From their impressive jazz scores to their timelessly modest animation style, few things ooze nostalgia like the “Peanuts” holiday specials. On display yet again this Halloween, Charlie Brown and the gang embody a boyish innocence lost in a 21st century awash with legions of helicopter parents and their iPhone-armed kids, to whom the generational divide with the world of Linus and Lucy is nearly intractable. Nonetheless, Charlie Brown’s eponymous television specials are reliably watched by millions of American households each year and remain profitable ventures for the major networks that broadcast them. It is a testament to Charles Schulz’s ability to transcend the emerging cultural consensus of his time, a consensus against which his cartoons sat as some of the last vestiges of an America of faith and simplicity.
Schulz was a traditionalist more than a reactionary. He had no qualms about making the then-daring decision of including Franklin, an African American friend of Charlie Brown’s, among the cast of characters at the height of civil rights tensions. Rather, Schulz was an unapologetic propagator of a cultural religion that was on its way out in the mid-1960s. Schulz’s characters both dealt the timeless realities of childhood and grappled with the eternal in a way that was eliminated — either by social engineering or genuine omission — from future mainstream art focused on youth. Consider the story arc of the beloved special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — Charlie Brown is wrestling with a growing nihilism about the meaning of Christmas amid a culture of commercialism, shallow tradition and empty celebration. About three quarters of the way through the program, Charlie Brown reaches a point of despair and proclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus, Charlie Brown’s best friend and confidant on his journey through this existential crisis, answers Charlie Brown by reading the story of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke. Schulz, faced with the squeamish backlash of network executives for his decision to include the religious undertones of the holiday, famously responded: “If I don’t do it, who will?”
The “Peanuts” characters are both naive of the world at large and profound in their capacity to consider life’s largest questions; kids today seem to be an almost perfect inversion of the Schulz paradigm. The iPhone has robbed children today of their innocence in a way that would have stupefied Schulz — the average American fifth grader today knows more about the intimate private lives of his peers via electronic interface than Charlie Brown would have known in a lifetime. God, personal devotion (and with it, discipline) have been replaced by the all-consuming pursuit of immediacy and expediency. Its fruit is a culture bereft of deference to authority, short on thoughts about right and wrong, good and evil. If Schulz didn’t provide a window into the world of religious childhood, who would? No one, and that’s why the specials remain as popular as they have in an age when received wisdom would say they’d flop.