The TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are sometimes called “timeless,” in that they appeal to viewers in the new millennium just as they did to viewers in the mid 1960s when they first appeared. But there’s a plausible argument that they’re actually quite dated.
Take the overarching themes of both. Linus believes that the Great Pumpkin will appear on Halloween night in the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere, and he admires his patch by saying, “There’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” The war between sincerity and hypocrisy has been over for a long time—in significant ways, not only are we unable to tell the difference, we don’t care that we can’t. Charlie Brown is troubled by the commercialism of Christmas, but nobody’s troubled by the commercialism of the holiday anymore. (Even the right-wingers battling in the so-called War on Christmas, who claim to be defending the “real” meaning of the season, mostly want salesclerks to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when they hand back your credit card.) So the philosophical underpinnings of both shows have largely crumbled over the last half-century.
There are other, smaller instances where the changed times between then and now are clearly visible. In The Great Pumpkin, the kids get cookies and popcorn balls for trick-or-treat. Nowadays, such homemade treats would be tossed into the garbage by parents fearing fiendish acts of neighborhood terrorism. In A Charlie Brown Christmas (which airs tonight on ABC), Lucy says that Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate, but in modern America, “syndicate” is heard almost exclusively as a verb and not a noun. (It’s still used to refer to criminal enterprises in other countries, though.) When Charlie Brown decides that a Christmas tree would set the proper mood for the Christmas play, Lucy tells him, “Perhaps a tree! A great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree! Maybe painted pink!”
In 1965, Lucy’s line neatly encapsulated the episode’s basic conflict between the commercialism of the holiday and the “real” meaning of Christmas. Forty-five years later, kids watching may have no idea what Lucy is talking about. If you remember the 1960s, however, you may remember how aluminum trees were once all the rage. Said a newspaper ad of 50 years ago: “The modern Christmas tree is one that lasts . . . designed of sparkling aluminum and naturally tapered to a realistic finish.” As realistic as fluttering, silvery aluminum can be, that is. But if you purchased such a tree, paying anywhere from $1.99 for a two-foot table model to $16.95 for a best-quality seven-footer (nearly $180 in current dollars), you probably wouldn’t just slap it down in the living room and leave it be. Sometimes an aluminum tree would be decorated with ornaments of all one color, but sometimes not. Because the apotheosis of the shiny aluminum Christmas tree was achieved by using a color wheel, which would provide changing hues of red, blue, yellow, and green to reflect off the tree. The color wheel would create a spectacular, cutting-edge, Christmas vibe in any modern 60s home.
You will remember that Charlie Brown bypassed the spectacular artificial trees at the Christmas-tree yard and chose a sad little pine tree instead. To him (and to Charles Schulz), an artificial tree represented a step too far into the world of commercial artifice, away from what’s “real” about Christmas. In our time, we’ve taken that step and countless more. Just like fish who don’t know they’re wet, millions of us neither know nor care that that commercial artifice is the world in which we live.
You can buy aluminum Christmas trees again these days. They’ve migrated over the last several years from hipster icon to something easily found in big-box stores, and some of them can be quite striking. Here’s a YouTube video of an original 60s-vintage tree, set to a holiday song by Frank Sinatra.
(H/t the Daily Mirror, a fascinating blog at LATimes.com that revisits the history of Los Angeles and the United States through LA newspaper features from the past.)