Schulz's ambivalence toward Thanksgiving might explain why he waited until 1973 to devote a television special to the holiday, and why, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which have become part of our definition of Christmas and Halloween, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving seems in comparison so slapdash and perfunctory, as if Schulz couldn't discover anything definitive to say about the holiday. It was the tenth Peanuts special, but only the third to be aired perennially.
I was 7 years old when the very first Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was first aired on CBS on December 22, 1965. I've watched it every Christmas since, when I'm home in the States, that is. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown came the following year, which is at least as familiar to me. I don't remember watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, probably because I was 15 when it first aired on November 22, 1973 and convinced that I had outgrown the familiar world of Peanuts. I find now, at 59, that outgrowing it would be like outgrowing the past or outdistancing life.
I was quite surprised when I discovered that, altogether there have been 45 Peanuts specials - the latest one, Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, airing in 2011. A documentary, It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, commemorating the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, was shown in 2015. Two specials were never aired, because CBS decided to let the contract lapse in 1992. ABC picked it up in 2002, and has shown the specials ever since. This year, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving will be shown on Wednesday, November 22nd, but I won't be home to see it. I have a copy on my tablet, so I can watch it at my leisure. This is in no way a compensation for watching it on TV at home in the States, which is just one of all the other holiday rituals shared by Americans.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving opens with a gag that was introduced in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: Lucy persuades Charlie Brown to kick a football that she holds in place, despite his fears that she will pull it away at the last moment and he will fall on his back. Part of the humor of the repeated gag is, of course, that it's repetitious - that Lucy always manages to fool Charlie Brown into trying to kick the football. He knows from experience that Lucy will only pull the ball away just as he is about to kick it and he will crash to the ground. This time Lucy reasons to him: "But, Charlie Brown, it's Thanksgiving."
"What's that got to do with anything?" he asks.
"Well, one of the greatest traditions we have is the Thanksgiving Day football game. And the biggest, most important tradition of all is the kicking off of the football ... Come on, Charlie Brown. It's a big honor for you." He walks away from Lucy, with the bushes and trees in the background going bare of their leaves. He muses:
"Well, if it's that important, a person should never turn down a big honor. Maybe I should do it? Besides, she wouldn't try to trick me on a traditional holiday. I'm gonna kick that football to the moon!" Charlie Brown runs toward the football, but, as usual, Lucy pulls it away at the last moment and he flies through the air and crashes to the ground. Lucy looks pitilessly down on him. "Isn't it peculiar, Charlie Brown," she asks, "how some traditions just slowly fade away?"
"Holidays always depress me," Charlie Brown grumbles to his little sister Sally. He is anxious to find out (and Charles Schulz is anxious to tell us) the true meaning of Thanksgiving. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, he was depressed by all of the commercialism that smothered the true meaning of Christmas. It turns out, 50 years later, that he was right, and the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas is even more relevant today.
This time, Peppermint Patty has invited herself over to "Chuck's" house for Thanksgiving dinner, except Charlie Brown is going with his parents to his grandmother's house later in the afternoon. He fails to tell her this, however, so he has to make dinner for Patty and her friends Marcie and Franklin before he leaves. Snoopy and Woodstock set up a ping-pong table in the yard and cover it with a cloth and improvise on the dinner with buttered toast and popcorn.
The table all set, with chairs all around, the guests arrive. There are ten places set at the table, but only seven guests. With Linus and Marcie at opposite ends of the table, Charlie Brown, Sally, Peppermint Patty, and Snoopy sit on one side, while Franklin is segregated - the only word for it - on the other. I don't know if this arrangement - Franklin sitting conspicuously alone on one side of the table - was made to conform to anyone's particular design (Schulz's, the TV network's), but it presents a quite uncomfortable picture.
Snoopy serves up the food and someone asks if they should say grace. Linus stands up and gives everyone a history lesson about Miles Standish, the Pilgrims, the natives, and the first Thanksgiving. Then Peppermint Patty complains, "What kind of a Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where's the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin pie?" Charlie Brown, who hadn't the nerve to tell Patty the truth, leaves the table. Marcie lectures Patty about her having invited herself to the dinner, Patty repents, Marcie apologizes to Charlie Brown, and everything is resolved when Charlie Brown's grandmother, over the telephone, invites Patty, Marcie and Franklin to her house for the holiday feast. Everyone climbs into a big green station wagon and they all drive away singing, "Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother's House We Go." Left alone, Snoopy and Woodstock retire to the doghouse from which Snoopy produces a big roasted turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. After eating, he proffers the wishbone to Woodstock, they pull hard, the wishbone snaps, and Woodstock sails through the air, smirking as he holds the larger piece of the wishbone. The End.
Sorry, but A Charlie Brown Thansgiving doesn't do it for me. It fails to evoke anything, least of all its stated mission - finding the true spirit of Thanksgiving. Having watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only a few weeks ago, which is redolent of Halloween, the weather and landscape of late October, all the tongue-in-cheek spookiness and even some genuine mystery, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is superficial, dimly conceived and indifferently executed. Even Vince Guaraldi's dependable jazz musical accompaniment is mostly borrowed from previous specials. There's the song, "Little Birdie," with its funk overtones (sung by Guaraldi himself), and some electric keyboards evoking the era. But this holiday special has not, for me, earned a place in our Thanksgiving traditions.
I'm looking forward to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in a few weeks, which is still a charming reminder, even for a devout atheist like me, of the true meaning of Christmas - which is, after all, about memories of the past, the cumulative, layered meaning that Christmas has acquired over the decades, its meaning for me, personally, but also its broader, social significance. With stores now opening at noon on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we are all in too big of a hurry to wait for Black Friday and start our Christmas shopping, to begin the stampede of materialism that Christmas has become. Too bad that Charles Schulz couldn't do something with Thanksgiving that would make us want to linger there for just one day longer.
Happy Thanksgiving, America.