This year, A Charlie Brown Christmas turns 50. Originally released on December 9, 1965, this short cartoon was was finished only ten days before it was set to air and the director, Bill Melendez, was sure that he and the crew had single-handedly destroyed the Peanuts gang. Luckily for them, they were very wrong and it quickly became a resounding success and a holiday classic.
The movie begins with Charlie Brown feeling safe enough to confide in his best friend, Linus, about his crippling depression during the holidays. Linus ignores this red flag and tells Charle Brown to stop being such a sad sack. Charlie Brown then seeks out a mental health expert but his only real option is Lucy with her roadside psychiatry stand. Evidently, his health insurance doesn’t cover therapy and out of pocket costs can be astronomical so he has to settle for Lucy, who only charges 5 cents. He doesn’t even check her credentials but, then again, no one has ever accused Charlie Brown of being a genius.
It turns out, Charlie Brown feels increasingly disconnected from his peers due to their overindulgence in capitalism and the societal pressures of materialism that surround Christmas in America. And for good reason, too: Lucy confides that she wants real estate for Christmas, Snoopy decorates his dog house to win a cash prize in a neighborhood decoration contest, and even his little sister, Sally, writes a letter to Santa asking for money, preferably “tens and twenties.”
Despite her own narcissistic tendencies, Lucy seems vaguely concerned by Charlie Brown’s depression or possible Seasonal Affective Disorder and asks him to be the director of the Christmas play. However, this role appears to be largely ceremonial as Lucy is in charge of casting and threatens the children into cooperation with physical violence like the tyrant she is before manipulating Charlie Brown from behind the scenes.
To get the nativity story of the play to feel more authentic, Lucy suggests that Charlie Brown go buy a Christmas tree because there was obviously a Christmas tree at the birth of Jesus. Knowing that he can’t be left unattended in his fragile mental state, she sends Linus with him. At the Christmas tree lot, all of the trees are aluminum except for one tiny tree that appears to be hanging on as tenuously as Charlie Brown. Linus starts to object but sees that this is literally the only thing that appears to give Charlie Brown a reprieve from his soul-crushing depression and stands back to let him purchase the tree.
Upon seeing the tree, the rest of the children in the play turn on Charlie Brown as if he’d walked in carrying a basket of Easter eggs instead of a seasonally appropriate Christmas tree. Led by Charlie Brown’s mental health provider, Lucy, they proceed to insult him and call him every mean name they can think of before laughing uproariously at Charlie Brown’s stupidity.
Linus gets everyone to calm down and listen to the story of the birth of Jesus, most likely to prevent the other children from escalating to a full-fledged riot. Charlie Brown leaves with his tree, feeling a little emboldened by Linus’s story. He decides that he doesn’t even need the other children and he’s going to go decorate his tree, who is proving to be his only friend at this point. When Charlie Brown arrives at his house, he notices that Snoopy won 1st place in the neighborhood decoration contest because apparently a dog did a better job than all of the other homes owned by adults on their street.
Charlie Brown borrows a single ornament from Snoopy’s dog house and places it on his tree. Because the tree is as weak as Charlie Brown’s spine, it slumps over in the snow and Charlie Brown is hit by another wave of depression, certain that he has just killed the only bit of joy he had left in his life. Dejected, he walks away, leaving the presumably dead tree and causing some concern for his prolonged absence from camera. The other children come along and, upon seeing the tree, decide that they now like this tree and they take all of Snoopy’s decorations and add them to the tree, which magically turns from a twig unable to support a single ornament to a lush piece of forestry that is able to hold the weight of a dog house’s worth of decorations.
Charlie Brown thankfully decides to seek help and comes back to find all of the children circled around his new tree. They reveal the decorations and shout, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” before singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Charlie Brown brightens, feeling a little less alone or perhaps just relieved that he’s not being verbally abused for the first time all day, and joins in.
Merry Christmas, everyone!