Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It’s an oft-repeated, tongue-in-cheek axiom quipped by comedic figures like Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Alan Alda (in Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors).

The inherent cynicism in this remark is both jarring and comical. But in the art of Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts comic strip, there is some truth to it. In one portion of his fascinating new book, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Miracle: The Inspiring, Untold Story of the Making of a Holiday Classic, author Michael Keane narrates the sad story of Schulz’s failed relationship with Donna Johnson Wold, a young woman with “violent red hair.”

Donna was Charles’s first love, but she was torn in her devotions between Schulz and another man. In the end, as Keane explains, Donna left Charles and chose the other man, adding to a long string of childhood humiliations that he collected “the way other people might collect stamps or seashells.”

But this rejection bred creativity. As Keane observes, “The day his affections were spurned by the woman he loved was the day that forged the character of Charlie Brown.” The relatable, sad-sack little boy would always suffer unrequited love for a little red-haired girl, and this suffering fueled the kind of comedy that leads most viewers to laugh endearingly, perhaps even sharing what Keane calls a “wince of recognition.”

Humor in sadness

The most effective moments of Keane’s book come from the pervasive underdog stories of those closest to the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, including producer Lee Mendelson, director Bill Melendez, musician Vince Guaraldi, and Schulz himself, the heart and originator of all things Peanuts.

Before the creation of the Christmas special, Mendelson’s underdog status had already been solidified for Schulz based on a project that they had partnered on the previous year. Mendelson had reached out to Schulz about making a documentary on his life and work. Schulz promptly refused—until he learned that Mendelson had produced a film about one of Schulz’s longtime heroes, the baseball star Willie Mays. Schulz finally agreed to the documentary, titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown. But the project, on all counts, was a major flop. It was never picked up by a network and has never been aired.

After introducing Mendelson, Keane spends a good amount of time on the against-all-odds life of Melendez, a Mexican immigrant who found success as an animator, voice actor, and director. Another chapter is devoted to the unlikely collaboration of Schulz (a classical music afficionado) with Guaraldi (a jazz pianist). Most of the creative pairings involved in bringing Charlie Brown to the small screen were unlikely, atypical, and perhaps even miraculous.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in December 1965, becoming only the second animated Christmas special shown on American television. Its 1964 predecessor, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, was much glossier and more commercial, with well-known adult actors (including Burl Ives), brightly colored stop-motion animation, a laugh track, a comfortably secular story, and jolly Christmas music.

In almost every respect, A Charlie Brown Christmas offered a sharp contrast to the Rudolph special. It employed child actors (Schulz insisted on this for authenticity); contained imperfect, minimalistic animation (Keane provides a list of the mistakes); featured no laugh track; included atypical Christmas music (jazz); and paused midstory for a lengthy reading from the Gospel of Luke. When the completed special was previewed for three CBS executives, one of them warned the producer, Mendelson, that “the Bible thing scares us.”

Not only was the special deemed dangerously “religious,” but it also dealt with difficult adult topics like depression. In the opening lines of A Charlie Brown Christmas, an Eeyore-like little round-headed boy shares his complicated feelings about the “most wonderful time of the year”:

I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

Charlie Brown’s feelings of alienation and sadness still strike a chord with many. Although Schulz often treated mental health issues in a gently humorous way—such as Lucy’s psychiatry booth—he deserves credit for giving them real attention. As Keane notes, the children in the story—especially Linus—are both adult and childlike, innocent and intelligent at the same time. Somewhat like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Peanuts cartoons in general, and A Charlie Brown Christmas in particular, made the invisible, unspoken topics of isolation, loneliness, and depression both visible and spoken.

Schulz’s own lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression provided a consistent backdrop to Charlie Brown’s story. Emphasizing this, Keane begins his chapter on Schulz’s life with a poignant quote from a commemorative collection of his comic strips, You Don’t Look 35, Charlie Brown! “Happiness does not create humor,” wrote the cartoonist. “There’s nothing funny about being happy. Sadness creates humor. … It’s funny because it’s not happening to us.” Yet in the case of the Charlie Brown story, Schulz illustrated what he had known and experienced.

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This real-world, emotionally authentic focus is what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas arguably the best children’s Christmas special. Through his satirically relatable cast of off-kilter characters, Schulz emphasized the true need for Christmas. Rejecting the consumerist promises of manufactured, faux-heavenly Christmas cheer so prevalent in other Christmas specials and advertisements, A Charlie Brown Christmas reminds us that our fallen lives are painful and that we need a savior. As Linus affirms after reciting Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Just as Charlie Brown and his little Christmas tree are misunderstood, mocked, and rejected, so was the Savior of the world—a Savior who came to save the very people who rejected him.

In Keane’s insightful discussion of those sacred, still moments when Linus quotes from Scripture, he notes that Linus drops his much-loved “security blanket” (a term popularized by Linus’s character) when he recites the words “Fear not.” Words like these or “be not afraid,” Keane writes, “are rich with biblical import.” He quotes a remark from Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, who linked Linus’s newfound bravery to Schulz’s own bravery in daring to place God’s Word at the center of the story. As Stanton explained to animation historian Charles Solomon, “They stopped everything: just a single spotlight on a kid standing onstage, saying this long passage. It was very moving because of the stillness, because of everything stopping for the simplicity of it.”

Scrappy sincerity

These and other highlights from the book reflect Keane’s warm and engaging storytelling. Although each chapter focuses on a different “player” in the story—including the Coca-Cola Company, Marion Harper Jr. of the McCann Erickson advertising agency, and Neil Reagan of CBS (and brother of Ronald Reagan)—the nonlinear narrative eventually ties together in a very satisfying way.

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In each chapter, Keane dives deep into the backgrounds of each “player,” and much of the information does not relate directly to the Christmas special and its making. Nevertheless, Keane is a masterful storyteller, and the details are often captivating. (For instance, Neil and Ronald Reagan’s father, Jack, refused to allow his sons to attend the debut screening of D. W. Griffith’s racist propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation—even if they were the only two boys in town who didn’t go.) While reading, I frequently found myself searching Google for images of (and further information about) these fascinating individuals who lived during an equally fascinating period of history. On occasion, I was frustrated by the amount of extraneous detail, which can feel tedious. But the profoundly human and against-all-odds nature of the production of A Charlie Brown Christmas was enough to win me over, leaving me wanting to know more.

At its best , Charlie Brown’s Christmas Miracle reminds us that Jesus’ birth is a story that speaks to the sacred worth of the underdog. The scrappy sincerity of A Charlie Brown Christmas combines gentle reminders of childhood wounds with enough subversive snark to remind us that Christmas is a time of both joy and lament. Keane’s work also speaks to how creating and engaging with art can be both therapeutic and spiritually formative. We might even call it incarnational.

Mary McCampbell writes and teaches on contemporary fiction, film, and popular culture. She is the author of Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy.

Charlie Brown's Christmas Miracle: The Inspiring, Untold Story of the Making of a Holiday Classic
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Charlie Brown's Christmas Miracle: The Inspiring, Untold Story of the Making of a Holiday Classic
Author
Publisher
Center Street
Release Date
October 17, 2023
Pages
304
Price
20.67
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