By Pamela A. Lewis
Like many Americans of my generation, I have been a big fan of “Peanuts,” the cartoon created by the late Charles Schulz. As a kid, I impatiently awaited the delivery of the Sunday papers so I could turn immediately to the page where Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and their motley group of friends held court and made me and my parents laugh at their amusing adventures and experiences.
I loved each of the main characters because of the way Schulz designed their physical characteristics: Lucy’s big gaping mouth that either bossed others or was Snoopy’s target for one of his dreaded sloppy wet “kisses”; Charlie Brown with his nearly bald pate and woe-is-me expression; or the rumpled Pig Pen, who was eternally surrounded in a cloud of dust. By some mysterious alchemy, Schulz gave his characters personalities that were at turns irritating and endearing.
The Peanuts gang also came across as real children; they were kids like me who went to school, struggled at times with their lessons, and were mystified by the grownups who raised and taught them. They played games (which Charlie Brown never succeeded in winning), teased one another, and developed crushes (see Lucy and Schroeder).
The Peanuts kids also celebrated our culture’s popular holidays, and in 1965, Charlie Brown and his pals moved from the funny papers to the big time: Television. First, there was the Halloween special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where actors gave the gang their unique and now recognizable voices. But Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown would be different, playing to a wider audience and handling a more significant story.
“Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer,” the kids sing in the film’s introduction as they glide in a serpentine, Snap the Whip line across a frozen pond (with Snoopy bringing up the rear). I join my voice to theirs, reveling in every note of composer Vince Guaraldi’s immortal score. I never tire of the uncomplicated melody, which evokes joy, hope and innocence.
Charlie Brown frets to his pal Linus about not knowing what Christmas “is all about.” The commercialization of the season, heavy with bling and glitz, leaves him feeling confused and kind of empty. Even Charlie’s dog Snoopy has his canine pad rigged out with colorful and flashing lights. But for Charlie Brown, something is wrong with this picture. Something is missing. Yes, Charlie, I understand.
Charlie later gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea to solve his problem: put on an old-fashioned Christmas pageant, complete with the Three Wise Men and bleating sheep. “No, no, no!” objects know-it-all Lucy. It’s got to have “Santa Claus, deck them halls, Ho-ho-ho, and pretty girls,” she explains while batting her eyes at her love interest, Schroeder, whose task is to provide the pageant’s music.
Despite his best efforts to organize the pageant, it doesn’t come together. No one cooperates, least of all Snoopy, who prefers dancing atop Schroeder’s piano rather than listening to his master’s instructions.
Charlie and Linus’ trip to the local Christmas tree market to buy one for the pageant doesn’t help matters, either. Shiny and glammed-up trees are everywhere, but there is nothing real or meaningful, except for a bedraggled little specimen whose needles have all but fallen off.
Taking pity on it, Charlie buys and presents it to his “friends,” who laugh it — and him — to scorn. When he places an ornament on one fragile branch, the tree bends deeply, nearly breaking under the bauble’s weight. “Ugh, I’ve killed it,” laments Charlie, believing again that he can’t do anything right, not even choose a good Christmas tree.
“I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” says Linus very calmly, as they stand in the school auditorium where the pageant will take place. One spotlight sheds a beam on Linus (now without his trusty security blanket) as he takes to the empty stage. He recites the ancient verses from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-14): “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger …” Finally, Charlie Brown understands.
The pathetic little tree that looked as if it wouldn’t amount to much, then receives a loving and twinkling makeover from the kids, who present it to Charlie Brown. “It isn’t such a bad little tree; it just needed a little love,” says Linus wisely.
While “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” is essentially an animated cartoon, whose characters look funny, and behave broadly, and there are silly noises and pratfalls, Linus’ recitation of Saint Luke’s verses is its solemn core. For a few moments, the story’s busyness is suspended to make room for a larger and more eternal story.
Charles Schulz’s brilliance lies in having none other than Linus, often presented and judged (especially by his sister Lucy) as too babyish and meek to be taken seriously, to declaim the biblical narrative about another and very special child’s birth.
Like the puny tree, which the other kids ridiculed and rejected, Linus emerges from his customary lesser status to be the one who knows the truth about Christmas. He “tells” that truth by reciting the Nativity story. Sometimes it takes a child — a blanket-toting, thumb-sucking Linus sort of child — to remind the Charlie Browns in the world what life, love, and other important things are all about.
This is why I added “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” to my DVD collection, and why watching this animated classic every year over these many decades is one of my cherished Christmas traditions.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published in the Episcopal New Yorker.