A Theological Reflection on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

#analysis #art #film #theology #advent #consumerism

I’ve always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas special for how beautiful it is. It has a pacing that doesn't rush but is simply allowed to linger— a pacing that breaks through the hyperspeed of our accelerated society. The form of the pacing and the themes of finding Advent in the midst of chaotic commercialism perfectly coalesce, creating a masterpiece of animation that stands the test of time. For most of my life, I simply enjoyed the show's artistry, but in recent years, I've come to appreciate the beauty of its themes and message.

Through the simplified art and gorgeous music, the episode captures a sacredness of the everyday: catching snowflakes on one's tongue, ice skating, throwing snowballs at a can — these moments are lifted in a peaceful glimpse of the sacred. In a way, it harkens the same energy as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: slow pacing with an underlying spirit of wonder and gratitude for life. An appreciation of the sacred everyday stands in contrast to the foreboding consumerism that lingers in the background and haunts Charlie Brown. Despite the sacred moments happening around him, Charlie Brown seems to be absent from such experiences. Instead, he dejectedly saunters through his town, bearing the existential weight of capitalist-driven alienation, asking himself: “What is the true meaning of Christmas?”

He knows the answer does not lie in commercialism, which is portrayed through his little sister's letter to Santa: “Just send cash. How about 10s and 20s?” Lucy comes a tad bit closer to the meaning of Christmas, such as when she invites Charlie Brown to participate in the Christmas pageant. However, as she readily admits, her real ambitions are capitalist accumulation (“Santa never brings me what I really want... real estate”) and her desire to be the “Christmas Queen” in a pageant permeated with commercial trappings. Charlie Brown rejects both of these modalities.

Though Charlie Brown is well aware of the Advent Story from scripture, he has yet to connect with the theological meaning behind the story—i.e., with the revelation of God in Christ. Like much of our secular age, for Charlie Brown, religious acts are severed from their higher, sacred meaning or perhaps overshadowed by commercialism's chaos. It is not until he goes on his quest to find a Christmas tree that he encounters the shocking reality of the sacred.

What I love about this scene is how vastness and magnitude of sacred sublimity is found within a humble tree. It's like the scripture passage from Isaiah 53:2, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” What is beautiful about the tree is not its opulence, but how real it is. Within a landscape of artificial aluminum trees, Charlie stumbles upon a remnant of a more honest Creation, as if he is Moses encountering the burning bush. Charlie Brown has yet to find the words to express his experience, but he returns to the pageant and Advent Story with what he discovered, with an experiential connection to the deeper meaning of Advent.

I find it particularly beautiful how the creators portray Charlie Brown’s love for that little tree. Not only is the tree an encounter with the sacredness of an authentic Advent, but the tree is also a projection of Charlie Brown himself, which is why he is so drawn to it. Though it’s not perfect, that tree is still better than the fake aluminum trees. It’s better because it’s real and authentic, rather than the contrived and manufactured trees in the dazzling advertisements of consumerism.

When Charlie Brown returns to the pageant, we get a heartbreaking scene as people laugh at his tree (the way they laugh at him personally). The tree doesn’t conform to the image that was marketed to them. Just like Charlie Brown is marginalized and humiliated, so is this little tree. As Isaiah 53 goes on to say, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”

In this context, Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke takes on a whole new meaning. I've heard some Christians interpret this moment as merely a declaration that “Jesus is the reason for the season” rather than Santa Claus or consumerism. Of course, as a Christian, I believe Christmas is about God rather than commodities, and I don't want to dissuade people from focusing on Christ. But too often, this sort of interpretation falls into the “war on Christmas” ideological ploys rather than a serious engagement with capitalism. Furthermore, I think the “Jesus is the reason for the season” interpretation misses the broader meaning of the scripture within the context of the narrative.

In Luke, angels announce the birth of Christ to a group of poor shepherds who are quite literally on the outskirts of town and on the outskirts of society. The author of Luke included this story in keeping with his general theme that Christ came to seek and save the lost — those who are poor, oppressed, and on the margins of society. The shocking and magnificent eruption of divine revelation as the heavenly host bring the message of the messiah is presented, not to a king, but to humble shepherds. Just like the shepherds, Charlie Brown is on the outside of society—consistently marginalized and humiliated by his peers. After hearing the Gospel reading, Charlie Brown recognizes that God's love for the outsiders and marginalized applies to him as well.

In a newfound sense of personal worth, Charlie Brown is able to accept himself and accept the little tree. He is able to believe that his tree (and he himself!) is beautiful, despite what others might think. The Gospel proclamation helps make sense of Charlie's experience of finding the sacred within such a meek tree. After witnessing both the Gospel presentation and Charlie Brown’s reception, his friends repent and realize how wrong they were to bully and ridicule him. They even recognize the beauty of Charlie Brown’s tree (and Charlie himself): “I never did think it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Charlie Brown’s tree was always beautiful, and the support of his friends help make it even more so. The episode ends with a rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a song that encapsulates the Gospel reading. God's Kingship is found in a humble baby, who reconciles the lost to God — a reconciliation experienced by Charlie Brown and his peers.