The Charlie Brown Christmas Problem

Charles Schultz’s classic TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was originally broadcast in 1965. And, a generation later, the problem at its heart remains as problematic as ever.

Poor Charlie Brown keeps searching for the true meaning of Christmas amid pop psychology, commercialism, and parties. Having seen through the nonsense all around him, he cries out for help. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

His patient friend Linus, secure in his blanket and faith, then recites the nativity story from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2. And that solves everything, right?

Charlie Brown listens to Linus and, encouraged by this poignant glimpse of the Christchild, he proceeds to devote his life to Christianity: feeding the poor, striving for justice, and spreading the gospel of salvation through Jesus to everyone he meets.

Well, no, he doesn’t, of course. Instead Charlie Brown responds to the Greatest Story Ever Told by caring for . . . a Christmas tree. A little, real one, to be sure—not those crass artificial ones—and Charlie Brown gives it the place of honour in the Christmas pageant. Everyone else is touched by this humble authenticity, and sings a final carol to Jesus, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

But what in the world does giving “glory to the newborn king” have to do with a Christmas tree?

That’s the Charlie Brown Christmas problem, and it remains a problem.

Most Christmas movies deal with the problem by ignoring it and focusing entirely on non-Christian elements of the season. “A Christmas Story,” “The Santa Clause,” “Elf,” “The Grinch”—all family favourites in our home—and every single one of the Hallmark Channel Christmas romances turned out by the dozen—utterly ignore anything to do with Jesus.

It’s weird, though, if you think about it. Christmas specials without Jesus are like shows about Smallville without ever mentioning Clark Kent, or Gotham City without a trace of Bruce Wayne. Who cares about Smallville or Gotham City without the heroes? Bethlehem and Christmas aren’t special if Jesus isn’t special.

But Jesus does have a way of showing up anyhow. A humour column in a recent New Yorker concludes with this: “I’ll end here, on the holiday I enjoy the most. . . . The day is ostensibly to honor a baby with superpowers, but it’s rude to ask too many follow-up questions about the baby, because he died.”

It’s so awkward to ask about that eventually-crucified baby, in fact, that most recorded renditions of “We Three Kings” ignore the third king’s verse entirely:

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

Good grief: that’s not very Christmassy! And yet celebrating the birth of Jesus makes no sense as merely a generic symbol of “new life in the midst of darkness”—the pagan idea at the heart of Saturnalia and other celebrations of the winter solstice. He’s just another poor Middle Eastern kid. So what?

The whole celebration of Christmas is warranted only if connected with Jesus’ later life, death…and resurrection.

—Which brings us to Easter, another holiday Hollywood and Madison Avenue can’t quite smother and absorb, no matter how many bunnies and eggs and chocolates they attach to it.

No, the true meaning of Christmas is provocatively angular, confrontationally specific. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in that manger—and why. Salvation has come to a doomed world—nothing less than that, so, yes, “let heaven and nature sing.”

And if you see that, and see Him, you’ll have nothing but a truly merry Christmas. Even Charlie Brown would cheer up in the light of that great good news.

But if you don’t see that, then why bother with that tree?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).