The turning point in the now-classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes with Linus’ recitation of the Christmas story as found in Luke 2. Charlie Brown leaves the superficiality of the Christmas play rehearsal with his forlorn little tree. All it needs is a little love, he realizes. Gazing up at the stars, he recalls the words of good news and hope.
The crash from this “high” is foreshadowed when he sees Snoopy’s souped-up doghouse has won the Christmas decorating contest. He is shocked and dismayed, but determines not to let this commercialism ruin his Christmas. He removes a simple red ornament from the gaudy display and hangs it on his tiny tree. Immediately the branch sags to the ground. Charlie Brown cries out in anguish, “I killed it! It’s true; I can’t do anything right! Argh!” and runs into his house.
Moments later, Linus and the other Peanuts characters arrive. Linus wraps his beloved blanket around the base of the tree to support it, saying, “I never did think it was such a bad little tree.” Then with the magic of animation, the gang waves their arms in the air around Snoopy’s doghouse, removing all the gaudiness, then waves them around the little tree. When they step back, the tree is transformed into a beautiful sight. They begin humming a Christmas carol, which draws Charlie Brown back outside. When he sees the tree, he does a double-take, astonished. The gang cries out, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” before breaking into “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
So what is Christmas all about? It’s about the saving, redeeming power of God coming to us enfleshed. It’s about community that repents, that seeks out the one they have ostracized, that puts its efforts to work to create beauty instead of seeking vainglory in its own performance, and blesses the one they had scorned. When Charlie Brown experiences that, then he gets it. Christmas happens when grace is incarnate in lives, in community, in the world. May you experience such grace, and may you make Christmas happen this year and each day.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was first broadcast on December 9, 1965. I would guess that I saw that broadcast; for certain, I can’t remember Christmas without my favorite television special (tied with Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” which debuted the following year). The pivotal scene comes when Linus answers Charlie Brown’s agonized cry, “Can anybody tell me what Christmas is really all about?”
“Sure, I can tell you, Charlie Brown,” replies Linus, his one faithful friend. For fifty years, I’ve loved this child’s voice reciting the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds, telling them the good news, and singing their praises, as set forth in Luke 2:8-14 in the King James Version.
Before the show was broadcast, it was predicted to be a dismal failure, in part for stepping over the line of general audience television with the telling of the Biblical Christmas story. To this day, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is probably the primary vehicle by which children of any religious background hear Luke’s story, especially since its release on videotape and dvd.
It’s not that the story was unknown to Charlie Brown, or any of the other characters; after all, they were about to rehearse a Christmas play that apparently told the story (with the addition of a Christmas Queen, if Lucy had her way). But Linus got it. He knew that this story of good news, brought to ordinary people, was somehow the heart of the whole holiday. “That’s it, Charlie Brown; that’s the true meaning of Christmas.”
With this, Charlie Brown’s attitude shifted from despair to hope, from self-absorption to compassion. Hope, born into the world because of a gracious God, through an ordinary woman, shared with plain old folks — hope that changes everything — it still sets us trembling, and singing. It still changes everything.