Image courtesy of Apple TV.
Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Clemente Lisi
(OPINION) There were many things in my home growing up that were part of my family’s Christmas tradition. Like millions of Americans, we had a tree in the living room, adorned with lights and ornaments. As Catholics, we had a nativity creche under that tree. While my sister and I loved the decorations and traditions, what was on TV was a big part of the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
My sister and I watched all the holiday specials in the 1980s. From Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Jack Frost, we’d grab our hot chocolate and marshmallows and clad in our pajamas, we’d sit and watch these holiday cartoons.
The one common thread these specials had was that they were for everyone. And for everyone, I mean Christians and non-Christians alike. While they were about Christmas, they had zero religious content to them. In the world of Frosty and Rudolph, Christmas was a celebration that included everything (Santa Claus, presents and snow) but Jesus. That made for a more inclusive audience, allowing millions of non-Christians, agnostics and even atheists to enjoy these shows.
Not all of Christmas specials functioned this way. A Charlie Brown Christmas, for example, remains a perpetual holiday favorite since it first premiered on Dec. 9, 1965 on CBS. In this TV special, Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite all the commercial holiday cheer (yes, Christmas was commercial even as far back as the ‘60s) around him. Lucy suggests he direct a neighborhood Christmas play — but his efforts are largely ignored. In the process, Charlie Brown buys a pathetic tree and is mocked even further by the Peanuts gang.
Something truly magical happens near the end of the 30-minute special when Charlie Brown asks — shouts! — what the true meaning of Christmas is. Instead of more commercialism, Linus sets his friend — and everyone else — straight by delivering this truly important message:
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them — “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you 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. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
“And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and goodwill toward men.”
Fifty-five years later, American society is a lot more secular than it was back in 1965. Nonetheless, this TV special continues to be beloved by millions of people. A cartoon that quotes the Bible, in this case specifically Luke 2: 8-14, and without controversy is truly something special. In those 62 seconds, Linus encapsulates what Christmas means for millions upon millions of people.
It’s so special that it hasn’t gone unnoticed by both believers and non-believers over the past few years. For example, Vox, in a 2017 piece on the show’s 50th anniversary, pointed out the following:
A Charlie Brown Christmas, that perpetual holiday favorite, is one of the best half-hours of television ever created. Its combination of a melancholy tone, minimalist animation, and a jazz score was unlike anything else on TV at the time — and is largely unlike anything on TV now. The medium doesn’t jibe with unresolvable issues, like holiday malaise or the meaning of life, and even if A Charlie Brown Christmas has a happy ending, what sticks with you is its sense of a very gray December.
It’s also one of the few overtly Christian programs that still airs annually on American broadcast television. Linus’s concluding speech about the shepherds outside of Bethlehem is one of the few places in pop culture where the biblical account of Jesus’s birth is forthrightly told.
Yes, there are still weekly televised church services that air in syndication or paid programming time slots. And there are whole cable channels dedicated to Christian programming. But for the most part, American primetime TV stays away from any depiction of religion stronger than, “Love thy neighbor, or at least think they’re pretty okay.”
Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip that was converted into television specials, was raised a Lutheran and practiced it into adulthood. Schulz’s faith stemmed from his Midwest background — he’d been raised in St. Paul, Minnesota — and defied convention by inserting faith in the TV special like he had prior to that in his newspaper comic strip. Schulz’s faith message wasn’t meant to proselytize. It was meant to inspire and comfort in an era of increased commercialization.
Schulz, who was known as “Sparky” by family and friends, wanted the Christmas special to include the Biblical message. In the end, what Schulz created for the screen wasn’t a religious TV special — yet it turned out to be an important part of the show in that it addressed human suffering and the need for answers. This had been a recurring theme for those who regularly read Schulz’s newspaper strip. Now millions could enjoy it from their living room TV sets. Some 15 million households watched the special the night it premiered.
In a 2011 blog post featured on the Charles M. Schulz Museum website (based in Santa Rosa, Calif.), Jean Schulz, the famed cartoonist’s wife, noted the following conversation between her Schulz and Bill Melendez, who worked as an animator and producer for the Peanuts Christmas special:
Some of the themes, like the Christmas performances and the commercialism of holidays, had already been addressed in the Peanuts comic strip, but the animated special gave them the opportunity to amplify the conversation It was also in the early 1960s that Sparky was teaching adult Sunday school at the Sebastopol Methodist Church, so the suggestion for Linus to read the quotation of the Christmas Story from St. Luke was a natural one for Sparky. When Bill said that that wasn’t done in a cartoon, Sparky answered him by simply saying (and he quoted it frequently later), “If we don’t, who will.”
Charlie Brown finds satisfaction in Linus’ answer. He is made joyful. So why is this television special so enduring? Linus’ answer is the perfect Advent message for Christians awaiting the birth of Christ during a time taken over by commercialism. That’s what Christians who watch this special take away from it.
At the same time, those who don’t practice any religion can also enjoy Charlie Brown’s reaction, but also how his friends react to him. Even a secularist (someone who advocates for the separation of the state from religious institutions) can appreciate this cartoon. They help decorate the tree and Charlie Brown’s mood — indeed the mood of all the characters — is lifted by their togetherness. That, after all, is a major reason why so many people who are not Christian enjoy and even celebrate Christmas. No one wants to be alone on Christmas.
In 2015, The Philadelphia Inquirer addressed the enduring nature of the show this way:
How has a cartoon become as traditional as decorating the tree? Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s attack on the commercialization of Christmas is often cited as the key. More significant, though, is the show’s power to touch viewers personally. As recent reviews of The Peanuts Movie note, the comic strip’s wide appeal rests in its ability to link adult sensibilities with the exploits of a gang of kids.
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Schulz focuses on alienation, one of his favorite themes.
Early in the program, Charlie Brown looks for just one Christmas card to help him shake the yuletide blues. When he finds his mailbox empty, he remarks: “I almost wish there wasn’t a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Charlie Brown’s real dilemma is being rejected and misunderstood.
Schulz realized that Christmas has a dark side, murkier than the stress caused by excessive shopping, partying, and entertaining. Despite the glow of lights, many face a terrible struggle with loneliness and loss during the season. Of course, the creator of Peanuts was not the first to recognize the incongruity of Christmas.
Near the end of his life, Schulz, who died in 2000, wondered about whether the TV special would endure with future generations. When asked, he said: “Art is something so good it speaks to succeeding generations,” he said. “I doubt my strip will hold up for generations to come.”
As a result of Apple TV purchasing the rights (a move that infuriated many viewers) to the various Peanuts TV specials starting this year, viewers can stream A Charlie Brown Christmas on Apple TV plus starting Dec. 4. If you’re not a subscriber, the show will also be available for free on the platform from Dec. 11-13. It will also air on PBS and PBS Kids on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
For now, Schulz’s prediction has proven wrong. I still watch A Charlie Brown Christmas each December, this time with my two children. It remains a fixture in the homes of both Christians and non-Christians.
Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and goodwill toward men. That’s truly something everyone can rally around this holiday season.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.