This is a reprint of an essay I wrote a year ago for the Popgun Chaos Blog. I re-post it today because a) it is still relevant, and b) A Charlie Brown Christmas airs tonight. I guess it is my way of bringing a little criticism to the holiday season. Or at the very least, to the way we celebrate it in America.
How many times have we seen A Charlie Brown Christmas? When originally written in 1965 this cartoon was seen to be the lone warrior standing up to say that Christmas is not about commercialism, it about the birth of Jesus. And while this show has aired every year since, its message grows more obscure because it is now a part of the nostalgic Christmas experience.
Nostalgia is a major marketing tool. Vintage slogans are making a comeback. “Going back to our roots” is a buzz phrase. It plays out in a variety of fields. Nintendo owes a large part of their place in the video game market to nostalgia. The original Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda still sell. These were fun games, but they are technically inferior to what is currently being produced. The comic book sales are primarily to collectors or people who grew up reading comics. The major comic companies do still try to make inroads with younger readers, but thus far have had mixed results. VH1 hit on nostalgia gold with their “I Love the 80s” miniseries, which eventually led to similar series coving the 70s and 90s. “The Wedding Singer” and “That 70s Show” are both pop phenomenon that owe their success to nostalgia. There are even futurists attempting to determine what current pop culture trends could one day become nostalgic markets. The value of nostalgia is that it evokes feelings of simpler times. It reminds us of our childhood or teen years when we didn’t worry about jobs or bills and our parents took care of everything. Advertisers know that if they can capture those nostalgic feelings, we will buy products based on the memory these feelings evoke. And Christmas is rampant with nostalgia. The most popular versions of Christmas songs are sung by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, or other crooners because their styles reinforces a simpler time in American history, one of prosperity, elegant dresses, and stylish suits. These songs will be played ad infinitum as you wander from store to store. What other time of year will you see advertisements or cartoons that were first broadcast twenty years ago? Coca-Cola counts on this with its use of the polar bears in advertisements. Christmas brings its own wave of television specials, including several major stop-motion features. However, A Charlie Brown Christmas is arguably the biggest Christmas special of all.
The message of A Charlie Brown Christmas is twofold. First, there is the message of the birth of Christ, and second (and arguably greater) is the anti-commercial message. Charlie Brown is disillusioned by the commercialism of Christmas, the mandate that we have Christmas plays and big, shiny trees and presents. Charlie Brown laments that Christmas is all about commercialism. Linus finally reminds Charlie Brown that Christmas is about the birth of Christ.
In 2009, conservative web sites raged against President Obama when he chose to deliver an address on the war in Afghanistan and this address would preempt A Charlie Brown Christmas. The usual accusations were made: That it was the President’s pro-Muslim agenda, that it was done to block the Christian message of the special, that the President’s ego mandated that he be on television as much as possible. These accusations are amusing in their own right, but when the criticisms were made not a word was said about commercialism. In reality, we want to have it both ways. We want Jesus and we want commercialism. We want a savior born in a smelly barn, and we want to buy DVDs and books and video games. When President Obama threatened to take away Charlie Brown at Christmas, Christ was not threatened. We still have Bibles and churches and many people who want to talk about Jesus. No, we had a threat against the very core of what Christmas in America is: nostalgia. We had our very memories of Christmas threatened, that the very things that made Christmas special to us could not be passed to our children, whether those things are important or not. And it doesn’t just apply to The President. That same year, when ABC did finally show A Charlie Brown Christmas, they made cuts. The number of commercials inserted into a 30 minute television slots had increased since the show’s 1965 debut, and ABC cut a few scenes that, while not advancing the plot, added flavor. Gone were the scenes of Sally writing to Santa, Schroeder playing “Jingle Bells” to Lucy, and a scene were the children caught snowflakes on their tongues. There was a bit of an outcry against this as well. Granted, this outcry could be from film purists, yet I think The Herald Bulletin put it best. “These scenes don’t propel the plot but do capture what it’s like to be a kid at Christmastime.” In other words, nostalgia.
A Charlie Brown Christmas reminds us of what it is like to be a kid. It sparks those magic memories of Santa and Christmas lights and the mystery of boxes with colorful paper. It stirs in us the desire to bring those same feelings to our children. Marketers know this. Retail stores know this. Nostalgia sells big at Christmas. Sadly, A Charlie Brown Christmas is not a bastion against our consumerist culture, it is now a part of that consumerist culture. It is used to re-emphasizes the nostalgic importance of the Christmas season, which in turn prompts us to pursue these vague feeling even more. In the end, we spend more money, we work harder to make Christmas special with plays, big, shiny trees, and presents. And when people mess with Charlie Brown, they don’t mess with Jesus or anti-commercial sentiments. They mess with our memories, our childhood, and our feelings. They threaten our nostalgia.