Obviously I’ve been thinking a lot about Charlie Brown lately. I’ve been reading through the comics. Currently I’m in 1954, which is before the strip really took the form we now think of.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is an immortal classic that no one ever thinks about. Christians like it because there’s the big climax where Linus says that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. Beyond that we just love the snow and the music.
The jazz soundtrack to the episode, while amazing, would have better fit the episode if it were Phil Spector’s Christmas album, which despite a few decent tracks is a horrendous beast of bad pop music for the mall.
The episode is the story of my life and probably a lot of other Christians’ too. Charlie Brown feels depressed at how fake the world is. Lucy puts him in charge of the Christmas play, but all the kids know he can’t do anything right. He wants to put in a lot of effort to make the play really good, but the kids just want to goof off and have fun. So they send him to buy a Christmas tree.
At the Christmas tree lot he sees the same lack of authenticity that he saw in the other children. Almost everything for sale is an aluminum Christmas tree. No maintenance required. Just plug it in and enjoy how pretty and perfect it is.
These trees disgust Charlie Brown, but in the corner he finds a small, ugly tree that is an actual tree. Despite it’s terrible appearance, Charlie Brown appreciates the tree because it is actually something real. Unlike the pink trees, the green tree requires maintenance and care. You have to water it every day. You have to sweep up the brown needles. You have to be careful it doesn’t catch on fire. The ugly little tree is life. Having a real Christmas tree requires work, and Charlie Brown understands on some level that that work is what gives the tree meaning. That’s the difference between living things and robots.
When Charlie Brown sees the little tree, he sees life, and he desperately craves for life. He lives in a constant state of ennui and hopelessness, and this little tree shows that there can be something in the world that actually needs him. Charlie Brown is desperate to be wanted. All of us need to be needed. Hope is the air humans breathe.
Despite being a passive-aggressive loser, Charlie Brown understands what real beauty is, that it’s more than just “this thing looks pretty and makes me feel good”.
He brings the tree to the other children. They immediately hate it. They want something easy and artificial, just like their play. They want instant beauty and instant perfection with no work required. They think he’s a total screw up instead of understanding that he just has a different values set. If you go against the dominant social philosophy and buy a real Christmas tree (or whatever that may represent in your life), then they’ll assume you’re an idiot who can’t do anything right. They can’t imagine anyone would have deeply questioned all the assumptions around them and come up with a different worldview.
Charlie Brown asks that if this authenticity and real-ness is not the real meaning of Christmas, what could the real meaning be? Linus, who always plays the prophet role, then gives his famous monologue where he quotes Luke 2:8-14 (with the textus receptus reading).
Charlie Brown has found the true meaning of Christmas. This gives him hope and joy like he’s never felt before.
It is here that most stories would stop. The hero has learned a lesson. Problem solved.
But what we need to see is how the hero applies that lesson and how the world reacts to it. This is the part of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory that is usually left out of stories today. The hero doesn’t just need to defeat the dragon; he must also reflect on what it means to kill the dragon and then readjust to the world being a new state of knowing what it means to kill a dragon. Frodo and Sam have to try to live the simple country life in the Shire after going to hell and back; Dorothy has to see her family again; Alice has to wake up from the dream. The status quo must be restored but with the addition of the new knowledge.
Charlie Brown decides he will spend Christmas honoring real-ness, even if it means spending Christmas alone. He takes his ugly little green tree with real cytoplasm and chlorophyll and tries to work on it to make it beautiful. His very first effort, a single ornament, kills the tree. Charlie Brown runs off-screen screaming in existential pain.
And I think the reason for the existential pain is how quickly that hope Linus gave him failed. He had the capital-T Truth. He heard the Good News and embraced it. And as soon as he tried to apply the Good News in the real world, the real world slapped him down and reminded him that everything is ugly and hopeless. Nor was it the other children that slapped him down — just the cold laws of nature making sure everything is always worse off than before.
Everything degrades. Your best efforts will not make America great again. Nobody is actually interested in real-ness and authenticity. We just want cheap plaster wood furniture. Nobody takes ethics or theology seriously. Nobody takes what they think is true and follows it to its furthest extent. There is none righteous; no, not one.
This really is where the story ends. That thing in life you really care about that you put all your effort into will fail. And you’ll get some great encouragement from church and try to put it into practice, and that will only cause you to fail even harder, and you’ll wonder if all capital-T Truth is just a nice theory. You’ll scream into the void like Charlie Brown, and no one will hear you.
For a long time I thought that the ending where the kids have a change of heart and sing a song was a dumb deus ex machina, and maybe it is, but I am starting to think that it’s the Eucatastrophe. That at the end of everything there will eventually be the great redemption. At the darkest hour when all humanity has degenerated and there’s no hope of ever making it right again or returning to decency, when you least expect it but need it the most, then comes the Second Coming and the Great Judgment, and everything will be made the way it should be, and only the things that are authentic and real will survive the cleansing.
One of the greatest metaphors ever of what it means to be a Christian, and far better than anything Tolkien or Lewis wrote, broadcast on major networks every year, and nobody ever understood what it was about. They always thought it was a weird story with some snow and jazz and some kids tormenting each other.
It’s also possible that Schulz did not put that much thought into it and just wrote himself into a corner.