Nearly every Christmas TV special has its marquee stars: its Rudolphs and Frostys, Charlie Browns and Grinches. But during this special time of year — when yuletide stories remind us that God blesses all of us, every one, even the cartoon characters whose names no one can remember — it only seems appropriate to shine a spotlight on the supporting players we sometimes forget. This is a tribute to two of the unsung heroes of holiday pop culture.
If you know your Peanuts history, you know Shermy was once a semi-significant character in the comic strip. In the earliest days of Charles M. Schulz’s creation, back when the characters were squatter versions of themselves, Shermy was part of a much smaller ensemble.
The ensemble grew and Shermy’s role shrank. In 1969, he was tossed out 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 inspired Charlie Brown calls you boring, you’ve achieved the ultimate in dullness.
But somehow — though if asked to identify him, most people would 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.”
In the hierarchy of “A 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 that opens this 1965 animated gem, 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 skills are limited to a move best described as 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 on the air. The kid is a true pioneer.
“Every Christmas, it’s the same — I always end up playing a shepherd,” Shermy says in his only line, which regrettably, ABC has cut out of recent broadcasts. He always ends up playing a shepherd because he’s so nondescript. But you know what? Shermy owns nondescript. No one is better at it.
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.
Despite being a cranky recluse, a thief and a liar, the Grinch redeems himself in the final five minutes of the 1966 half-hour animated classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which re-airs Christmas night on ABC.
Yes, Mr. Anti-Whos-Down-in-Whoville — the creature most of us would not touch with a 39 1 / 2-foot pole — does what so many heroes in timeless holiday stories do: He becomes a better person (or thing, in the Grinch’s case?) by finally allowing the Christmas spirit to teach him kindness.
But there is another character in “The Grinch” who already knows what it means to be loyal and kind, who willingly wears a tree branch on his head without one whimper of complaint and who already recognizes that Christmas Day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands (or paws) to clasp.
Max the dog.
How did the Grinch become Max’s master? Neither the Chuck Jones holiday special nor Seuss’s book ever explains this. It seems unlikely that the bloated old troll would have adopted him from a shelter. It seems equally implausible that Max was a stray that just happened to wander all the way up to the Grinch’s hermit lair overlooking Whoville, a place, by the way, in desperate need of an extreme home makeover.
However it happened, one thing is clear: Max puts up with some serious abuse.
By my estimation, during the roughly 26-minute runtime of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Max endures:
●The wearing of uncomfortable antler-esque head gear that strips him of his animal identity, which will undoubtedly result in long-term dog/reindeer confusion. (That’s a real psychological condition. Look it up.)
●Becoming a victim of animal abuse, such as merciless whipping, having to drag a sleigh, and getting squashed by packages lobbed from the tops of Who houses.
●Serving as an unwitting accomplice to the Grinch’s crimes, which include but are not limited to: breaking and entering, burglary, trespassing, violating a restraining order that requires the Grinch to remain at least 25 feet away from Cindy Lou Who, and the theft of Santa Claus’s and Dasher’s (or maybe Dancer’s?) identities.
●Having to hang out with the Grinch, who, as established by the show’s theme song, stinks in every conceivable verb tense. (Stink, stank and stunk.)
But Max handles it all with good cheer because Max is a dog — possibly a beagle, maybe a mutt — with spunk and grace. Do you think a cat would put up with all this? If the Grinch were a cat-lady shut-in, this show would be five minutes long and would consist of the Grinch trying to convince his mewing diva to wear reindeer antlers until he finally gave up and decided to lob snowballs at the Whos instead.
The good news for Max is that the Grinch does transform, so much so that he carves the first, freshest slice of roast beast for his sweet, ridiculously tolerant pup. And since the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day, we have to assume that life for Max also got gentler, warmer and better.
Max deserves that, perhaps even more than the Grinch.