A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn’t just exciting for me and my family, friends and schoolmates when the TV special debuted 50 years ago this month, on Dec. 9, 1965.
It was also a revelation: Charlie Brown could actually talk!
Everybody faithfully read the Peanuts comic strip in the newspaper, both the weekday black-and-white version and the Saturday colour one.
We knew the characters and their quirks well: fretting Charlie Brown, bullying Lucy, philosophizing Linus (with his security blanket), piano-pounding Schroeder, hot-dogging Snoopy and many more.
What we didn’t know was the sound of their voices, and how they looked in motion. There had never been a Charlie Brown TV show or film before.
I was 9 years old, not that much older than the age of Charlie and his pals. I was aware that A Charlie Brown Christmas was coming, because it received a fair bit of advance publicity on TV and in the two newspapers my family read: the Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram (RIP).
Enthusiasm was high as my family and I sat down to watch it together on our big old B&W television set. The grainy images came in through one of the three American channels — 2, 4 and 7 — that we pulled in via an antenna my Dad had set up in the attic, because it was verboten in our neighbourhood to have it on the roof. This was also pre-cable TV. I didn’t see A Charlie Brown Christmas in colour or in sharp focus until sometime in the 1970s.
I loved seeing the Peanuts gang skating on the pond in their neighbourhood, singing “Christmas Time is Here.” I didn’t know at the time that it was unusual that child actors rather than adult ones voiced the characters.
I laughed at the weird dancing of the kids at school, not to rock ’n’ roll but to Vince Guaraldi’s bouncy jazz score, another innovation and inspiration that has kept this Yuletide perennial fresh. To this day, it’s the only Christmas music I don’t mind hearing played over and over.
I identified with Charlie’s distress over the commercialization of Christmas, even though, like any capitalist kid, I had a list of Christmas presents I wanted.
My sweet tooth ached for the ads for delectable Dolly Madison donuts, which weren’t available in Canada then and are still hard to find here. Whenever I visited the U.S., I would seek out Dolly Madison donuts, all because of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It was all over in what seemed like a flash — the show runs just 25 minutes — and I recall feeling faintly disappointed when it ended.
Was that all there was? Perhaps my critical instincts were kicking in early.
But the show has grown steadily in my affection over the years, which is why I rate it higher as a nostalgic adult than I did as an ever-so-slightly disappointed 9-year-old.
I used Guaraldi’s score as the music for a first-year journalism project at Carleton University in 1974, thinking myself clever. But everybody in the class immediately recognized it, asking me why I was using the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I’ve seen the show at least once every year since that first viewing a half century ago. It doesn’t seem like Christmas until I’ve watched the show, even if it’s just me by myself with my iPad, sitting by a roaring artificial fire.
I always get a lump in my throat when the Peanuts gang gather around Charlie’s sad little Christmas tree and sing, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Fifty years doesn’t seem so long ago, after all.