Animation Did Away With Aluminum Trees in 1965.

The Original Color Art for today.

The Original Color Art for today.

There’s not a whole lot that I like about the Holiday Season. I pretty much attempt to wait it out, like some kind of siege, until it is over. It is pretty hard to avoid, and if you don’t have the “Christmas Spirit,” it’s a whole lot like being the one Soccer Fan at a Super Bowl party. There are pretty much three things that I like about the Holiday Season, being a cultural outsider to it: Trans Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas in Sarajevo, War is Over by John Lennon, and the availability of Egg Nog.

I also have always been impressed with the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. That’s probably predictable, since I’ve pretty much been a proponent of the elegant simplicity of his work. Despite the heavy handed Christian overtones, the Special is amazing…for the simplicity of animation and script, the smart message and tone, and the courage it took in 1965 to actually BE overtly religious on television. In that time frame, that just wasn’t done.

In summary, lead character Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite the onset of the cheerful holiday season. Lucy suggests he direct a school Christmas play, but he is both ignored and mocked by his peers. The story touches on the over-commercialization and secularism of Christmas, and serves to remind viewers of the true meaning of Christmas. That where it gets religious, because it directly connects, in a way that television and children’s media rarely do, to a non-secular message. In it’s time period, that was a huge risk. Schulz refused to do the special without Linus’ dialogue about the meaning of Christmas. Plenty of execs thought the special was going to be a huge flop, and in fact, if it had not been slated to air one week after the pre-screening, they might have pulled it.

Hard to believe, huh?

Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program’s soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation, led both the producers and network to wrongly envision the project as a disaster preceding its broadcast.

It has since been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award. It became an annual broadcast in the United States, and has been aired during the Christmas season traditionally every year since its premiere. Its jazz soundtrack also achieved commercial success, going triple platinum in the US. Live theatrical versions of A Charlie Brown Christmas have been staged. ABC currently holds the rights to the special, and broadcasts it at least twice during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

That’s pretty impressive for something that was considered to be a flop.

Most famous, perhaps in the story is the commentary on Christmas Commercialism. Lucy sends Charlie Brown out to get a HUGE aluminum tree for the school play. With Linus in tow, Charlie Brown sets off on his quest. When they get to the tree market, filled with numerous trees fitting Lucy’s description, Charlie Brown zeroes in on a small sapling which is the only real tree on the lot. Linus is reluctant about Charlie Brown’s choice, but Charlie Brown is convinced that after decorating it, it will be just right for the play. Being fair here, about the bare bones script…Charlie Brown chooses the tree out of his desire to find something authentic in an artificial season, and is convinced that the others will see his point. Kind of an amazing subtext.

They return to the auditorium with the tree, at which point the children (particularly the girls and Snoopy) ridicule, then laugh at Charlie Brown before walking away. This is basic form for the content of any Peanuts material, but also interesting in that since Charlie Brown has not indulged commercialism, or the values of the group, he is cast out, and made to feel unwelcome.

In perhaps the most famous sequence of the simply animated show, Charlie Brown quietly picks up the little tree and walks out of the auditorium, intending to take the tree home to decorate and show the others it will work in the play as an “O Tannenbaum” instrumental plays in the background. On the way, he stops at Snoopy’s decorated doghouse, which now sports a first prize blue ribbon for winning the display contest. He puts an ornamental ball on the top of his tree; the branch, with the ball still on it, promptly flops over to one side instead of remaining upright, prompting him to declare “I’ve killed it” and run off in disgust at his perpetual failure.

The tiny tree with the one ornament has become almost an emblem for both the show, it’s message, and the depressing commercialism of the season. When the other kids and Linus show up, they charmingly fix up the little tree using a combination of gentleness and Linus’ beloved security blanket. The whole thing is as a nice gesture to Charlie Brown, who is momentarily unbullied by his peers.

Linus and Charlie Brown selecting the tree, with Linus' later quote.

Linus and Charlie Brown selecting the tree, with Linus’ later quote.

Linus being cool.

Linus being cool.

The popularity of the special practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, when the special portrayed it negatively. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured. So, the little tree won in the end, I should think. The “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” has been used to comedic effect with people familiar with the special and has become synonymous with representing cheapness and frugality in holiday decoration. A model of the tree is offered by various retailers.

I have used the idea more than once with Baby Groot, although this was a direct reference today. It’s also why I led with the simpler color art. Despite the effort I put into a more ostentatious animated version, the simple color version felt closer to the feel of the 1965 era simple animation used. Still, I did work hard at merging the art with a background that I painstakingly designed, and then animated snow into, so lets look:

See?  Much flashier.

See? Much flashier.

So, for about a week now, some unknown force has been decorating our hero’s Baby Groot. Almost at random, it just keeps happening. She’s clearly not too happy about it. This is a metaphor for how the Holiday Season has been this year, by my reckoning. It seems like there isn’t much of it, and then suddenly it springs upon me full force and without warning. In little ways, that are weirdly invasive. See Pony? Pony is just tired of it, as can be seen by the eye roll happening.

Yep. However, it is Christmas Eve, so that means that these things are coming to their close. At least for another year, which is good enough for me.

The Black and White Inks.  You know, like Schulz' daily strip.

The Black and White Inks. You know, like Schulz’ daily strip.

Wow….that was introspective, educational, and generally positive. Tomorrow we will have to change that. Even now, I’m trying to figure out how you would smack a mythological figure with a dolphin.

Next Issue: Holiday Showdown!


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