That’s my medium and I’m sticking with it: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Presently we’re a short way into the Christmas Feast — a time when even many of those faithfully desiring to keep the feast find themselves getting worn down by Christmas fatigue. I can think of at least two sources of this fatigue. The first is that celebrating and having a good time are hard work — good work, but work not easy to keep up over the long haul. The second is the encroachment of the commercial racket. After all, we’ve been bombarded with various and sundry Christmas messages since November 1. How much longer can we even think about it?
The last half century has not produced too many effective fortifications against Christmas fatigue. But it has produced one highly improbable one: A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Upon one viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is evident that this is a different Christmas special. In modern American Christmas entertainment, it has no parallel. First, compared to most of the slick, well-polished Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has a rough, unfinished feel to it. The characters are actually voiced by children, in most cases children with no previous voice-over experience; and, in many places, the show plays more like a series of loosely connected comic strips than a well-integrated story (not surprising, given that the three-frame comic strip was writer Charles Schulz’s regular medium). Far from being limitations, though, those qualities actually make the special earthier and more like real life. There is no glitz, no jingly-jangly bells, little adornment, and much melancholy. The common theme that holds the show together is the extended jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas.
Indeed, Charlie Brown’s struggle against the commercialization of Christmas in the show paralleled Charles Schulz’s struggle against the CBS executives. Schulz had to fight on a few fronts to keep the show as he’d conceived it. First, in keeping with convention for kids’ shows, the CBS execs had wanted to add a laugh track – a suggestion Schulz firmly rejected. Second, the execs didn’t like Vince Guaraldi’s brilliantly understated jazz score; this, after all, was a children’s Christmas special, and why would anybody even think about setting it to jazz? Again, Schulz held the line. Finally, the CBS execs were appalled at Linus’s reading St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – better to stick with a vague, lowest-common-denominator Christmas message to avoid offending anyone. This was Schulz’s Alamo: No gospel of Luke, no show, he said.
Schulz’s battles are a fitting backdrop, then, to the show itself. A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Charlie Brown announcing the problem that will dominate the story: “There must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.” Things get worse when Charlie Brown learns that both his dog and his little sister have “gone commercial,” and when Lucy tells him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” And Charlie Brown’s “rock bottom” is the ridicule he receives for picking a small wooden tree (significantly, the only wooden tree on the lot) over a flashy aluminum one for the Christmas play.
It is at that point, when the salesmen in the temple of Christmas seemingly have their feet most firmly planted on Charlie Brown’s neck, that in exasperation he asks the momentous question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?” Then Linus steps into the spotlight, and with his trusty blanket and a simple recitation of the Christmas story as recorded by St. Luke, drives the salesmen out of the temple, with their shameless sales pitches and bloated pageantry. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Smiling, Charlie Brown picks up his fragile little tree and walks happily out of the theater into the crisp, starry December night.
His joy, though, is short-lived. The first blow it suffers is seeing that Snoopy won first prize in the commercial lights and display contest. When the “big eastern syndicate” running Christmas gets its tentacles into your beagle’s doghouse, it’s easy to take your eye off the babe in the manger and the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem.
Charlie Brown shrugs that off, though, and proceeds to put one of the bulbs from Snoopy’s doghouse on his little tree. Disaster – the tree collapses from the weight. Crushed, Charlie Brown walks off, lamenting, “everything I touch gets ruined.” This is a thornier problem than commercialization, because it isn’t inflicted from without, but from within. And it has a sting of truth in it common to all. Like Charlie Brown, we are a people of clumsy and unclean hands, and our deeds, projects, and relationships all bear our smudgy fingerprints.
Thankfully, Charlie Brown has a good friend who comes along, sees the wreck he’d left in his path, and, with a little love and his trusty blanket, heals it. That friend is of course Linus. In the theater Linus had taken on the mantle of a prophet, confronting big evils with plain truth; now, in this scene, he’s become a priest, intervening for and lifting up the broken and downtrodden.
It isn’t a complicated story, and, as I mentioned before, the component pieces don’t hang neatly together. But I’ve been watching it since I was eight, when I did not even know that the weird text Linus read in that animated auditorium was from the Bible. For years, I could not understand the quality that kept dragging me back to watch it, year after year, or why Linus’s reading had so deeply seared my young pagan mind.
But now I get it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few pieces of holy Christmas entertainment produced in the twentieth century. Fittingly for a Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas does not animate distant, untouchable holiness, but holiness come near and reaching out, stirring our imaginations, fortifying us against the cultural acids that wear us down, leaving us a little different than before. The show isn’t bombastically holy, but — perhaps as real holiness always is — it’s gentle and unemphatic. Far from being ponderous, it wears its gravitas lightly. In a world overcrowded with entertainment profane, banal, or even just vaguely wholesome or fuzzy-warm, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as a testament that real, gritty, in-the-medium and on-the-ground holiness never goes out of style. Which is, after all, what Christmas is all about.
(Originally posted 12/31/2011.)