Every Christmas Eve my family sits down to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first TV special based on the Peanuts comic strip, released in 1965. Watching the Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holiday specials on each respective holiday has become a standing tradition in my household, and it is something I truly cherish and look forward to. Easily my favorite of the specials is the Christmas special.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has always stood out to me and holds a special place in my heart because I relate very much to Charlie Brown. Being the son of a Methodist pastor, Christmas has always been one of the most hectic and busy times of the year. Multiple church services on certain days like Christmas Eve, Christmas parties, caroling, and other similar obligations make it rather stressful at times. Things are worse for my father, perfectly exemplified by the fact that today he had to travel to another state to a hospital to accompany a dying man and his family. In this way, Christmas has not always been a relaxing respite from the normal flow of life for me and my family. Additionally, I often found myself getting rather down each Christmas season, for no obvious reason. Sometimes I blamed the cold, other times the busyness, and still other times the commercialization and commodification of Christmas. Rather than joy during the season, I have generally felt somewhat melancholy. The exception is Christmas Day itself, which has always been my favorite day, as it is when we open the presents and then, in the evening, go to visit my mom’s side of the family. Plus, it is usually when things start to calm down and all the busyness and events finally subside.
To be frank, though, I have always struggled to get into the Christmas spirit. I am, admittedly, a more reserved and introverted person who does not express much at times. Charlie Brown faces a similar dilemma. After the opening ice-skating scene, he explains to Linus that he remains depressed despite it being the Christmas season. Linus pokes fun at Charlie Brown saying only he could make such a joyful time so depressing. Then, Charlie Brown is further demoralized when he learns that he got no Christmas party invitations, which is rubbed in by Violet.
The next scene sees Charlie Brown seek the help of Lucy at her psychiatrist booth. This scene is especially funny and is a relevant satire on modern mental healthcare. Lucy cares only about money and demands payment for her expert advice, exclaiming how much she loves “cold, hard, cash” and the beautiful sound of plunking nickels. Only after this praising of Mammon does she turn to Charlie Brown’s problems. Charlie Brown then says something that really resonates with me. “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I’m not.” Me too Chuck, me too. Lucy replies with a very cliche line about how recognizing you have a problem and need help means you are not too far gone, and then immediately jumps into a sort of Freudian psychoanalysis method by trying to identify his fears, even though Charlie Brown never said anything about being afraid. She belts off a number of fears with their absurd names, each of which he denies having. This goes nowhere, until the final fear, the fear of everything, Charlie Brown yells that that is it with great sarcasm. He then goes on to explain that his problem is with Christmas, and he feels let down. She says he needs involvement and invites him to direct the Christmas play, which he is very surprised by and knows nothing about.
The scene seems as if it is going to take a more serious turn when Lucy admits that she too becomes depressed around Christmastime and that she never gets anything that truly satisfies her. Just things like toys and clothes and stuff. Charlie Brown asks what she really wants, and for a moment we the viewer think perhaps we shall get something profound, but in classic Lucy fashion she takes her materialism to the next level, confessing that Real Estate is her true desire.
Then comes my favorite comedic scene of the special. Charlie Brown sees snoopy hauling a box of decorations and follows him, with Snoopy arriving at his doghouse and proceeding to put decorations all over the roof, zipping around grabbing supplies and whacking nails with a hammer. Asking what he is doing, Snoopy practically teleports and hands Charlie Brown a flyer, which reads:
FIND THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS. WIN
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY! SPECTACULAR!
SUPER-COLOSSAL! NEIGHBORHOOD CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
AND DISPLAY CONTEST.
Charlie Brown becomes more exasperated as he reads and, with a look of disappointment, declares “my own dog, gone commercial, I can’t stand it.” This has become even more humorous to me over the past several years because there has been an uptick of light contests in my area, with one suburban house in particular being widely known and ridiculously lit up with perhaps a hundred decorations and pieces out in the yard and a loudspeaker with synced lights. People line up to go see this house, causing traffic jams as there is only one main entrance to the subdivision, which connects to the highway.
The commercialization of Christmas has always especially disgusted me. Each year it seems the Christmas themed products go out earlier and earlier. Places like Hobby Lobby are the epitome of this, as they usually start putting some Christmas things out after the 4th of July. Santa Claus, reindeer, stockings, snowmen, colored lights, Christmas trees, toys, snowflakes, candy, socks, sweaters, and everything else are the focus of Christmas in modern society. Ask children what Christmas is about and I will bet you that Christ is not at the top of the list. As admirable as gift giving is, consuming products is not a virtuous thing, nor is camping outside a big box store on Black Friday to get those crazy holiday deals. Sure, baking cookies and spending time with the family is great, but in our current culture, it has no transcendent meaning and is not directed towards the right purpose. Liberalism and Capitalism have hollowed out Christmas and made it into yet another money-making scheme, selling trifling products to the masses and seizing on the “holiday spirit.” Most of the major Christmas movies, at this point, have absolutely no connection to the meaning of the day itself. There is a similar situation with many of the popular Christmas songs. It is no longer a religious holiday, but a commercial one, open to all to celebrate by buying and consuming. Charlie Brown recognizes this, and the theme of commercialization plays a key role in the special.
Unfortunately, his sister has also fallen to materialism, as she has a long list of presents, so long in fact, that she suggests that Santa simply send ten-and twenty-dollar bills (which had a lot more value in 1965).
The next scene at the auditorium has some great jokes. My favorite parts come from Pig Pen, the kid who is always covered in dirt. He is told he will play the innkeeper, with the curly haired Frieda as his wife. When told this, he says “In spite of my outward appearance, I shall try to run a neat inn.” Later on in the scene, Frieda complains there is too much dust which is ruining her naturally curly hair. Charlie Brown attempts to console her, saying that she should think of it as the soil of “some great past civilization” such as ancient Babylon, or soil tread upon by King Solomon. “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?” Pig Pen asks. Frieda then insults him and his appearance, handing him a mirror so he can see how much of a mess he is. Instead, Pig Pen smiles and says, “on the contrary, I didn’t think I looked that good.”
Linus makes another brief comment on the commercialization of Christmas, and then, after some dancing and antics, Charlie Brown becomes fed up as he has lost control over the play and is unhappy with it. Lucy doesn’t understand. “Look, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket.” That it is, or rather, that it has become.
Charlie Brown makes it clear that his play is not going to be commercial. To solve the issue, they decide to go out and buy a Christmas tree.
Upon arriving, Linus asks if they even make wooden trees anymore. They stumble upon a tiny, pitiful looking sapling. Charlie Brown, being a softie at heart, which I again relate to, suggests that they get it. Linus, though, is concerned, and asks if the tree would fit the “modern spirit.” Could it get any more on point than this? The modern spirit of demanding everything be new and ‘up to date’, the whole ‘it’s [modern year]’ line, and the insatiable demands of consumerism. Everything must be bigger, newer, brighter, shinier. Only the biggest and the best! The modern spirit which would rather sell you a white or black fake Christmas tree than a real evergreen, making a mockery of tradition and hollowing out all that is good. Charlie Brown disregards the modern spirit though, and settles on the little tree, deciding to take it back to the others for the play.
Unfortunately, everyone hates the tree and mocks Charlie Brown for his decision. They are especially harsh to him in this scene. Violet calls him stupid, Patti says he is hopeless, and Lucy says this is dumber than he has ever been before. Everyone laughs at him and leaves him. This is Charlie Brown’s fate for not following the modern spirit; mockery and derision from the masses greet those who dare challenge the spirit of the age. Linus, in his wisdom and virtue, stays behind with Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is heartbroken, exclaiming that he is a disaster and still does not really know what Christmas is all about. In a loud voice he asks if there is anyone who knows what it is all about. Linus replies, saying that he can explain.
In this most famous scene from the special, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 in the King James Version.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 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. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Linus here proclaims the Gospel message: Christ the savior is born. In his wisdom and faith, Linus reminds us that it is the Incarnation, the Word made Flesh, through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’s ‘yes’, that is at the center of Christmas. Christmas is a meaningless and worthless holiday when it is devoid of Jesus. Charlie Brown feels this within himself each year, though he is ignorant of why exactly he feels this way until he learns what it is all about. Christmas is not about winning contests, decorating your house or lawn, giving and opening presents, trees, lights, eggnog, Santa, reindeer, elves, gingerbread men, or any other material thing. It is not necessarily that any of these things are bad in and of themselves. There is nothing wrong with baking some cookies, decorating a tree, or stringing up some lights. It is a festive time after all. But there must be a reason for the festivities. They cannot be done in vain or for their own sake. Rather, it is all about celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who came down to earth not “to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (KJV, John 3:17).
Even though I have always been a Christian, I have not always kept this fact in my heart and mind as much as I should. Indeed, it is easy to forget amidst the parties and the shopping and the busyness. The world around you wants you to forget. Whether it be the commercials on the TV or the ads online, or the billboards or the decorations, everything in the season seems to point away from Christ and towards Mammon.
Since I became a Catholic, I have experienced a reinvigoration of my faith. My spiritual life, though imperfect and lacking in many ways, is far stronger now as a Catholic than it ever has been. This Christmas is no different. I did not get to do all I would have liked to for Advent, and I know I have a long way to go in terms of being in the right state of mind and spirit for this time, but I have felt so much closer to God and so much more aware of His love and the Incarnation this year. Part of that is because, through my Catholic faith, I have been strongly reminded of the meaning of Christmas.
The story of Charlie Brown doesn’t end just yet though. With a newfound sense of what Christmas is all about, he takes his little tree out to decorate it. When he puts a single ornament on, the tree bends over, and Charlie Brown again experiences disaster, crying that he has killed the tree and everything he touches is ruined. He leaves it, with the hope and joy of the previous scene seemingly gone.
Then, after he has been gone for a bit, all the other kids show up to the tree. Linus remarks that the tree really isn’t that bad, and just needs a little love. He uses his blanket to stand it up straight, and the other children dismantle Snoopy’s award winning doghouse decorations, using them to decorate the tree instead. Once they have finished, the tree is beautiful.
Charlie Brown returns, astonished at the tree. Everyone then wishes Charlie Brown a Merry Christmas, and they all break out into song, singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas impacts me more than any other Christmas movie does. Each year, when I watch it, I am reminded of the true meaning of Christmas in a humorous and relatable way. After weeks of busy schedules and corporate bombardment, it is a truly relaxing and touching moment to sit down with my family and watch this special together. I get to laugh at the silly jokes and the quirky characters and nod my head when someone complains of the commercialization. But most importantly, I am reminded by Linus, the messenger of the Good News, that Christ the Saviour is born, and that the true meaning of Christmas can only be found in our Lord, Jesus Christ.