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Every Day's a Holiday, Charlie Brown!

  Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz drew his world-famous Peanuts comic strip for nearly fifty years, starting in 1950; his final work was published on the same day as his death in 2000, but even this distance after continues to be popular. There was a time when it seemed as if every kid in the world had at least one Peanuts compilation book, or had watched one of the TV specials which peppered the small screen, always a treat since they appeared irregularly, therefore you never knew when they were going to have a new instalment pop up. Naturally the most popular efforts would show up year after year, especially the seasonal ones, and it was A Charlie Brown Christmas that was first in 1965, remaining a favourite among the public for over half a century. But Schulz and his collaborator on these, director Bill Melendez, did not stop with Christmas to celebrate, for they would have a special for every point in the calendar thereafter.

The other big holiday was Easter, hence the Peanuts gang met Snoopy in an alternate guise in 1974 with It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown! Rather than tell the story of the Crucifixion and resurrection, which would have been something too complex for the audience to take in, Schulz told a tale verging on the pagan, representing the holiday as a time of rebirth as Spring arrived and the land shook off the chills of Winter. There was no Easter Bunny, though there was a sequence where Snoopy fantasised about rabbits dancing around, but there were Easter eggs as Peppermint Patty tried and failed to get Marcie to boil the foodstuffs so they could paint them ("Marcie! You made egg soup! AUGH!") as meanwhile Lucy has more success, even if her brother Linus was insisting that titular pooch would bring them all eggs, so there was no need. The trademark melancholy was nicely balanced against the humour as usual, so while there were observations that the stores were selling Christmas goods already, Woodstock's nest became waterlogged, and guess who didn't get their Easter Egg, there were compensations in the laughs.

One aspect that kids in Britain became familiar with in these TV specials was the unfamiliar. Take another Spring-derived yarn, nobody in this country would have had the slightest notion what Arbor Day was, and yet here they were with It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown! in 1976, which seemed to be something to do with trees. Indeed, there may have been quite a number of Americans who didn't know what it was either (Sally claims in her unprepared school report that it's the day when the ships sail into the 'arbor), so Schulz really had his educating hat on this time as the Peanuts embrace the concept by planting a garden on the local baseball diamond. There was another thing that seemed typically American to foreign eyes: the love of baseball, as in the UK we had the similar rounders for the kids to play and that was it, though you did not need to understand the rules to perceive that Charlie might win the day against Peppermint Patty's team for the first time ever. Perhaps all the greenery (including a tree on the mound) worked in his favour, though he could not expect to be fortunate for long, the universe being what it was.

This was noticeably the case with 1975's Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, where predictably nobody wants to be Charlie's Valentine at all, no matter how much he wishes for it. He waits outside his mailbox, he carries a suitcase to school to put all the cards he hopes for inside, but it's all for naught, he doesn't get anything in yet another bittersweet life lesson for the character, though this time the emphasis was more on the bitter than the sweet. But he wasn't the only one not getting what he wanted, as Schulz explored the notion of unrequited love with Sally thinking Linus has bought her a large heart-shaped box of chocolates, but he's actually bought it for his trombone-voiced teacher, who naturally has a boyfriend that he wasn't aware of, and Lucy pines after Schroeder (who, ever the moralist, delivers the message that it's better to get no Valentine cards than an insincere one), leading to an extraordinary sequences where she smashes up his piano contemplating the sheer Hell of missing out on that one great love. This would seem to be one of the most heartfelt and melancholy shorts, and even Charlie's note of optimism at the end rings hollow.

Schulz and his loyal producers Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson were keen to continue manufacturing these specials, and continued to do so up until the former two's deaths, but as far as holidays and special occasions went, the inspiration began to run dry in the eighties. Take 1992's It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown, which took the second season of the year to return to a favourite subject of the cartoonist, baseball, specifically the start of the Little League season. The thing was, this was possibly the least-seen special to that date since its broadcast was cancelled and it was sneaked out on video in 1996, to little fanfare, never mind acclaim. With the creative trio behind it, this was recognisably Peanuts - the same animation technique, character design, children voicing the gang and so on - but the sketchlike presentation failed it as Charlie tries to win a set of uniforms for his team by winning that opening game. Not a terrible premise, but one thing stood out: Franklin's encouraging rap which the team danced to, nothing to give The Wu Tang Clan sleepless nights, and a jarring moment that came across as patronising Schulz's most visible move towards racial inclusion. Still, you couldn't really get mad at it, it was innocuous enough, but the laughs and more importantly observations were thin on the ground.

Come Autumn (or Fall, as the gang would say) there are two main holidays in The United States, Thanksgiving and Halloween. For the latter, Schulz penned a genuine classic in 1966, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, something universal enough to be broadcast around the world and become as much a part of the season as A Charlie Brown Christmas was for its celebration. It was the third special he and Melendez made, after the forgettable Charlie Brown's All-Stars, but the premise of trusting Linus trying to make the title character arrive through sheer willpower as he sat in the pumpkin patch was almost profound in its faith, not to mention its denial of all that was reasonable (hey, give him a break, he was only a kid). Sally was hooked into this world by her unrequited affection for Linus and offered a supreme meltdown when she realised she had wasted her time better spent at trick or treat - unless you were Charlie, who kept getting rocks as gifts when his contemporaries received candy, another harsh life lesson (for a kid who rarely got a break). Also worth mentioning were Snoopy's World War II flyer costume that saw him battle in the skies over an imaginary France, and Lucy's first football trick on Charlie.

As for Thanksgiving, the best recalled short on that subject was, naturally, 1973's A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and when we join him he is worrying that Christmas decorations are in the shops already, which sounds almost quaint nowadays when they are available, indeed promoted, in September. This holiday was guaranteed to baffle the average non-American child, or at least feel as if there was nothing here for them, but they were broadcast outside the United States anyway seeing as how these were celebrated cartoons with a worldwide following. You couldn't move for Peanuts merchandise in the seventies and eighties, every kid had some example of it, a soft toy, a paperback book compilation of strips, some stickers, in fact considering the suspicion Schulz had of commercialisation he didn't half embrace the concept for his own characters. As for this instalment, Peppermint Patty invites herself, Marcie and Franklin over to Charlie's where Snoopy horrifies her by serving up toast and popcorn instead of turkey and potatoes since they don't know how to cook a roast, but it all works out in the end and they understand the true meaning of being thankful for what you have. That at least was a universal message everyone could relate to.

In 1988 Schulz and Melendez were feeling civic-minded and produced a series of history lessons for the younger Peanuts fans called This is America, Charlie Brown, and its Thanksgiving episode, The Mayflower Voyagers, was occasionally shown as a standalone special. It was controversial since it not only showed the gang (or some of them, at least) in historical settings, but also included adult characters who interacted with the kids in normal speaking voices rather than the wonky brass sounds usually utilised for them. But grown-ups had been seen in these efforts before, always when it was unavoidable not to do so, and just because they were never seen in the source strips didn't mean the television incarnation stuck to those rules, however jarring it came across in these episodes - the children did look a little lost, even superfluous, in many scenes. As for this Thanksgiving story, it adapted the accepted tale, telling us the Pilgrims had left England to escape religious persecution when in actuality they felt the nation was too liberal and wanted the freedom to religiously persecute, and all the horror of the betrayal of the Indians was left out, but what did you expect? These were the basics for showing in schools, no matter that they were a curious fit for Schulz's characters.

Mind you, come the eighties Schulz and Melendez were running out of holidays to celebrate, and the release of Flashdance might not have prompted many to take a day off, though we nevertheless had It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown to watch in 1984. The following year they had a better idea, and using much the same voice cast which included Fergie, future of the Black-Eyed Peas as Sally (though oddly they got someone else to provide her singing voice), they assembled the gang for an event that takes place every year, multiple times to different people: a wedding. Except as the title suggests, in Snoopy's Getting Married, Charlie Brown it was not a person whose nuptials we were concerned with, but a dog's as Charlie's faithful beagle decided to tie the knot with a French poodle (it's always a poodle an animated dog falls for, isn't it?). Naturally, Snoop gets cold feet (or paws), though this instalment offered us a chance to see his brother Spike, a whip-thin, trilby-sporting desert-dweller to who spent most of the story travelling to wherever it is that the Peanuts gang lived. Once there, we had Snoopy's bachelor party (toasted with foaming root beer) and everyone making the wedding feast, but Schulz's feelings about marriage were to the fore when things didn't work out as expected, and that was for the best in this case.

Al those one off specials with apparently spurious premises could be traced way back to the second ever effort, Charlie Brown's All-Stars, which was the first to take baseball as its subject, but far better than that would arrive in 1974 with possibly the best of the non-holiday episodes, It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown. This presented quite a bit of silent comedy, at least for its first two-thirds, as Woodstock is seen taking great care to build a nest, then takes a swim in the bird bath that goes horribly wrong when a storm blows up, then Snoopy saves him, restores him to his former fluffiness, and sets him on his way... to discover his beloved nest has been stolen! Cue Snoop donning his Sherlock Holmes costume and setting out to retrieve his little friend's property by visiting a selection of the Peanuts characters, effectively a series of sketches as the beagle and bird interact with the others. This was possibly one of the cutest of the series (Snoopy's bubble pipe keeps drenching Woodstock, for instance), especially if you like the little ball of feathers, though bear in mind once the culprit was found, there was a surprising amount of chat as Lucy turns judge (instead of her usual psychiatrist role) to ascertain who gets to walk off with the nest; thankfully a punchline in the last scene recovered the mood.

Surprisingly, it took until 1986 for Charlie to stay up for New Year's Eve in the special Happy New Year, Charlie Brown!, though that might have been because the celebration was so close to Christmas. That holiday was mentioned here, but it was the run up to January the 1st that troubled our hero in this instalment, particularly since he had been given a book assignment to read by his teacher (talking, naturally, with the muted trombone sound all adults did in these cartoons). Quite what Charlie was supposed to get out of War and Peace at his age was a mystery, all it represented was yet another hurdle for him on his uncertain path to happiness, which Schulz as ever was reluctant to offer him, and as Peppermint Patty wants to invite him to her New Year's party (because she quite fancies "Chuck" herself), there's yet another complication. For a start, he can't dance, although he does try, but he has a brainwave when he realises he can invite the unrequited love of his life, the Little Red-Haired Girl (who we learn is named Heather), to the occasion. How well do you think that goes? About as well as could be expected, yes. Incidentally, fans of Snoopy would be short changed by this as he was hardly in it, though he did get a funny bit when he sniffs Lucy's root beer.

Which brings us to where it all started. Not even the animators, never mind the channel executives, had any hopes for A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, it was widely expected to be a flop since it went against so much of the Hanna-Barbera domination of television animation with its simple, some say simplistic, storylines, cheap animation, professional voice actors and explicit commercialism. Yes, that last was significant for it was what was worrying Charlie about the festive season, he could not feel much empathy with the Christmas spirit when all around him appear to the dedicated to the receiving of presents, so when he is given the chance to direct his class's play, he jumps at it. Now he can convey what he wants to be the true spirit of the occasion, something that is in keeping with what that old cliché tells us is most important, peace on Earth and goodwill to all men (and women. And children. And pet dogs that have suspiciously high levels of intelligence enabling them to read newspapers and decorate their kennels with various fairy lights, paper chains and baubles). However, young Master Brown being who he is, it does not all go his way, and soon he is experiencing insubordination and even outright ridicule.

But for all the seriousness, A Charlie Brown Christmas did feature some of the specials' funniest jokes, and slapstick that did not simply depict its hero failing to kick a football when Lucy pulls it out of the way at the last second. The opening as the Peanuts skate about a frozen pond ends in Snoopy flinging Charlie and Linus into the snow, such is his exuberance, and the verbal humour was witty and observant as Schulz wrote some of his best lines, as always from the heart as he shared the worries of his more sensitive characters. Combine this with Vince Guaraldi's quite brilliant jazz score which moved from the plaintive and haunting to the upbeat and catchy as the kids dance to Schroeder's piano, and it was clear this special was genuinely that, one of the finest cartoons ever created for the small screen. After Charlie fetches the most pathetic fir tree he can find, not out of spite but because he feels it represents the kindness Christmas should bring out, he is laughed at by everyone until Linus helps out his best friend by delivering the Christmas message from The Gospel of Luke, a note of striking spirituality that hits home no matter what your personal beliefs. This redeems Charlie, and indeed his classmates, and somehow in a landscape of crass television a little piece of magic was made, something the medium has tried to recapture across the world ever since. No wonder they made so many of these, and no wonder they have appealed for so long.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006