Some poor misguided souls view tradition with suspicion. Nothing but archaic echoes of repressive ages, they say. I, like most conservatives, view things a little differently. Tradition, properly viewed, is an inter-generational “body language,” allowing us to silently communicate with our ancestors and our own early lives, to transcend in quiet ways the barriers of time and pesky mortality. Even those traditions that, on their surface, seem silly and devoid of meaning can tell us much about the things that mattered to our ancestors. Tradition is to be embraced and pondered, not shunned or mocked.
I am a sucker for Christmas traditions in particular. Some ancient, some recent (like watching “A Christmas Story” 800 times with my wife), and some a meaningful but sad link to an American past that often seems to be slipping away.
I have watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year since it first aired when I was 9 years old. I cannot conceive of a Christmas season without it. It is much more than just a pleasant cartoon. In addition to the usual multi-layered brilliance of Charles Schulz, this specific show stands as a perfect snapshot of mid-century America on the cusp of transition. Of an America that was, and an America that was yet to come. Beneath its façade of humor, seasonal cheer, and tremendous Vince Guaraldi music vibrates an undercurrent of sadness, as if Schulz saw what was coming down the road and didn’t like it.
Most readers will be generally familiar with the Peanuts cartoon strip, but many may not realize it was once the best cartoon strip in the country, and one of the best of all time. The late ’60s introduction of Peppermint Patty and Woodstock symbolized the descent of the strip into relative mediocrity, but until that point it was brilliant. Into the mouths of babes were inserted the hopes, fears, and dreams of post-war adults, all done with engaging humor, grace, and wisdom. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was Schulz’s high water mark.
Charlie Brown is a masterful representation of “everyman,” and every kid. In “A Charlie Brown Christmas” our everyman wanders in sad and confused, trying to make sense of the meaning of Christmas amidst the changing and somewhat bizarre world of mid-1960s America. Charlie Brown is a perfectly normal boy, and that is his problem. The things he wants and hopes for are quite normal, but the world in which he lives is not. He is out of sync and out of step with his peers, and they react by mocking and vilifying him (“You Blockhead!” “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest!”). All Charlie Brown wants as the show opens is a normal Christmas experience, rooted in meaning.
In his search for meaning, Charlie Brown encounters a host of obstacles that serve to confuse and depress rather than to uplift and illuminate. They’re comparable to today’s “new age” cultural changes that corrode tradition and our links to the past and replace them with empty, glittering ephemera.
He seeks meaning in therapy at Lucy’s psychiatry stand and, after a thorough inventory of possible phobias, is told that the key to meaning and happiness is to “get involved.” He encounters the gaudy materialist glitz of Snoopy’s house decoration contest and finds it repellent. An emerging entitlement mentality is found in sister Sally’s 20-foot-long Christmas wish list (“I just want what I have coming to me. I just want my fair share.”). Raw greed is displayed in Lucy’s disappointment in the sort of presents she usually receives (what she really wants is real estate). Charlie Brown’s efforts to direct the Christmas play are derailed by the short attention spans of his players, who repeatedly ignore him and launch into anarchic and vaguely hedonistic dance routines.
Mocked and frustrated and at the end of his rope, Charlie Brown cries out for help: “Isn’t there anybody who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” And there is. Quiet, neurotic, philosophical Linus steps forward: “I can tell you, Charlie Brown. I know what Christmas is all about.”
In a moment that still sends chills up and down my spine, he recites St. Luke’s account of the meaning of the birth of Christ in a quiet and utterly real way that cuts like a clean knife through the rancid butter of the clutter and distraction surrounding him.
Looking back, it is clear that Linus’s message got bulldozed by the new age. We seem doomed like Charlie Brown to wander in search of a fading Christmas meaning. Christmas is no longer about the birth of Christ. The forces of entitlement, therapy, materialism, and hedonism that Schulz saw emerging in 1965 have evolved and metastasized, spawning new waves of righteous political correctness, wokeness, and destruction of anything approaching normal.
The religious significance of Christmas has been banished to the back rows of our culture, kept safely penned up in some of our more conservative churches. It’s worth noting that Charlie Brown’s program is unapologetically about Christmas. Not “holidays,” not Kwanzaa, not Winter Solstice. The idea that one could produce a religiously themed Christmas pageant in a public school is simply laughable. Christmas in the public square has become crude ads selling materialism, shallowness, and singing generic “holiday” tunes.
It has been 57 years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired. Schulz himself has now been gone for almost 20. It would be easy to despair, to mimic Charlie Brown and cry in hopeless angst about what Christmas could possibly mean in our crazy contemporary culture. That would be exactly the wrong thing to do.
Let us instead channel our inner Linus this season, stand up quietly but proudly and say, “Lights, please.” When the spotlight comes on, let it shine on the traditions we still keep in our hearts and homes. Our culture may not always support them, but we can. Let’s embrace all of it, old and new: Let’s go caroling, decorate the tree, be with friends and family, buy gifts from the heart, go to Midnight Mass, wait for Santa Claus, have feasts, croon along with Bing to “White Christmas” and, yes, watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and listen to what it tells us. Heck, let’s even break out the figgy pudding or whatever other cultural traditions you may embrace!
Let us do these things mindfully and purposefully. The trivial spasms of cultural trendiness can be ugly and even painful, but they are no match for 2,000-plus years of lived traditions.