Good Friday Morning, and Merry Christmas to each and every one of you! I hope you’re able to have a happy and safe Christmas season with friends and family. I know it’s not always possible given the current pandemic, but it’s still good to see people interacting with each other.
A shorter newsletter today, about Christmas, American culture, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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New COVID-19 strains should encourage more vigilance – The Conservative Institute.
America’s vaccine Hanukkah miracle – The Conservative Institute.
A Charlie Brown Christmas and American culture.
I listened to a podcast discussion of various Christmas movies recently, and the hosts went off on a rabbit trail on older movies. One point they made that I’d never considered was that one of the oldest classics couldn’t get made today: A Charlie Brown Christmas. They pointed to the last act where Linus reads scripture and explains that Christmas’s meaning comes from those Bible verses.
Could you air a new Christmas movie on television that unironically quoted scripture to explain a holiday and its meaning? That seems unlikely. It’s even more doubtful if nearly half the country was going to tune in to see the new movie, as happened with A Charlie Brown Christmas:
As Mendelson recalled in the documentary “The Making of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” Coca-Cola approved the outline and gave them six months to produce the special — an extremely tight deadline for an animated show, especially given that Peanuts had never been adapted for TV before.
Director Bill Melendez opted to use amateur children to voice most of the Peanuts characters, which meant he often had to feed lines to the 5- and 6-year-olds, resulting in the singsong cadence of the younger characters. Schulz’s decision to have Linus read a Bible passage was also seen as risky, since a Bible verse had never been animated.
When the special was finally complete, Mendelson and Melendez thought the whole thing was too slow and didn’t work and that they had ruined Charlie Brown. CBS didn’t like it either — saying it didn’t fit with what a children’s Christmas special looked like at the time.
“The general reaction was one of some disappointment — that it didn’t really translate as well as we thought it would,” former CBS executive Fred Silverman recalls. “There were specific negative comments about the music. Some of the voicing sounded amateurish. But it was a commitment and the film was made.”
Because the special was already printed in the TV listings, the network aired it anyway on Dec. 9, 1965 — and it earned a whopping 49 audience share, meaning nearly 50 percent of TVs on that night were tuned into “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
That’s the second part about A Charlie Brown Christmas. An influential corporation sponsored the creation and airing of the TV special. Would any HR or marketing department allow their corporation to take on a movie like this today? Especially with the explicit religious notes within this particular movie?
I bring it up because A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of those charming traditions and artifacts of American culture. We keep playing it every year because it’s one of the touchstones of modern American culture during Christmastime. Christmas is one of those periods which particularly fenced in by traditions. Unlike most other areas of culture, Americans adhere to time-honored Christmas traditions closely.
We allow new traditions on an individual family basis. Still, it takes continuing relevance over the years for a new cultural creation to become part of the Christmas zeitgeist for everyone. For instance, the movie Elf got released in 2003. It was commercially a success at the time (another Jon Favreau achievement story). Still, it’s taken nearly two decades for it to take on more of a traditional standing. It’s now easily part of the classic Christmas movie canon (for me, two films in my more recent Christmas canon are The Holiday and The Last Holiday, both from 2006).
Elf, however, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas, doesn’t contain something deemed “problematic” by “modern standards.” I put quotation marks there because the modern part of those standards truly is current (as in, the last two decades). Many films fit this bill. About a decade after Charlie Brown, the movie Blazing Saddles came out. One of Mel Brooks’s most underrated films. But because it deals with racism in particularly cheeky ways, it’s doubtful any studio would greenlight it today, even with the Mel Brooks pedigree.
More recently, the 2008 film Tropic Thunder features Robert Downey Jr. in black face. That movie feels like the last one under the bar before the modern hardline standards started kicking in on film. Since then, every minor thing gets placed under the microscope to see if it meets with whatever the woke rule of the day happens to be.
Christmas, however, is an interesting exception to these new “rules.” We still show Charlie Brown and many other movies that have religious themes to them. The impact of Christmas traditions has sort of frozen everything in place. Yes, you get the stupid culture wars of “Holidays” versus “Christmas,” but in reality, this is something that’s just added to the pile. American Christmas culture is an amalgamation of everything we’ve created for Christmas from the 20th Century forward.
For something so commercialized, Christmas traditions are just added, with very few taken away. And it works because that reflects how vast and varied the rituals are for individual counties and regions across the United States.
As an aside, one ritual you’ll find in the Middle Tennessee area involves all the locals going to the Gaylord Opryland hotel and getting their couple and family pictures taken in front of the various decorations. If you want to know if two people are still dating or getting married, look for the Opryland pictures in December. Other areas have similar regional quirks.
Part of what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas so unique in this regard is that in 1965 it was dealing with this very thing. Charlie Brown is depressed because he doesn’t know what Christmas is about, nor is there any evidence anyone else knows what the holiday celebrates. The culture seems to have lost meaning. Every person (and dog) he meets is asking for gifts, decorating, and more. Everyone is doing something different, but it’s mostly for themselves.
We talk about how commercialized our culture is, but that was equally true in the 1960s. Modern America, with its ads, toys, and gift-giving culture in a time of plenty, was ramping up. It just looked different than now, and the point Charles Shultz made in drawing Christmas back to its Christian roots stood out even in that time.
We’re in the ironic position of knowing that A Charlie Brown Christmas couldn’t be made that way again. However, we’re going to continue playing it because it’s part of the country’s Christmas traditions. That reveals something about the roots of which woke culture is trying to change things. They can challenge things without roots, but it’s much harder to alter beloved traditions.
If there was concrete truth involved with the woke movement, we might see plausible cases for changing Christmas entirely. But that’s not happening. They can only add on top of what already existed. You can’t force people to accept new traditions. You have to build from the ground up.
And I suppose that’s something that continues to give me hope for the future. We still have many great cultural foundation touchstones in this country that can’t get removed. Though I have no question, attempts will get made in the future. It’s still pretty challenging to change Christmas. Between that and what Christmas stands for, my hope for the country isn’t dwindling at all.
Merry Christmas to all. Have a blessed day with your friends and family.
Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.
[moves toward the center of the stage]
Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please.
[a spotlight shines on Linus]
Linus Van Pelt: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not:”
[Linus drops his security blanket on purpose]
Linus Van Pelt: “for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
Linus Van Pelt: [Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown] That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Links of the week
Schools Rethink Covid Rules. ‘We’re Over-Quarantining Kids Like Crazy.’ – Some district administrators and parents, armed with new data and fearing more disruptions from keeping students out of class, are pushing to reconsider policies – WSJ
How Much Herd Immunity Is Enough?: Scientists initially estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the population needed to acquire resistance to the coronavirus to banish it. Now Dr. Anthony Fauci and others are quietly shifting that number upward. – NYT
Federal Judge in California Flouts Catholic Diocese, Dares SCOTUS to Reverse Him: District Court: California’s complete prohibition on all indoor worship is permissible because the state permits worship outdoors. – Volokh Conspiracy
Republicans Aren’t Bored With Losing Yet – RealClearPolitics
Should Our Churches Be Open for Christmas This Year? Yes! – RealClearPolitics
The COVID-19 vaccine proves a new kind of vaccine works. What can it cure next? Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on a technology that uses mRNA to create an immune response. Now that it’s been proven, it can be applied to other viruses. What will that mean for public health? – Fast Company
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
In Blow To Biden Transition, Trump Reveals He Has Obtained The Darksaber – The Babylon Bee
Miracle: Government Feeds Five People With Just 2.3 Trillion Loaves And Fishes – The The Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!