"We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know." So says Lucy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which turns 40 this month.
By 1965, Charlie Brown and his friends already had penetrated American popular culture. Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip, which he started in 1950, already had inspired a best-selling book and a wide range of merchandising tie-ins, but "Peanuts" had yet to be featured in its own television show. Then Time magazine did a cover story about Schulz in April 1965. Eight months later, Schulz and former Disney animator Bill Melendez delivered the first of nearly 50 television specials.
Christmas television was on a roll in the 1960s: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" made its debut in 1964, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in 1966 and "Frosty the Snowman" in 1969.
Somehow, though, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" remains the gold standard, perhaps because it still seems so modern. It's hard to believe that this show was made when Lyndon B. Johnson was in office and "Bonanza" was the biggest hit on television. It is, after all, a children's Christmas story about a kid who's depressed.
"I think there must be something wrong with me," Charlie tells Linus. "Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I always end up feeling depressed."
And Charlie relies on Lucy, a pre-
adolescent quack who dispenses psychiatric advice at 5 cents per session. "If we can find out what you're afraid of," she declares, "we can label it." It was only 1965, but Lucy had seen the future.
With a little sleight of hand, the story then turns to the idea that the overcommercialization of the holiday is responsible for Charlie's diminished emotional wellness. And the evidence is everywhere. Lucy, who delights in "that beautiful sound of cold, hard cash," confesses that she hates her toys and bicycle and other presents of Christmas past -- what she really wants is real estate.
Little Sally, a toddler not yet old enough to write but with an acute sense of entitlement, dictates her letter to Santa with the request that he just send cash: "All I want is what's coming to me. All I want is my fair share."
Even Snoopy is made delirious by a flier for a neighborhood decorating contest that reads, "Find the true meaning of Christmas. Win money, money, money."
Then the show does something extraordinary for network TV. In its low-key, minimalist way, with the cool jazz piano of Vince Guaraldi in the background, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" resorts to old-time religion.
Charlie's directorial debut at the school auditorium is going poorly. He needs to be saved. He follows a light in the east to a Christmas tree lot. The fancy aluminum trees are well accommodated, but there seems to be no room in this inn for one little runt of a tree.
Charlie embraces it and is mocked by his peers for doing so. Linus recites from the Gospel of Luke, wraps the tree in his swaddling blanket and, lo, the tree becomes radiant. Charlie is redeemed, and the children all sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." And the over-commercialization that plagued Charlie has been vanquished.
It's commonplace now for movies such as "Jingle All the Way" to take on the holiday-industrial complex. It wasn't so commonplace in 1965. In the end, though, Lucy was right: Christmas is a big commercial racket, and Christmas TV specials are an important part of that racket. Christmas television helped fuel the growth in holiday spending and extend the holiday season.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" has launched a commercial bonanza of its own. If you take a quick look online or in mail-order catalogues, here's a small sampling of what you might find: a set of two "Charlie Brown Christmas" vinyl bobbleheads, $26; a "Charlie Brown Christmas" sweatshirt, $23; a three-piece set of scenes from the show rendered in ceramic, $37.50; a book about the show, $29.99; a 40th-anniversary CD, $14.99: and, of course, the DVD, $16.99.
You've got to think that Lucy, Sally and Snoopy are loving this -- a shopping list of items celebrating a show in which materialism was the problem.
But still, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was one of the nice things about the 20th century, and it's good to see the show still can make it on network TV in the 21st.
Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, says he will watch the show again this year for about the 35th time -- having missed a couple of years while in college.