“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” – Charlie Brown
Christmas isn’t always “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for many it can be perhaps the most difficult time of year. It can remind you of loved ones you’ve lost, it can remind you of your lack of love, it can accentuate your poverty, it can frustrate you with its barren commercialism, it can show you how much you hate your job, it signals another year in which you failed to accomplish your goals, and it can make you feel like you’re isolated. Sometimes it can be disappointment in society, but generally it’s disappointment in yourself. You don’t feel the way you think you’re supposed to feel. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be good, or magical? Shouldn’t it make me happy despite how poorly my life is going?
If this is how you feel about the coming of Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas was made for you. If not, that’s wonderful! Praise God! But there’s still a lot you can learn from this unassuming little TV special from 1965.
There’s many articles on the internet that examine the fascinating history of the special. There will be even more in the next few days as the special celebrates its 50th anniversary! To summarize, it was produced on a shoestring budget with little to no expectation of it actually succeeding. It was completed ten days before it was due to be aired, and there was nary a person that thought it was a winner. As we know, they all turned out to be wrong, and now 50 years later the special is a staple of the American consciousness. It solidified the Peanuts gang as a worldwide phenomenon, used real child actors for the first time in animation, was an introduction to real jazz music for many, and its message and style spoke so deeply that for thousands of people it is still an annual tradition.
– What makes the special so, well, special? And how does it speak to issues in my life?
If you found yourself relating to that opening paragraph, you’ll probably find this opening sentence of the special remarkably accurate.
“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.
I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.
I always end up feeling depressed.” – Charlie Brown
To have the opening line to what is assumably a show geared towards children deal so directly with themes of depression and anxiety in its very first piece of dialogue is nothing short of remarkable. The scene of the show is very clearly set at the get-go. It’s Christmas time. The kids and Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy are all enjoying the onset of the season. They’re skating around the frozen pond with abandonment singing the lyrically joyful “Christmas Time is Here.” Charlie Brown and Linus take a walk to their favorite philosophizing wall (it’s really the Peanuts version of the ancient Greek Agora), and Charlie Brown poignantly confesses his discontent with the supposed season of cheer.
Charlie Brown is quickly rebuked by Linus, who complains that Charlie is the only person he knows “who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” Unfortunately, Linus mistakenly emphasizes Charlie Brown’s isolation by agreeing with his manipulative sister Lucy’s judgment: “Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.” Just like every human being, Linus is no perfect example. He makes an enormous mistake here. He could have carefully and thoughtfully addressed Charlie Brown’s concerns with Christmas, but instead he foolishly dismisses the issues with an ill-conceived putdown. While we see later that Linus is capable of intellectualizing his faith, he disappoints when he had a chance to put it into action here.
I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season.
I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it? – Charlie Brown
After Linus’s missed opportunity, we see Charlie Brown continue to wax philosophic on his seasonal depression. He checks the mailbox to see if anyone sent him a Christmas card this year. No one has, of course. He eventually seeks out the assistance of the town’s self-made child psychiatrist, Lucy.
After pre-paying for her services, he summarizes his problem for her. She proceeds to imitate the psychiatrists she’s seen on TV by trying to “pin-point” the fear so that they’ll be able to “label it.” She’s not as interested in actually helping out Charlie Brown as she is in feeling pride in her ability to correctly label his fears scientifically. This scene is quite funny since it satirizes the modern urge to correctly “label” an issue, or to point it out, rather than to actually just help when you see a problem. Not to mention that when Lucy finally says she sympathizes with Charlie Brown, she says her depression is due to getting toys or bicycles for Christmas instead of the real estate she really wants. Good grief.
Lucy does have one suggestion for Charlie that he decides to try out. The school needs someone to direct the Christmas play, and what better way to get into the spirit than to “get involved in some real Christmas project”? As Charlie Brown makes his way to the school to direct his play, he discovers that even his own dog and sister have both sold out to the commercialism of Christmas. All Snoopy and Sally want this year is “money, money, money.” This disgusts Charlie Brown and furthers his increasing isolation.
Charlie finally makes it to the school to direct the play, and it goes disastrously. Charlie thinks it’s his inability to do anything right, but it’s really the fault of his crew. His direction is clearly superb, but no one is willing to respect him or stay disciplined. They goof around and complain about their parts or their lines. Charlie is clearly losing the battle, and Lucy reminds him that “Christmas is a big commercial racket” anyway (run by an eastern syndicate, no less). But Charlie is determined for his play to not be commercial. He decides that what they need is a tree, so he takes a break from the play to go find one with Linus, not without being instructed to “do something right for a change” from one of his cast members.
The following scene where Charlie Brown chooses the Christmas tree is at the center of the thematic crux of the show. The rest has been a build up to this moment. Charlie Brown has been consistently failing to succeed, and this is his big chance to prove himself to his friends and family. He’s been instructed to get “the biggest” aluminum tree with the brightest pink paint, but his convictions are pulling him elsewhere. To bring some Dante Alighieri into this, Charlie Brown could be seen as the Dante figure (the hero undergoing salvation) here with Linus being his Virgil (guide). They descend into the underworld of the most brash commercialism. The lights are bright and the beauty of the Christmas trees surrounding them are literally hollow and fake. Linus taps the aluminum tree and sarcastically quips:
“This really brings Christmas close to a person.”
Charlie Brown isn’t having any of this, and slowly we see the camera pan over the sea of artificiality to finally rest on the sole wood tree of the lot. “Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Linus asks with sincere surprise. The rest of the dialogue is worth quoting:
Charlie: This little green one here seems to need a home.
Linus: I don’t know, Charlie Brown. Remember what Lucy said? This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit.
Charlie: I don’t care. We’ll decorate it, and it’ll be just right for our play.
Besides, I think it needs me.
Charlie Brown already understood the real meaning of Christmas right here, simply on a general revelation (an understanding of God from nature). After feeling confused and disillusioned with the commercial nature of the season, Charlie sought truth and meaning in the Christmas season. When no one was willing to support him and all of his friends and family had turned against him, Charlie Brown still made the right choice and saved the lost and helpless. Charlie Brown became a Christ-figure in this scene. He was surrounded by the temptation of not fulfilling the duty he knew he needed to perform deep down, but he triumphantly rescued the real tree from its helpless isolation. He willingly sacrificed the approval of the world he so desired in favor of performing the compassionate action that no one else he knew would be capable of making. Not only was he willing to buy the most undesirable tree, but he saw immense value in it! He didn’t care that it didn’t fit what his friends expected, he knew with the proper care that it would be “just right.”
“Besides, I think it needs me.”
I remember being floored by this selfless act of love when I was young and I would obsessively watch this special. In fact, it made me feel horribly convicted even then! I remember thinking to myself: “If it had been me, would I have bought the ugly little tree instead of the bigger beautiful aluminum ones I was pressured to get?” My answer to that was essentially a disappointed “no.” I felt like I would have sacrificed my convictions in favor of worldly approval, which deeply bothered me. Charlie Brown made me feel like it was me who didn’t understand the true meaning of Christmas!
Charlie Brown returns from his greatest moment to these words.
Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.
What kind of a tree is that?
You were supposed to get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?
I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right.
You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.
When you go against the wisdom of the world, the world kicks you down.
This cacophony of lies causes Charlie to seriously doubt his decision. He mistakenly believes he’s once again caused a disaster. He’s gone from his greatest moment of triumph to his darkest all in one fell swoop. He finally bursts out in agonized frustration, begging for an answer.
Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?
After being more or less a neutral deterrent for the majority of the episode, Linus speaks up with what he should have said at the very beginning.
Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.
What follows is without a doubt one of the most transcendent moments in television history, because Linus answers that question with nothing short of perfection. Instead of systematically explaining the reason for Christmas, he tells the story of a boy not too unlike Charlie Brown. A boy who was born into a world where He was more isolated than any person ever has been. The world hated Him, in fact, they attempted to kill Him on multiple occasions! But instead of bringing sadness, He brought great joy and love. This boy is the answer that Charlie Brown is seeking. Not only is He as authentic and uncommercialized as anything can conceivably get, but He saves the isolated and hated from their misery, and brings them the greatest possible joy. He is everything that Charlie Brown is looking for, and more.
Charlie Brown thus receives his special revelation (an understanding of God through the supernatural) of what the Christmas season truly means through hearing the Word of God. Its meaning is a celebration of the birth of the world’s Savior: Jesus Christ the Lord. What Linus recites is Luke 2:8-14, the scene where the angels tell the shepherds of the Messiah’s birth: “And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Charlie Brown is rejuvenated by this discovery of Christmas’s true meaning, and he sets out into the night to show everybody just how great his little tree can look. He discovers that Snoopy won the first prize in the contest which promised oodles of money, but he refuses to let this lavish commercialism impede him. He takes one of Snoopy’s ornaments and attempts to dress the tree with it. When this causes the tree to completely droop over, he thinks he’s “killed it” and that “everything he touches gets ruined.” He runs away in shame.
When all his friends come back, they find Charlie’s tree and begin to appreciate it. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
They take Snoopy’s first-prize-winning decorations and dress the tree up into a magnificent piece of art. Charlie Brown returns, and is stunned. His friends wish him a Merry Christmas, and they all join together to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”
This is the point of the holiday season, Charlie Brown. It’s there because of the one person who will always love you even when the world hates you. Just like a little bald boy loved a sad looking tree in the middle of a lot when no one else wanted it, this person completely sacrificed everything out of His deepest love to save the smallest and ugliest trees. He doesn’t want to see you waste away in a lot where you don’t belong, feeling unloved and forgotten. That’s precisely why He was born on that Christmas day long ago, so that He could come down and rescue you from your death: your loneliness and alienation: your fear and anxiety.
In His love, these things are no more.
You’re not completely hopeless after all, Charlie Brown.
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Thank you so much for reading all the way through this post! It’s a bit longer than I was expecting, but I felt like I needed to make all the points I did. I hope it encourages you to be more like Charlie Brown this season. Not by feeling depressed due to whatever may be going on in your life, but by seeking the answer that will make all of your problems null. Charlie Brown actively seeks answers to the things in life that bother him, and he takes radical action in showing the love for others like him that he seeks for himself. I pray we can be more like that this season.
This is the second post I’ve done surrounding Christmas this month, and I’m planning on doing a few more (my next one I’m planning is about my favorite Christmas book that barely anyone has read). If you have any topics or questions that interest you about Christmas, send them to me, and I might turn my answer to you into a post!
Thanks again for reading, and I pray that this Christmas is one of discovery of true meaning for you.
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”