On December 9, 1965 an animated Christmas special aired on CBS. Some network executives had already made the commitment to air it, but they only planned to air it that one time. Little did they know that the simple story of Charlie Brown searching for the meaning of Christmas would be the second most watched show that week (second only to the western Bonanza), much less a Christmas tradition.
They only planned to have it air once, but they didn’t think it was very good. It is a miracle that the special ever made it to the air anyway. Producer Lee Mendelson got a phone call explaining that Coco-Cola wanted to sponsor a Christmas special and accepted the offer, even though he didn’t have one. He called Charles Schultz and asked if he could have a story in a week. They pitched the Christmas special and it was accepted. They had six months to make the special, which is usually not enough time. But the team of Schultz, Mendelson, and Bill Melendez made it happen.
There are so many things that make Schultz’ story so brilliant. One is that he insisted on using children as the voices of the . . . . wait for it . . . . .children. Yeah, it was not the normal way to do things. The other is that he was willing to talk about that which no one else was willing to do at the time. In fact, the tension between consumerism and the true meaning of Christmas is still so evident (like the current “War on Christmas?“). Yet, it is possible that we are so consumed by consumerism, that we miss the message that Schultz delivers in this timeless classic. Buy, buy, buy is not the meaning of Christmas.
Charlie Brown is depressed, living in despair, as he does in most of the Peanuts comics. “Something is wrong with me,” he tells his faithful friend Linus at the brick wall. “Christmastime is here, but I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” The feeling that Charlie Brown thinks he is suppose to feel is that artificial happiness. The kind of happiness that can be bought.
This artificial spirit of Christmas is sweeping through town. When Charlie Brown goes to get advice from Lucy’s 5 cent booth, he drops a nickel into the jar and Lucy picks it up filled with joy. She shakes the jar, listening to the nickel rattle, and exclaims, “I love the sound of cold, hard cash.” As Charlie Brown walks pass Snoopy’s doghouse, he is surprised to find his beagle decorating the dog house. Why? For the chance to win a huge money prize. “My own dog has gone commercial,” Charlie Brown says, “I can’t stand it!”
And he really can’t stand it. Charlie Brown has been given the chance to direct the Christmas play. But he can’t seem to get the other kids to focus on the meaning of Christmas, which is something that Charlie Brown is trying to discern. He knows that there is more to this favored holiday than just money! He is just not sure how to articulate it.
He is sent to get a Christmas tree for the play. This, the kids reason, will fix everything. Charlie Brown and Linus are told to get a nice, big, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree. We all know what happens, Charlie Brown chooses the wimpiest, littlest, tree in the whole lot. But it’s a real tree. It’s not artificial. It’s not a fake. It’s not a tree in disguise. It’s the real deal.
When Charlie Brown returns with the tree, he is laughed at and called names. It causes him to cry out, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is about?” And Linus, very humbly, steps up on the stage and quotes Luke 2:8-14 from the Kings James Bible.
This was another risky move by Schultz. Not all of his team thought it was a good idea to use the Bible on primetime television. They were certain that it would not go over well with audiences. Schultz’ wife recalls him thinking that scripture is not just for the church, but for everyone. And it was fitting that Linus, the little philosopher that he is, be the one who recites the scripture. In doing so Linus becomes a little theologian as well. In reciting the birth narrative from Luke’s gospel, Linus makes the connection between the message of the Gospel and Charlie Brown’s actions – a message that is not just for the church.
There is nothing artificial about Christmas or the meaning of Christmas. Charlie Brown’s choice to choose the tiniest and the weakest of the trees symbolizes how Christ chose each of us, the tiniest and the weakest. Instead of being concerned with money and buying extravagant gifts, we should follow Charlie Brown’s lead and care for the tiniest, loneliest, and weakest.