What Christmas is all about

This is an important anniversary, when we commemorate something that happened a long, long time ago, something we take care to observe and remember each and every year in this season.  We schedule our lives around it.  We await it with increasing anticipation.  We gather the family in a cozy huddle and share mugs of hot cocoa and candy canes.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Of course you do.

I’m talking about the annual airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Unlike the Nativity itself, A Charlie Brown Christmas may not be two thousand years old, but this December it does mark an important milestone.  This is the fiftieth anniversary of the television cartoon’s original airing on CBS.  Along with Ralphie Parker and A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seasonal custom I refuse to miss.  I watch it each and every year, which means I’ve seen it more than forty times now.  And still, I’m struck by several things with each viewing.

"You're hopeless, Charlie Brown."

“You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.”

The first is how cruelly Charlie Brown is treated by the other children.  For instance, when Charlie Brown brings the little Christmas tree back to pageant rehearsal, Violet says to him, “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.”  Lucy adds, “You’ve been dumb before, but this time you really did it.”  And Patti piles on with, “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown, just hopeless.”

The other children are vicious toward Charlie Brown, as children sometimes can be.

A second thing that strikes me is how subversive Charles Shultz was, way back in 1965.  You see, A Charlie Brown Christmas was supposed to be one big, thirty-minute commercial for Coca-Cola.  It wasn’t merely that Coke served as the commercial sponsor for the cartoon.  Rather, Coca-Cola actually commissioned it.  In other words, A Charlie Brown Christmas had as its very intention the commercialization of Christmas.  It was a big corporate ploy to use the Peanuts Gang in order to sell more soft drinks in the cold winter months.  Charles Shultz took the commission, but he then slyly turned what was supposed to be a half hour Coke commercial into a sophisticated critique of the commercialization of Christmas!

No sooner has the cartoon begun than Snoopy enters a Christmas light contest advertised this way: “Find the true meaning of Christmas.  Win money, money, money!  Spectacular!  Super-Colossal!  Neighborhood Christmas lights and display contest.”

To which Charlie Brown laments, “My own dog, gone commercial!”

"My own dog has gone commercial!"

“My own dog, gone commercial!”

The theme carries onto the set of the gang’s Christmas play.  Lucy reveals to Charlie Brown, “Look, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

And this reality is reinforced for Charlie Brown when he visits the Christmas tree lot, filled with pink and blue aluminum trees, signifying the artificiality, superficiality, and commercialization of everything Christmas.

But Charles Shultz didn’t focus only on what Christmas had become.  His message wasn’t, ultimately, one of critique.  Rather, it was one that cut to the very heart of the matter.

In an interview on NPR about the fiftieth anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, producer Lee Mendelson relates that Charles Shultz insisted the holiday cartoon include a reading of the Nativity narrative from Luke’s Gospel.  Shultz met resistance.  After all, what does the Bible have to do with selling Coca-Cola?  But Charles Shultz maintained that there was no other way to tell the story.  In fact, without the Nativity reading there is no story.  There is no Christmas.

And so, when Charlie Brown, in his hopeless desperation, cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Saint Linus of the Sacred Blanket steps forward and replies, “Sure, Charlie Brown.  I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

"I can tell you what Christmas is all about."

“I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus walks to center stage, asks for a spotlight, and recites in the eloquent language of the King James Version, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”

And then the most remarkable thing happens.  There is a full ten-second silence in the cartoon, as Linus walks off stage and back to Charlie Brown.  That is a lifetime on screen, valuable seconds filled with nothing.  It is as if Charles Shultz recognizes that Linus’ words—Holy Scripture’s words—need a liturgical pause, so that the viewer can abide momentarily in the quiet stillness and understand the magnitude of what has just been shared, on CBS, in primetime, during a Coke commercial.

It is, indeed, what Christmas is all about.  It is that without which there is no Christmas at all.

DETAIL FROM ICON OF THE NATIVITYThe paradox of the modern Christmas season is that during this time of supposed joy, rates of illness, suicide, and other maladies actually increase.  Why is this so?  Well, it is well known that Charlie Brown mirrors many of creator Charles Shultz’s own personal insecurities, and I think we empathize so much with Charlie Brown’s character year after year because the treatment he receives triggers some of our insecurities, too.  We can bear to watch the children taunt Charlie Brown because he is a cartoon, but our hearts nevertheless break, and we understand and can sometimes relate, when Violet calls him “hopeless.”

You see, the source of hope is nothing that our superficial and commercialized culture has to offer us at any time, and especially at this time of year.  The source of hope, now and always, is that God chose to be born among us, to enter into our contingent, dangerous, and often lonely world so that we would never, ever be alone.  And as Jesus is born in a stable stall this night, the Christ is also born anew in our hearts.  The theologian Angelius Silesius said four hundred years ago, “If Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem but not in you, you would remain lost forever.”  But he is born—this very night—and we are found.  That is why we rejoice.  That is what Christmas is all about.

For thirty minutes, now for fifty years running, Charles Shultz has, indeed, proclaimed the Gospel.  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”  May your hearts be glad.

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