Tonight ABC will show the 51st annual network broadcast of the original Peanuts holiday special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The program first aired on CBS fifty years ago, in 1965. Those who watched it then may recall that the program’s sponsors included Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison snack cakes – two perfect sugary treats for the many children who would be tuning in to the show! The program stands as a marker for an unfortunate milestone in my life, which I will get to shortly. In U.S. television history, 1965 was before the ban on tobacco advertising and the institution of the “family hour” programming block, both of which would appear in the early ’70s. It was also before the networks ceded the 7:30 – 8:00 P.M. slot for local programming. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired at 7:30 P.M. on our local CBS Miami affiliate, then WTVJ channel 4.
The show was one of the first Christmas-themed programs to be aimed at both children and their parents. Its animation style and Vince Guaraldi score were charming and together were a perfect fit for the story and the audience. It was easy to see then that the program would become an instant classic; one we would gather together with family to watch well into the future.
A few months earlier I had entered seventh grade at our junior high school, before educators nearly universally decided that sixth graders should leave elementary schools and attend what would become middle schools. As seventh graders we were effectively the freshmen of junior high. My older brother was in eleventh grade, my younger sister was in fifth. Growing up we experienced a secular version of Christmas. Our father had been Jewish, our mother was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who divorced during her childhood. For us, Christmas was about a tree with multi-colored lights, presents, being with family, two weeks off from school, and seasonal food. To this day my favorite of the latter is mincemeat pie. Our trees were natural ones, usually the Scotch pines favored by our father, and purchased at a grocery store or a tree lot.
Charles Schulz’s story managed to combine the Christmas elements with which I was familiar with a sharp criticism of the commercialism of the season. It ended with Linus reciting the original Christmas story from the book of Luke, followed by the Peanuts gang singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” around the newly redecorated and miraculously transformed tree that Charlie Brown had purchased. It is ironic to note that the commercial part of the season has only grown longer and more obvious; yet what else are what we to expect in a capitalistic society in which consumer spending is the key economic driver.
I recall that my father said he had watched the show that week. I don’t remember whether he was off from work the day it aired. He worked the 3:30 – 11:30 PM shift as a broadcast engineer at the Miami NBC affiliate, then WCKT channel 7. Most weekday evenings he was at work until after I went to bed. He may have watched it while at work; the following January he said that he was sometimes able to watch ABC’s new Batman television series while at work at its competing station.
Almost every year WCKT hosted a family holiday party for our its employees’ children. Often these were incorporated into the station’s Saturday or Sunday morning in-studio program, which for several years was named “7’s Circus.” The station provided gifts to the children, and we could watch the recorded show when it aired. At the station that year I recalled my father saying something about to my mother about what would turn out to be my primary gift, but I did not overhear any details.
Christmas morning was exciting for us as children, as you would expect. We awoke somewhat earlier than on most days. We had a one-story house so there were no stairs to climb down, but a hallway separated our bedrooms from the living room, so we could anticipate the sights as we walked toward the scene. Every Christmas had its especially memorable gifts. A few years earlier my brother had received an electric train set, and in 1963 his first electric guitar. My sister received various dolls and craft items through the years; around 1961 we each received a small transistor radio. A few times I received a camera; in 1963 it was the new Kodak Instamatic 126 format camera, in 1972 it would be the Kodak Pocket Instamatic 110 format one. But on Christmas day of 1965 the first package I opened was one of Polaroid Swinger film. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t have one of the new Polaroid Swinger cameras.” It took a moment for my own flashbulb to go off and I hurriedly found a larger box to open; yes, that was the camera to go with the film! THIS was an exciting gift; my first Polaroid camera that would develop the film right after I took the photo. It had a unique new semi-automatic exposure setting, where you turned a spindly knob until the word “No,” appearing on a checkerboard background, changed to “Yes.” To a twelve-year-old it had all the bells and whistles I could have wanted. Later that morning we went outside and I took a photo of my father standing in our front yard. Then came dinner with family, and continued play with our other gifts.
My mother’s birthday was the following April 9th, a Saturday. We were looking forward to giving her gifts and celebrating. Very early that morning she awakened us by yelling for my brother and me to come into their bedroom. Our father was lying on the floor, in obvious pain. I won’t go into great details, for revisiting that night and the next day is still very painful. My mother called the telephone operator for emergency help. This was before 9-1-1, before widespread availability of EMT’s, and before the advances in cardiac medicine over the next 50 years. Somehow I went back to bed, and when I woke again our mother told us that our father had died at the emergency room, presumably of a heart attack.
My experience is not unique. Of course it was shared by my brother and sister, but many of you have also unexpectedly lost a parent, a sibling, or a child. Perhaps your first experience with the trauma of this kind of death was also when you were young. If you have suffered such a loss, then I imagine that you too found it absolutely crushing, and also that it may have hung over much of the rest of your life, as happened to me. Maybe you adjusted more quickly than did I.
The picture I took of my dad that Christmas morning was the first one I took with the Swinger. It was the first time that I removed the developing film from the camera, and in my haste I tore it as I removed it. The portion with my father in it was intact, though the film itself was torn just to the side of him. It was the last photo that I ever took of him.
Nearly fifty years have passed since that terrible night and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will air again this evening. I am reminded by its broadcast every year that its first airing marked the beginning of the last Christmas season we would spend with our father. My sister has devoted most of the past decade caring for our mother. Last week she and our visiting brother engaged hospice care for Mom, whom I last saw in August and whose decline in health has rapidly advanced since then. It is likely that tonight’s broadcast will serve as a bookend of sorts, marking the last holiday season that our mother will spend on earth. I’ve already shed a few tears and many more will follow.
I face every Christmas season with decidedly mixed emotions. For the children I personally know, who are not wanting for material basics, the season means increasing giggles with anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. For Christians such as my wife the season celebrates the birth of their savior. For me, I am reminded of bitter and sweet: my early Christmas holidays, the final yuletide with my father, staying up late with Lisa to assemble the surprise presents from Santa that would greet our own young children near the tree. Christmas has and for me will always bring tears of joy and tears of sorrow.