Season's greetings, Charlie Brown

Peter Fish

SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA―Walk into the museum and there they are: The kid with the blanket, his big-mouthed sister. The floppy-eared beagle and the round-headed boy. They are, quite likely, as familiar to you as your own family.

"It was a gift," says Jean Schulz of her late husband's talent in creating Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the other citizens of the universe called Peanuts. "You can only say it was something he got at birth."

December is a good time to visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which opened here―in Sonoma County, an hour north of San Francisco―last summer. For several generations, Schulz's TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is as important a holiday tradition as the tale of Tiny Tim. And there is something about the comic strip, and the man who wrote and drew it, that seems especially welcome this time of year.

The Schulz Museum isn't what you might expect. Large and airy, it's not crammed with Peanuts collectibles. Instead, the characters, in all their black-and-white exuberance, have room to breathe. "We focus on the art," says the museum's director, Ruth Gardner Begell. "We explore what it is about Peanuts that affected people for 50 years all over the world."

Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles "Sparky" Schulz moved to Sonoma County in 1958. The Peanuts gang didn't live here―that was Minnesota snow falling on Snoopy's doghouse―but the neighborhood shaped the strip in small ways, as when Snoopy entered the wrist-wrestling competition in nearby Petaluma. And in larger ways, for it was here that Schulz fashioned the routine his creativity required.

A biographical film and a re-creation of Schulz's studio tell his story. Each morning, he drove to the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, next door to where the museum now stands. He ordered breakfast: an English muffin with grape jelly. He went to his office and worked. And worked. "He was always thinking about his characters," Jean recalls. "He would tell aspiring artists, 'If you can't cold-bloodedly come up with an idea each day, you'll never be a cartoonist.'"

Peanuts debuted on October 2, 1950; the final strip ran February 13, 2000, one day after Schulz died. During those five decades, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 daily and Sunday comics. (The museum owns the original art for about 7,000.) Peanuts immediately stood apart from the gag-filled cartoons that preceded it. "Good ol' Charlie Brown," Shermy muses in that first strip. Then he adds, "How I hate him." Wonders Jean Schulz, "How on earth did they publish that? It was such a shock. But emotionally, it gets you interested."

An unsentimental view of childhood was a Peanuts hallmark, as was a surprising erudition: literary references ranged from the New Testament to fellow St. Paul boy F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mainly, though, the strips are funny, because Schulz was funny. "Sparky would never say things you expected him to say," Jean recalls. "When Lucy says to Schroeder, 'Why don't you give me flowers?' Schroeder answers, 'Because I don't like you.' Lucy says, 'The flowers wouldn't care.' That was right out of Sparky's mouth."

Insightful, surprising, poignant: as you stroll the museum you realize that Sparky Schulz created an American epic, a world compressed into three or four panels on weekdays, eight on Sundays. Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football, Snoopy with his typewriter tapping out "It was a dark and stormy night." Almost against your will, you find yourself laughing, just as you did when you were 10.

It is, as I said, a nice present to give to yourself. After all, our winter holidays were partly meant to cheer us during a series of dark and stormy nights. Laughter against the cold, joy sneaking up on you in unexpected ways―good grief, isn't that what the season is all about?

Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center is closed Tuesdays; $8. 2301 Hardies Lane; www.schulzmuseum.org or (707) 579-4452.