On Charlie Brown, seasonal stress and facing the holiday blues

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Christmas time is here

Happiness and cheer

Fun for all that children call

Their Favorite time of year

— “Christmas Time is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

How words describing the holiday season can somehow be simultaneously beautiful and haunting is a testament to the deception created by a time of year that insists everything and everyone should be jolly. A deception found within the kaleidoscope of peppermint stripes, house lights and Will Ferrell in yellow elf tights. Because like a kaleidoscope, the holiday season takes fragments of celebratory moments and projects an illusory image of the wonder they create. But underneath the moving color tableau of the holidays lies a disconnect between how the images say we should feel and how we really do.

It is this disconnect that makes me find the gorgeous melody of “A Charlie Brown Christmas Theme” so melancholy, a feeling understood by “Brown” creator Charles M. Schulz. When explaining why his character Lucy always triumphs over Charlie Brown, Schulz summed the up original “Peanuts” comic strip’s entire philosophy: Schulz said that in “Peanuts,” “ all the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.” Essentially, the comic strip is about failure, the lessons that come from it, but most importantly, the lesson that failure happens often, to basically everyone.

This focus on failure is why “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has struck a chord with audiences. It has remained in syndication for more than 50 years — it originally aired Dec. 9, 1965, and is running this year on ABC on Dec. 6 — because it understands the failure we can all feel around the holidays. Failure to feel jolly or cheerful while the idea that we should is broadcasted all around us can foster feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that loom over the entire holiday experience.

The idea of a “holiday sadness” or “seasonal anxiety” is not new, however. A quick Google search for “holiday sadness” brings 672,000,000 results, one of the first being a WebMD page titled “Holiday Depression and Stress.” After these first results comes a  mix of both self-help “survival tips” clickbait and more serious think pieces from respectable psychological publications. Whatever resource the information comes from, however, they all seem to agree on the same throughline: The holidays can really bum people out.

Failure to feel jolly or cheerful while the idea that we should is broadcasted all around us can foster feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that loom over the entire holiday experience.

Yet, instead of simply accepting that the holidays can make us feel sad, we try to mask these feelings. And coping mechanisms, like Band-Aids, cover up what’s wrong for a while, but they don’t heal anything.

One of the most popular ways to cope seems to be alcohol — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has become one of the busiest nights of the year for bars. The holiday is then followed by another mainstream coping mechanism — shopping, on the bastion of bargains: Black Friday.

And while we’re all trying to cope with the holidays, we’re not confronting the problems they can bring on: missing loved ones, extreme expectations and the stress of oncoming plans for guests and travel. And these anxieties don’t even account for the stressors specific to students: maybe finals didn’t go your way, maybe internships seem farther from your reach than ever before, or maybe your whole semester feels like a wash and the last thing you want to do is go home and explain yourself to distant relatives and kids you graduated high school with.

And while none of these problems are explicitly addressed in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” there is a lot that can be learned  from the ‘60s animated special with a marvelous jazz score and a balding, depressed 10-year-old with an anthropomorphic dog. Schulz’s treatise on holiday failure provides important insight into the chronic feelings of holiday malaise. While seasonal episodes from a number of popular  sitcoms — from “The Office’s” “A Benihana Christmas” to ‘Friends’ ’’ “The One with the Christmas Armadillo” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” “Mary, Joseph, and Larry” — deal with holiday discord, they often isolate their characters’ problems to singular issues: “The Office’s” Michael Scott has been dumped, “Friends’ ” Ross wants to make his son’s Christmas memorable after his own divorce and Larry David of “Curb” eats a piece of his in-law’s irreplaceable cookie nativity scene. “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” however, does not narrow in on a singular issue for its protagonist.

Instead of simply trying to cope with failure during the holiday season when Charlie Brown is confronted with it again and again, he eventually just owns it.

Charlie Brown’s narrative arc revolves around his preoccupation with why he’s sad when the holidays signal he should be happy. He spends the whole episode attempting to get in the “Christmas spirit,” whether it be by directing the nativity play or buying a tree, but he keeps failing. And in the end, after Linus shares the holiday’s religious origins and all of Charlie’s friends come together to decorate the lame tree Charlie picked out, Lucy still insults him, saying, “Charlie Brown is a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.”

While watching the program, this may simply feel like a mean-spirited joke. Yet this final remark speaks to the broader message of the film, acknowledging and validating feelings of disillusionment surrounding the holidays. Instead of simply trying to cope with failure during the holiday season when Charlie Brown is confronted with it again and again, he eventually just owns it.

Yes, Charlie Brown can be a “blockhead,” and yes, it is sad, but it is also important that he comes to accept his sadness as OK. That is why “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is so different than its other sitcom counterparts, because the climax of the episode doesn’t resolve a singular conflict. Instead, it recognizes that, even amid jolly caroling songs and the twinkling lights, we can feel sad during the holidays, and it says, yeah, that’s all right.

 

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.