If you are at all like me, it is not Christmas until you have seen the holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has been shown seasonally every year since it first appeared in 1965. I have watched it faithfully every year since I can remember, and have the whole wonderful thing more or less memorized by heart. Who can forget Charlie Brown taking his seat at Lucy’s outdoor doctor’s office (the sign announcing “The Doctor is Real In”), or his complaining to Linus that he feels depressed every Christmas season? Or who can forget Snoopy doing his famous dance of joy on the top of Schroeder’s piano, or Charlie Brown and Linus going to look for a tree for their Christmas pageant and finding in the middle of a forest of large pink metallic trees a pathetic little tree which just needed a little love? Or Linus’ spot-lit soliloquy, wherein he quotes the Gospel of Luke for a then unprecedented forty-five seconds on national television? The images and dialogue have become imbedded in North American culture to the point that they are instantly recognizable, even when affectionately satirized on The Simpsons.
The point of the story of course revolves around the need to transcend the materialism of the Christmas season by returning to “what Christmas is all about”. Charlie Brown’s agonized and poignant cry asking that question showed that he had no clue what Christmas was all about. It was Linus, his friend and the voice of creator Charles Schulz, that provided the answer to his question and the antidote to the materialism of his friends. Linus’ forty-five second reading of the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel not only made television history. It also brought the Gospel to the open and trembling heart of Charlie Brown.
So far, so good. When I watched the show this year, it was exactly like every other blessed year before. Charlie Brown and Linus had brought to their pageant the pathetic little tree which seemed to be dying before the eyes of all. He had clearly failed in his assigned task, revealing that he had no appreciation for the commercialism so dear to everyone else waiting for him to return with a big, splendid, pink tree. When he returned with the little tree everyone laughed at him, mocking him, disdaining him, making him feel even more of a failure and outcast than he already was. He cried out, asking whether anybody could tell him what Christmas was all about, and Linus answered by reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Then Charlie Brown got the true meaning of Christmas. He had his epiphany, his conversion. A Methodist might say that his heart was strangely warmed. That was when I saw it, something I had never noticed before—Charlie Brown picked up his little tree and walked out steadily and unashamed before the rest of the wordless and wondering crowd. He no longer cared what they thought, or whether they disdained him. His moment of illumination raised him above such cares. The fear of man bringeth a snare, the Scripture says, but his new faith made Charlie Brown immune to such snares. He was prepared to walk in that faith alone, even if no one else followed.
This is the way it has always been, and Christian hymnography has recognized and celebrated it. The moment we decide for Christ, we are prepared to follow Him regardless of the shame it brings. The evangelical hymn sings, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. Though none go with me, still I will follow, no turning back, no turning back.” Our own Octoechos says the same thing: “You were held by lawless men, O Christ, but You are my God, and I am not ashamed; You were smitten on the cheek, but I do not deny You; You were nailed to the cross and I do not conceal it.” Faith allows us to stand for Christ crucified, even if it means standing alone. We can take up the tree, the tree of the Cross, and calmly walk past those who deride us.
I noticed one other thing from that story: the crowd that once derided Charlie Brown as a fool (“Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown! What kind of a tree is that?”) afterward themselves came to comfort him. Charlie Brown took the tree home and tried to decorate it himself. He placed a single decoration on its little branch, which bent over with its weight. He thought, “I’ve killed it. Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined!” and he walked away in despair. It was then that his friends who followed him came to the rescue. “Charlie Brown is a block-head, but he did get a nice tree,” they said, and repaired and decorated the tree themselves so that when Charlie Brown returned, he found the tree a fully decorated and splendid. All joined together in unity, singing “Hark the herald angels sing” as the final credits rolled. This was, in fact, an image of the Church: when one of us fails and falls, the rest are called to gather round and help heal the hurt. (Fanciful? Maybe. But for what it’s worth, count the people decorating the tree: there are twelve of them.) We need one another, and can only sing together to God once forgiveness and unity have been restored. I don’t imagine that Charles Schulz was trying to make a theological statement about faith or ecclesiology with his hastily-prepared seasonal offering. But Schulz was a Christian, and so wrote from his own experience of Christ. That involved writing theology, whether he knew it consciously or not.
Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas never disappoints. Good ol’ Linus always comes through, and brings a revelation to Charlie Brown. This year the Peanuts gang brought a revelation to those of us living in a militantly post-Christian world. That world may laugh and deride us if it wishes. We can walk the lonely walk of faith alone if we have to. We know what Christmas is all about.