As the leaves turn orange and the air gets cooler, we all fall into this melancholic slump amidst the battle between impending seasonal depression and incoming joy from the holidays; every October I get excited for the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New-Years marathon of cruel optimism and small moments of fleeting joy in the barren arctic tundra of New Orleans in December (now I get to look forward to sunny and warm Ann Arbor winters). We all know, of course, that the two that really matter are Halloween and Christmas. And with these two holiday hegemons, there comes this annual debate over which one is better, with me historically being a Halloween fan myself. With this debate, however, comes the more important argument: what has the best movies? And regardless of that, which movie is best within each respective holiday? The Christmas question is always answered with something stupid, usually either being It’s A Wonderful Life (boring) or some derivative and overly sentimental animated movie like The Polar Express or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (dreadful). With Halloween, the argument is a lot more annoying, with many misunderstanding the question as “what is the best horror movie?” (it’s The Shining FYI, which I’d argue is actually a great Christmas movie, but I digress).
Again, that is not the question. “What is the best Halloween movie?” is about Halloween movies in the same way that “what is the best Christmas movie?” is about Christmas movies, not Christian movies (although The Passion of the Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ would make a funny answer). The answer to both, however, is unequivocally each one’s Peanuts special. Both iconic and beloved by many, what makes these specials, ahem, “special” is that they really aren’t about the holidays they are associated with. Sure, Christmas is a big part of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Halloween is a big part of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but the charm in both is really their devotion to room for secularism. Now I know that the most iconic part of A Charlie Brown Christmas is Linus’ unbearably religious monologue near the end, but hear me out: for the past nineteen years of my life, I thought that there were two Peanuts specials for Christmas. One is A Charlie Brown Christmas, and one is just the Peanuts “winter special” that is completely secular. It wasn’t until this year, in a heated argument with some friends in my first semester of undergrad, that I realized that I was actually just thinking of the first half of A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is why I love these specials: in essence, one is a fall special, and one is a winter special, and the Peanuts characters celebrating their holidays are just one small facet of that.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown used to be my favorite of the two specials: I like Halloween, I like fall, and I like the part where Charlie gets a rock. Not only that, but it has a great theme of ideology and the absurdity of the holidays, with Linus worshipping a great pumpkin while simultaneously mocking Charlie Brown for believing in Santa, and then his idol turning out to be a lunatic dog who thinks he’s a fighter pilot (there’s something to be said about Peanuts and great Nietzschean absurdism, but that’s for another day). However, most importantly, I like how it’s a fall special. Let’s remember that the most arguably iconic part of the special is that it’s the first time when Lucy tricking Charlie into kicking the football is put into animation. And let’s also remember when Snoopy does his beautiful waltz into Charlie’s leaf-pile to show that autumn has come and that the leaves have fallen. Granted, I think It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a lot more related to Halloween than A Charlie Brown Christmas is related to Christmas.
Why I’ve always said that Halloween movies are better than Christmas movies is that Christmas movies generally commit two mortal sins in my book: they are almost all disgustingly kitsch, and they are almost all overwhelmingly gentile. Now on the first point, you are a pretentious asshole if you think the Peanuts specials are kitsch. On the second, I think there’s a lot to say about interpreting A Charlie Brown Christmas as a scathing critique of overtly religious holiday programs.
First of all, Snoopy, the best character and the one who is the most engaged with the audience through his constant breaking of the fourth wall, is a dog. He has no soul, and therefore no savior. He has no stake in the birth of Christ, and it’s very easy for us Jews to relate to him.
Second of all, on a more serious note, I have absolutely no problem with the idea of a special being centered around Christmas. I do have a problem, however, with value statements being made about it. I don’t want to be told that it is a “good” holiday, and that therefore I am “bad” for not celebrating it. It is a holiday celebrated by Christians, and nothing more. The beauty of Linus’ monologue is not that it is some normative, anti-corporatist, fundamentalist preaching of how Christmas should be celebrated (yes, I know that’s what people say it exactly is and why it’s so iconic). To me though, it is purely a descriptive claim of what Christmas is: a baby was born, the three guys on camels were freaked out by an angel, there was a star, etc. Anyone watching, soul or no soul, can agree that that is why Christians celebrate Christmas, regardless of whether it actually happened (it didn’t, by the way). Anyone can also agree that Charlie Brown was a good person for getting his little tree, and that the other Peanuts children were being total dipshits about a holiday based on a magic baby. Maybe most important of all, anyone can agree that aside from any of the substance or messages in the special, the jazzy score, beautiful and simplistic animation, and snappy dialogue is both timeless and infinitely rewatchable.
All in all, I don’t really know which one is better. I think A Charlie Brown Christmas has really grown on me, and my Halloween really stunk this year, so I’ll go with that for the time being. What I can leave you with is this: no matter how much you like the black-and-white dreck that is It’s a Wonderful Life, or a disgustingly over-sentimental Lifetime original Christmas movie, or a horror movie that premiered in May of its release year that you mistakenly think is a Halloween movie, or Die Hard because you think it’s witty to call it a Christmas movie, or whatever horrible Halloween movies there are out there that I can’t even name, nothing will beat the seasonal and universally digestible warmth of Charlie Brown getting verbally abused by his friends and a delirious beagle playing out his violent delusions of wartime.
– Andrew Herman