Christmastime is here. Bring on the blitz of traditions and travels, wants and wishes. Get the shopping done, get the family together, get the food ready, get the getting going in all its guises. Fill the snowy expanse that is the holiday season. With so many things trying to get in, sometimes it seems like nothing succeeds and Christmastime is empty instead of full: Christmas in a minor key. The marketeers have convinced us that we’re longing for something, but once again their offered ephemera have failed to satisfy.
This can only mean it’s time for the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Under falling snow, Charlie Brown is searching. For meaning, for escape from materialism, for Christmas. He confides in his pal Linus that even with Christmas on its way with gifts and cheer, he still feels melancholy. Through the course of an afternoon, Chuck looks in the places we all tend to look this time of year. He looks in his mailbox for a Christmas card, for some human connection and affirmation. He looks to the five-cent psychiatrist; perhaps a mental health adjustment will help. Ultimately, Lucy enlists him to direct the kids’ Christmas play, and Charlie looks to a satisfying career to put his heart at ease. And we certainly see how that works out.
Meanwhile, Snoopy dives into Christmas commerce full tilt, festooning his doghouse and erstwhile World War I fighter plane with an arsenal of lights and ornaments. Taking Christmas by storm, in hot pursuit of a glorious cash prize.
At the pageant rehearsal, Charlie Brown learns a lesson in herding cats, so even merry company and music can’t cure what ails him. Beneath the cheer lies vanity, snobbishness, and shallow revelry. Actors, right? In need of a break and determined to set the right tone for this Christmas play, Chuck sets off with Linus to get a Christmas tree. A nice, shiny aluminum one, Lucy shouts after him. Looks matter. So the pair follows the modern equivalent of a star in the east: two roving spotlights.
Confronted by an explosion of neon kitsch at the tree lot, Charlie Brown nearly despairs until he finds a spindly, real tree. Wood and needles—the least commercial, most plain thing he’s seen in the whole town. With apparent peace, he takes the one true tree to show to the others, but his humble offering receives a humiliating rebuke. What a blockhead.
Deflated and frustrated, Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?”
Linus knows. In what may be the last place a passage of Scripture gets a sincere reading in all of primetime TV, Linus recites Luke 2:8–14 at center stage in a single spotlight. Beneath all the hyper-exaggerated veneer, Christmas is really about something as simple as the birth of a baby (albeit a birth announced by angels and the glory of the Lord). It’s the emotional turning point, the moment of quiet clarity. I tear up every time.
Maybe the glory that shone ’round those shepherds long ago has been echoing through the years, and we, in an effort to recapture glory DIY style, have just gotten a little crazy. Maybe the aluminum trees are just an overcooked reflection of something real after all. Christmas™ has grown gaudy and superficial. Tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Have some goodwill toward men. But returning to the original simplicity of Christmas is only half the point. In the final five minutes, Schultz and the animators drive home a seditiously countercultural point, exposing the hollowness of mere tradition and DIY glory, to replace it with something enduring.
Comforted by Linus’s soliloquy, Charlie Brown carries his Christmas tree home. As he walks through his snow-bound town, all the other trees stoop under the weight of the drifts. Bowing in the direction of Chuck’s sad little tree, oddly enough. Seemingly giving due deference. At home, Charlie is astounded to see what his beagle’s been up to. Snoopy tucked right into the hype and glitz of his culture with relish and did up his little red house into a festive juggernaut. I tell you, he has already received his reward. First place. Good grief.
Charlie Brown takes a crimson ornament, a token of Snoopy’s best effort, and hangs it on his own tree. The poor, wretched thing buckles under the weight. “I’ve killed it.” Indeed, Chuck. Haven’t we all?
The dejected boy heads in from the cold. The Peanuts gang shows up (hopefully to apologize for being mean as vipers) and Linus, that bastion of loyalty and wisdom, declares that the tree ain’t all that bad. It just needs a little tender loving care. Linus lays his security blanket down at the foot of the tree. Snoopy could probably spare some lights and bells. But wait! Is the whole premise about to come undone? Is the commercialist brigade about to take the last lonely refuge of humble simplicity and bling it into oblivion? Thankfully, no. When the gang finishes, it remains a real tree, but a tree fully revealed.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the kids start humming “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Glory to the newborn king. Indeed, glory has found its home. Not on a dog house, but on the one true tree. The emblem of Christmas. Snoopy’s reaction might just be the most subversive moment of the whole show. His glory has been robbed and bestowed upon this tree, and instead of moping or snarling about it, he joins the singing. Every tongue confesses that the lights look better on the tree, even the dog who thought he had cornered the market on glorious display.
Charlie Brown comes back outside, touchingly stunned to see what’s become of his lowly little tree. His honest search has been rewarded with a far more beautiful vision than he could have imagined. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.