Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Charlie Brown Christmas turns 50

When Charlie Brown Christmas premiered in 1965, I was a high school junior living in northwestern North Dakota—an exceptionally harsh place to be in December.  I wasn't much of a "Peanuts" fan.  Real life offers enough examples of incompetence—I am not sure why I should be entertained by cartoonish versions of disasters.  Besides, in 1965 my father had become embroiled in another utterly pointless church fight so I was feeling pretty "bah humbug" about the very idea of Christmas.  So I missed the premiere.

I didn't see Charlie Brown Christmas until the 1970s when I had moved to St. Paul.  Charlie Brown's creator, Charles Schultz, had grown up in St. Paul—something the locals liked to remind whoever asked.  His father had owned a barber shop about three blocks from where I once lived.  So out of curiosity, I spent a half hour watching a network program designed to entertain children and found it artistically complex and surprisingly profound.  Like many things that are unexpectedly good, this little masterpiece almost didn't get made and only took it's final shape at the insistence of Schultz.

The 50th showing of Charlie Brown Christmas inspired some interesting remembrances. Scott Collins of the LA Times wrote:
"But two other major creative decisions led to disagreement — and also helped ensure that "Charlie Brown Christmas" remained unique in its approach to the holiday.

Schulz insisted that no laugh track be used. At the time, canned laughter was a virtual requirement for TV comedy. Lee Mendelson pleaded that without it, the special would plod along. But Schulz detested laugh tracks and would not budge, according to the Michaelis biography.

The other standoff involved religion. The script included a climactic speech in which Linus delivered an onstage explanation of the "true meaning of Christmas" by reciting the story of Jesus' birth according to St. Luke. Mendelson argued that religion had to be kept out of prime-time entertainment. Again, Schulz — who according to his biographer was engaged in a lifelong internal struggle over his own Christian beliefs — was insistent: "We can't avoid it."
Now that I have mostly gotten over the absurdities of my overly religious childhood, I try to think about that trauma as a subset of a much larger cultural experience.  After all, stripped of the mystical mumbo-jumbo, religion is mostly just cultural anthropology.  And viewed in that light, the amazing success of Charlie Brown Christmas makes perfect sense.  Let me explain.

As a culture, Christianity has been phenomenally successful.  Yes it has had its tragedies from the Inquisition to the 30-Years War to Jerry Falwell and the rest of the list too long to recount here.  But no other culture was so ready to embrace the scientific revolution—both Newton and Darwin were devout Christians.  No other culture went through such upheavals to rid themselves from slavery.  This was the culture that figured out the Industrial Revolution and its economics just towered over all alternatives.  The social advances did not come in a straight line but in most of the versions of Protestant Christianity women are fully integrated throughout the clergy.  Etc.!

IMHO, perhaps Christianity's greatest single teaching is told at every Christmas service.  It is the story from Luke of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. This one—the one that Linus speaks in the cartoon.

Luke 2:
[8] And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
[9] 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.
[10] And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
[11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
[14] Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Yes this tale of angels talking to the shepherds has a high mumbo-jumbo content.  But strip out the magical tale and there is an amazing sociological principle on display.  Because according to the story, when god came to earth as a human baby, the FIRST people who got the news were some poor guys working outside at night.  This foundation story means that Christianity would be a religion that was supposed to respect the people who found themselves at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder.  Not surprisingly, Christianity was first the religion of slaves in the Roman Empire.  This did not always work—see feudalism—but the principle is restated at least once a year on the one occasion when everyone goes to church.

Turns out folks LIKE the idea that the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder deserve respect.  Even better, this belief leads directly to successful and prosperous societies.  And by highlighting this message in Charlie Brown Christmas, Charles Schultz pretty much made sure his Christmas special would be a hit for decades.

I have a personal reason for approving the inclusion of the Luke tale in a cartoon show.  Linus, the character who stands on an empty stage to recite those lines, appears to be about seven years old.  That was the age when I memorized the Luke Christmas story (all 20 verses).  Not surprisingly, my parents much approved and soon incorporated this act into the family traveling salvation show.  I stood up in front of folks in nursing homes and shut-ins who could not get to church and recited it—often many times each Christmas.  I was still doing this act in high school.  And yes, I can still do it.

Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

  1. WOW! That’s the best tribute to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I've ever seen.

    I can picture you as the coolest Peanut character, Linus, who could recite from memory the real meaning of Christmas. (I was more like the hapless main character, Charlie, who was often at the center of things but who also had to bear the brunt of many of the jokes while trying to be more like the Joe Cool character, Snoopy.)

    You’ve hit another one out of the park, Jonathan. Thank you, Merry Christmas!