THE GRINCH V. CHARLIE BROWN: The Grinch or Charlie Brown? Snoopy or Max? All the Who's down in Who-ville or the whole Peanuts gang?

Media Mix These are questions that inflame passions this time of year, leading to raised voices, bulging neck veins and fingers jabbed into chests.

As a member of the generation that spent its childhood squatting small and squinty in front of a flickering box, I say it's time to make the call. End the debate that has raged for three decades. Which is the greatest Christmas cartoon of all: the Grinch or Charlie Brown?

They are the only legitimate contenders to the crown--although a slice of Honorable Mention goes to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, mostly because of the outlandish Yukon Cornelius character who's a cross between Yosemite Sam and Brian Dennehy.

But between the two Yuletide superstars, let's talk specifics and settle the issue once and for all.

MUSIC: This is a crucial element in any Christmas special. Vince Guaraldi's jazzy score transcended the borders of Peanutsburg (or wherever Charlie Brown lives) and is imprinted on our Christmas consciousness. While we scrounge for bargains in the stores, those piano riffs float out of the P.A. system, conjuring images of catching snowflakes, skating on a frozen pond, and kids dancing with reckless abandon.

The Grinch score, written by Albert Hague, is similarly a perfect fit for the show. From the delight of the Whos singing "Welcome Christmas" to the deep-throated menace of the Grinch's theme, there's never a wasted note.

But the music doesn't live outside the show. No doubt that's partially due to some of the dark lyrics. Imagine sitting in the food court of a mall and hearing: "You're a crooked jerky jockey/And you drive a crooked hoss, Mr. Grinch! Your soul is an appalling dump heap/Overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable/Mangled up in tangled up knots!"

It's not a big favorite with the carolers, either.

Edge: Charlie Brown.

DOG: Snoopy, while always the consummate performer, plays a minor role in A Charlie Brown Christmas; he's mostly comic relief. His skating antics to open the show are vintage Snoop, as are his animal impersonations during play rehearsal. Even archenemy Lucy concedes, "Yes, he even makes a good penguin."

With quiet grace, Max makes an excellent foil for the Grinch, undercutting his master's evil nature with big gooey eyes and an expressive tail. Max is forced to don a reindeer disguise to haul an overloaded getaway sleigh, and even aids the Grinch in the looting of Who-ville; but he never surrenders his dignity or gentle spirit. And in the end, he's rewarded with a thick slab of roast beast.

Edge: Grinch.

SUPPORTING CAST: The Grinch shares little screen time with anyone besides Max. The only person with a speaking role is Cindy Lou Who. She catches the Grinch in the commission of a crime, but chooses not to contact the authorities. Child-like innocence or something more sinister? Only the conspiracy buffs can say for sure.

Charlie Brown is much more generous in sharing "face time." He's content to let the plot develop around him. Even the cartoon's pivotal scene is given to Linus, who explains the true meaning of Christmas while standing on-stage, bathed in a single spotlight, quoting from the book of Luke. A sweet moment.

Edge: Charlie Brown.

REDEMPTION: The entire Peanuts gang is redeemed by Charlie Brown's rescue of a forlorn tree, and Linus' spiritual guidance. But in their shining moment, Lucy admits, "Charlie Brown is a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree."

So they think more kindly of Christmas, while their collective attitude toward Charlie Brown remains unchanged.

The Grinch had personal demons to overcome. His head wasn't screwed on just right, his shoes were too tight, and his heart was two sizes too small. Yet he found enlightenment on his own, and pulled back from the abyss.

In his moment of clarity, when he discovers the true meaning of Christmas, he is redeemed. His heart grows three sizes and he's granted "the strength of 10 Grinches plus two."

Edge: Grinch.

VERDICT: It's a close call, but when all is said and done, How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the ultimate holiday classic. Boris Karloff, who narrates and provides the voice of the Grinch, makes the difference.

He propels the story with the power of his pipes, wringing every ounce of emotion from the script, but never chews the scenery. Karloff settles into the Grinch's skin, creating a horrifying yet oddly moving character. The Grinch is too urbane to be an ogre, but too insolent to ever be cuddly. He is a villain we cheer for.

Both cartoons are startlingly good and the true winners are people like me, who have them in their video collection, and watch them repeatedly throughout the season. TW

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