Bright Lights Film Journal

An Atheist’s Guide to A Charlie Brown Christmas

Continuing an annual orgy of cartoon watching I decided to take a lengthy look at this classic in socio-philosophical, rather than belletristic, terms. Unfortunately, the full Atheist’s Guide runs over 2,000 words, and would clutter up the blog, so I’ve only posted an abridged version below (the “Reader’s Digest” version). The piece can be read in its entirety, with many more details and screenshots, here, so if some of the argument seems sketchy please hear the whole thing out before flaming. Then, flame away! Merry Christmas…urr…Happy Holidays, everyone!
It is the opinion of many that religion should be respectfully omitted from public affairs, whereas others feel that the Christ story is too central to Christmas’ significance to ignore (indeed, would anyone demand the bowdlerization of the miracle in the Chanukah narrative?). As a painfully nepantla Christian-turned-Atheist, I see accuracy and honorable candor on both sides. But I also know as a Christian-turned-Atheist that consolidating the inalienable rights of a secular world and the unavoidable heritage of an over-zealous community are nearly impossible to do. This is the tension that bristles my head every time I’m confronted with a cross pendant, or Gideon’s Bible, or matzo triangle (ie, the Host). It is the fervent war between logic and tradition, with roots extending back to the birth of modern deism.

This war – which was a very different one in the 1960’s – nearly cost us one of the most endearing holiday TV specials of all time, but, paradoxically, is also essential to its success. The reasons for this are remarkably complex by children’s entertainment standards. But, then, A Charlie Brown Christmas had the advantage of being written by a remarkably complex man who, also, would somewhat abandon Christianity later in life (if we are to believe the few public quotes he made on the topic, anyhow). The friction between the rock of Jesus and the hard place of cruel, quotidian living is perhaps central to the appeal of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and certainly to the Christmas special. The nativity comes to us swaddled in such cynicism that it seems hand-tailored for the lapsed evangelical.

The plot is fairly simple, though (unfortunately) timeless. Christmas approaches but Charlie Brown is depressed because of the viral spread of “commercialism”. Concerns over what Santa may bring (the ever-mature Lucy wants “Real Estate,” Charlie’s younger sister simply desires “tens and twenties”) preclude the spirit of the holiday. In this respect, the TV special surely shows its age, as the commercialization of Christmas has become not only a tradition in its own right but a cliché (indeed, American culture in particular is fixated upon the social sacrament of gift giving – were we to curtail this gesture, our economy would collapse). We no longer worry that we’ve succumbed to commercialism; we now obsess over living up to the burden of commercialism’s promise. Can we dare to spend enough? To buy enough? To own enough?. Add to this the copious Charlie Brown and Snoopy merchandise for sale at all your local Wal-Marts and the anachronism appears far bleaker.

But even for Charlie Brown and Company, addressing commercialization is no simple matter. In the original special, what the “Authentic Christmas Spirit” entails is, for the majority of the running time, excruciatingly vague: Charlie Brown does not even know what it is that he is supposed to feel at Christmastime. What is Christmas all about, anyway? Cue Linus and his ubiquitous blanket to the stage.

Everyone has by now heard the story that the network executives who screened A Charlie Brown Christmas balked at the scene where Linus quotes the Gospel of Luke. The irascible Schulz gave them an ultimatum – either include it, or cancel the special. In truth, this may have been due to Schulz’s natural recalcitrance rather than any religious devotion, but he won the argument, and won it big time. In hindsight, however, Schulz’s hissy-fit possesses editorial logic; frankly, the story of A Charlie Brown Christmas would not function without the turning point brought on by Linus’ “witnessing”. And what follows in the plot might be the most inventive interpretation of the Christ myth on this side of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation.

Charlie Brown, energized as one typically is by a good sermon, finds peace with himself and his twinkling world. But after taking his stem of a Tannenbaum home to decorate, he finds that Snoopy’s garishly ornamented dog house has been awarded first place in a neighborhood competition (the prize of which, according to the newspaper, is “money money money,” preceding the O’Jays.). Charlie is again devastated – commercialism has won. He puts a single red ball on his scrawny plant and it keels over with the weight, as if genuflecting to commodification. Charlie Brown exclaims that he has “killed it,” and walks away, despondent. His friends gather around and decide they’ve been too rough on Charlie and his sub-par tree, which, as Linus observes, only needs “a little love”. Forming a holy ring of group effort they uproot and transplant Snoopy’s dog house decorations. Charlie returns, shocked, and seemingly happy with the arborist enhancements. The program ends with a hymn, albeit a benign one (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”).

The tree’s trajectory is clearly meant to parallel that of Christ. It is found in an ordinary setting and hardly seems an exemplar of its species, but its vulnerability offers Charlie Brown hope. And it is only after being “killed” by Charlie Brown and dominated – betrayed, one might say – by commercialism that the tree can be resurrected as an immaculate being. Like most Christmas stories, the theme of this one is salvation – not only of Charlie Brown and a gang of avaricious sinners, but of mankind, by way of metaphor.

The irony sets in, however, when we consider what the “tree” – as well as the gospel recitation – is saving Charlie et al from. It should be offering deliverance from the commercialization of Christmas, and yet the tree is only considered a resounding success when it becomes aesthetically pleasing – showy, even. This plot hole of sorts was no doubt unintentional, but the metamorphosis of the tree has become one of the special’s most memorable moments: perhaps because it mirrors our inevitable embrace of commercialism?

But maybe this is too cynical an interpretation of such a touching ending. I find myself respecting the religion of A Charlie Brown Christmas year
after year because the ultimate assertion is not at all transcendental. It’s not piety or mythology that brightens Charlie Brown’s spirits, but the neighborly support of his friends — it’s the sweat of human kindness that makes a difference. The Christ figure – Charlie Brown’s tree – does not resurrect itself after three days but is pumped full of new vitality by a group that manipulates it for their own purpose. It is, much like the modern Jesus, a passive messiah – a man-made metaphor for salvation rather than a corporeal manifestation of it. Only when the others resolve to embody rather than simply parrot the true meaning of Christmas does the “spirit” of the holiday take hold and allow the plot to conclude.

Whether consciously disenchanted with his faith or not, Schulz may have unwittingly birthed a new form of moral entertainment with A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a children’s franchise quite so philosophically hip. We feel the nihilist sting every time Charlie Brown’s foot circles upward and trips him rather than connecting with Lucy’s football; we identify with Linus’ frustration over the Great Pumpkin’s silence even more than pleas for divine intervention in Bergman films. Schulz may have initially imagined his characters as illustrations of the universality of the Christian message, but we love them because they represent the universality of human suffering.

The full Atheist’s Guide