“A Charlie Brown Christmas” — the classic Christmas special that reminds us magic really can happen if a bunch of kids wave their hands haphazardly in front of a scrawny tree — airs for the first time this season on ABC, tonight at 8.
When most of us think about this 30-minute animated gem, we think of Charlie Brown’s seasonal despair, or the bouncy appeal of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz score, or Linus’s moving speech about the meaning of Christmas. The person we tend not to think much about is Shermy. And that needs to change. Which is why Shermy is the first subject of what will be a reliably sporadic series of yuletide Celebritology posts on the Unsung Heroes of Holiday Pop Culture. Just think of them as the 99 percent of the Christmas entertainment world.
If you know your Peanuts history, you know that within the context of the comic strip, Shermy was once a semi-significant character. In the earliest days of Charles M. Schulz’s creation, back when the characters were shorter, squatter versions of themselves, Shermy was part of a much smaller ensemble.
Then that ensemble grew and Shermy’s role shrank. In 1969, he was tossed out of the strip entirely because Schulz said he was only including the nondescript boy when he “needed a character with very little personality.” When the man whose childhood existence inspired Charlie Brown calls you boring, that’s the ultimate achievement in the field of dullness.
But somehow — despite the fact that, if asked to identify him, most people will scratch their heads and guess “Is that Taller Linus?” — Shermy managed to make it into the most enduring of all the Peanuts TV specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And I would argue that he not only belongs there but is crucial to the proceedings. Or at least sort of crucial.
In the hierarchy of “Charlie Brown Christmas” characters, Shermy ranks as follows: many, many tiers below Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy; several notches below Schroeder and Sally; a tad below Pigpen and Frieda; right at the same level as Patty, the non-Peppermint version; and well above 5, a character best known for his often-imitated shoulder-shrug dance. (Feel free to call 5 what I often call him: White Franklin.)
Although Shermy isn’t included in the catch-snowflakes-on-your-tongue game, he does appear in the show-opening ice-skating scene, which clearly establishes that he is of some importance in the “Charlie Brown Christmas” universe.
His dance moves may be limited to Zombie Walk, but that demonstrates a prescience on his part. Shermy was dancing like an extra from “The Walking Dead” decades before that show was even on the air. The kid is a true pioneer.
When assigned a role in the Christmas play, Shermy winds up playing the shepherd. “Every Christmas, it’s the same,” he says in the only line he gets during the entire show. “I always end up playing a shepherd.” He always ends up playing a shepherd because he’s so nondescript. But you know what? Shermy owns that.
But most important, Shermy is there at the end, waving his cartoon hands to transform Charlie Brown’s scraggly collection of tired branches into a beautiful Christmas tree. You take away even two hands from the “Charlie Brown Christmas” equation and guess what happens. You wind up with a tree that isn’t quite as tall, lacks a lovely garland and only has half of its string of lights illuminated.
In short, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” needs Shermy — nay, we all need Shermy — to remind us that everyone, even the nondescript perpetual shepherds, can make a difference. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, Taller Linus.