In the great 1947 Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street, Judge Harper (played by Gene Lockhart) is all set to rule that there is no Santa Claus, until his shrewd political adviser Charlie Halloran (played by William Frawley) convinces him that such a ruling would be political suicide. Obama could have used a Charlie Halloran before scheduling last night’s speech on Afghanistan. I am referring not to the substance of Obama’s speech, which I will leave to the analysis of keener minds than my own, but to its timing. Obama’s speech completely preempted ABC’s broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas, much to the dismay of the many families all set to watch this other Christmas classic.
Just as Miracle on 34th Street dates from the golden age of Hollywood Christmas movies, made within two years of John Ford’s Three Godfathers, The Bishop’s Wife, and It’s A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas dates from the heyday of network children’s Christmas specials, premiering in 1965, one year after Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and one year before The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Significantly, all of these films and TV specials predate the full flowering of the War Against Christmas, which has made the very mention of Christmas controversial and harmed the creative impulse that used to try to add to the celebration of this matchless holiday.
It is impossible to imagine a television network today making a show like A Charlie Brown Christmas. Just think about it: The plot revolves around the production of a Nativity play in a public school, there is no mention of any holiday other than Christmas, it ends with all the Peanuts singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and its dramatic highpoint is Linus’ recitation of Luke’s account of the angels appearing to the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve.
Even in 1965, Charles Schulz had to battle network executives who wanted to delete the recitation of Luke’s Gospel. A Charlie Brown Christmas is not the only children’s television special of that era to focus on the religious core of Christmas—as a kid I remember watching both The Little Drummer Boy and The Night the Animals Talked—but it is the one that has remained a fixture on American television, with Linus’ recitation of Luke airing every year without fail since 1965.
Despite a storyline that would horrify any ACLU lawyer or proponent of multiculturalism, A Charlie Brown Christmas was embraced by both the public and critics in 1965: half of American televisions were tuned in to watch the premier, and the show won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. The music has also become a classic, with any playing of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” the jazz number the children dance to while ignoring Charlie Brown’s attempts to direct their play, a certain gateway to warm nostalgia for anyone of my generation. Harriet Van Horne, one of the leading liberal columnists of the era, wrote that “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.” That’s probably not how a Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow would react to a student reading from the Bible in a public school today.
Of course, the reason A Charlie Brown Christmas endures is not because it is didactic, but because it tells its story in a wonderful and memorable way. It is a reflection of a culture that, by and large, saw nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas and everything right about trying to add to that celebration. And once the celebration of Christmas in America again becomes as natural and innocent as it was for the children of Charles Schulz’ imagination, we will know the War Against Christmas is over and the good guys have won.