017 has made impossible a movie about a boy wanting a gun for Christmas??!!! (No doubt the hot takes were written even before the cast took their bows.)
So nostalgia dies the death of a thousand uncomfortable silences, because someone in the room is choking on yet another bone of offense.
But what about sentimentality? It seems alive and well. We’ll (who’s “we”?) never get tired of one more movie proclaiming the “true meaning of Christmas,” whether it’s family, or “coming together,” or the true love of the one person who was always overlooked, though he or she was right there the whole time. Why else has The Grinch‘s criticism of materialism had such staying power? At least Die Hard has the advantage of not being bland.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, I suspect, has just the right combination of nostalgia and sentimentality. At least until you watch it. What a strange way to begin a “holiday special,” with the main character saying he likes everything about Christmas, but he still doesn’t feel happy. And even stranger is that an animated show with megalocephalic kids and incoherent adults can get at the heart of our conflicting feelings about the hap-hap-happiest time of the year. This half hour of animation is far more real than any hour-and-a-half holiday movie.
Even in 1965, the producer, Lee Mendelson, and the animator, Bill Melendez, were a little nervous about having Linus recite part of Luke 2 in answer to Charlie Brown’s question about the real meaning of Christmas. But Schulz’ original idea was not changed, and Linus’ recitation is the climax of the plot. Apparently, most of the principals involved thought it would be a disaster. Even so, it received the Emmy for “Outstanding Children’s Program” in 1966.
I suspect that if it came out in 2017, they’d have to add a song about Hanukkah and maybe a Kwanzaa carol. (And, for the record, I don’t care if you want to have TV specials celebrating every holiday everywhere. But let’s not pretend that combining all the holidays is more tolerant. It’s just more ignorant—and probably more boring.)
Charlie Brown’s opening words simply ring true: “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Perhaps this 50-year-old special has been such a hit because more people feel like Charlie Brown than would like to admit it. What is the point of Christmas? To keep reaching back into our past or our childhood in order to recover a particular sparkling, pine-scented memory? To keep up an appearance of being happy, even when we’re not? Is Christmas only for those who feel good?
There are a lot of diagnoses of holiday malaise and the lack of peace on earth. But A Charlie Brown Christmas gets closer to the cure than nearly anything else. And when churches are canceling services on Christmas Day so that people can spend time with their families, maybe Linus and Charlie Brown get closer to the cure even than those who should know better.