A Charlie Brown Epiphany

Perhaps the best commentary on Christmas as it is observed in the United States is a television special made over 50 years ago: A Charlie Brown Christmas. In this 22-minute animated miracle, the congenitally depressed titular hero puzzles over the meaning of the holiday. Nearly all the answers he receives further depress him, be it Lucy’s greed-crazed psychiatrist’s attempts at pathologizing him, or his sister Sally’s letter to Santa in which she offers Santa the option of simply sending her cash, “preferably $10s and $20s.”

The Christmas Charlie Brown sees around him is one that has become hopelessly commercialized: even Snoopy has entered his doghouse in a decorating contest with cash prizes. Charlie Brown’s dejection continues until Linus steps to the front of the stage, asks “lights, please”, and recites the Nativity story from Luke. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” One of the many wonderful things about Peanuts is Charles Schulz’ unapologetic Christianity, with Linus the cast theologian. A Charlie Brown Christmas concludes with all the children moving the decorations from Snoopy’s commercialized doghouse to Charlie Brown’s little tree (Linus: “I didn’t know they made wood Christmas trees anymore”), and joining in a religious carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas humorously indicts the commercialization of Christmas. It was a response to the situation in this country in 1965, but, if anything, it is even more relevant to twenty-first century American Christmases. Today, not only has commercialism prevailed, but the religious element has been all but purged from a holiday that, lest we forget, is called Christ Mass. (In Charlie Brown’s words: good grief!) I suspect that, with its Biblical quotes and carol finale, A Charlie Brown Christmas couldn’t be made in the current anti-clerical climate.

Readers acquainted with other entries in the Blogfolio may perhaps be aware of the fact that the present writer is Jewish. My father converted to Judaism when he married my mother, but the one thing he didn’t want to relinquish was the celebration of a family Christmas. Thus I grew up with the holiday, and received an only child’s haul of presents every December 25th. (My Chanukah haul was smaller.) Getting presents is good and all that – Charlie Brown says as much – but, even though we weren’t Christian, and even though we unequivocally didn’t believe in the Divine aspects of the story of the Nativity, we were aware of the fact that Christmas is a religious holiday. Christmas music in our house took the form of carols, my favorite of which was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. I like to think that I sang it with a young child’s acknowledgement and respect of a religious tradition that wasn’t his.

As a religious adult who has given the question of whether or not to continue celebrating Christmas a great deal of thought, I can only regret the way that Christmas in America has lost complete track of its Christian origins. Not only are those origins ignored, they are often scoffed at: consider the horrifying policy of employers who reprimand and even fire employees who dare to wish customers a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There is now something wrong with seeing Christmas as a Christian holiday, as even anti-clericalists spend the weeks of Advent running from store to store and participating in the season’s bacchanal of spending. That bacchanal can and should be compared to the religious understanding of Advent, which is supposed to be a time of introspection, repentance and preparation for the Tidings of Great Joy that come with Christmastide.

Before entirely condemning a secular Christmas (which is not the same thing as a Christian Christmas celebrated in secular fashion), one must acknowledge that many of our Christmas traditions have pre-Christian origins, and can justifiably be observed in purely secular terms. (My apologies to any remaining practitioners of the pre-Christian religions of Northern Europe.) The winter solstice occurs only four days before Christmas, and the bringing of evergreens and light into the house are ancient responses to these shortest days of the year. The early Catholic Church adopted and transformed these customs into Christian practice, a move which coincided with the fixing of the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25th.

The Church won out over the early Germanic tribes, and, even if the custom of a winter solstice evergreen began with the latter, the custom is today recognized as Christian. I’ve yet to hear of a Christmas tree referred to as a “winter solstice tree” – or even as a “holiday tree”. (I mention “Chanukah bush” simply to observe that it is idiotic.) Let us also not forget that the Christians are the ones who brought Christmas to this continent. Although the Founding Fathers shunned the idea of an official state religion, they were unequivocally Christian, and thus did December 25th become possibly the major holiday on the American calendar.

And look what’s become of it today.

As Linus explains to Charlie Brown, the meaning of Christmas lies in the story of the Nativity. The holiday was about (in order of appearance) Joseph, Mary, the Infant Jesus, the shepherds, the angel and the Magi. In today’s America, we see nothing of any of these, and a very great deal of their replacements, Santa Claus and his wretched reindeer.

(As though eight of the latter weren’t bad enough, a ninth member of the team has now become canonical, despite the very dubious moral of his story. Many assume the tale of Rudolph to be a fable preaching inclusion. In reality, it preaches the moral that it’s okay to be different…as long as you’re useful. The next clear Christmas Eve, poor Rudolph is going back to not engaging in any reindeer games.)

There is something awful and monstrous about Santa Claus today. To begin with, there is something wrong with using a mythical gift-giver as a means of blackmailing unwitting children into “nice” behavior. If you think about it, there is something unpleasantly vindictive about Santa Claus coming to town. The Santa story also teaches children that their Christmas hauls appear magically, rather than being the result of the hard work their parents put in during the year so as to be able to afford Christmas presents for their children. (I have friends who refused to teach their children about Santa Claus for exactly this reason.) What’s more, this idea of asking Santa for presents can lead to crushing disappointment when parents are unwilling (or, worse, unable) to buy the gift their children requested from some impostor in a red suit. (“I asked Santa for a Cabbage Patch doll, and I was good all year…”)

These aren’t even the biggest of the problems posed by Father Christmas. That would be the way in which he’s become the God of Spending. This ravenous idol demands the outlay of enormous amounts of money if he is to be satisfied. The hunger goes beyond stores’ need to do the biggest business of the year if they are to survive. We are told that the good of the economy requires mammoth outlays of cash and credit come December: if the God of Spending isn’t sufficiently appeased, dire things will happen to the economy in the coming year that will affect us all.

By purging Christmas of its connection to the Nativity – and by bringing up children in such a tradition – we’re not only purging the religious meaning of Christmas, we’re impoverishing the holiday from a narrative standpoint. Even if Christmas doesn’t mean something for you, it still ought to be about something. Moreover, anyone growing up in this country needs to know the story of the Nativity. When I started working on this piece, I realized that, in the anti-clerical climate in which we live, there are probably young people who have no idea what the expression “no room at the inn” means. Worse yet, someone not knowing the Nativity story would be unable to understand countless masterpieces of art. I don’t only mean paintings of the manger scene, but also musical works such as Messiah and the Bach Christmas Oratorio, to say nothing of the works of genius that depict the Madonna and Child.

A large part of the Tidings of Great Joy contain meaning and relevance to every human being: even if you put aside the “Glory to God in the highest” part of Luke 2:14, you still have “and on Earth peace, good will toward men.” One would think it would be hard to argue with that, and, yet, that bathwater has been tossed out with the Christmas Baby.

Even as a non-Christian, I advocate in favor of putting the “Christ-” back in “Christmas.” What’s so terrible about allowing the Nativity back into the holiday that was built around it? One can so easily teach one’s children that “this is an aspect of the holiday we’re celebrating, and, while we don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus, we want to acknowledge and respect the beliefs of Christians around the world while we’re celebrating in our way. Christmas is a time of good will to all men, and, it is in that spirit that you’re getting this whole mess of toys.”

That might not be Linus’ idea of the meaning of Christmas, but I suspect that Charlie Brown might be satisfied with it.

Perhaps the most striking indicator of how we have divorced Christmas from Christ is the way in which Advent, and not Christmastide, has become the season for celebration. Advent is supposed to be time of preparation for the Tidings of Great Joy. The joy itself is celebrated for twelve days, beginning with December 25th, and ending on January 6th, the lost holiday known as Epiphany (or, for Shakespeare fans, Twelfth Night.) While some communities do celebrate the holiday (usually as the day the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem), the American “holiday” season runs through the end of the Sugar Bowl on January First and no further, even though that only accounts for eight days of Christmas. Ninety-four assorted lords a-leaping, ladies dancing, pipers piping and drummers drumming therefore find themselves out of work.

(I leave the question of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7th for another time. It might however be useful to point out that it has nothing to do with the date of Epiphany on the Western calendar.)

With Christmastide, we have become the equivalent of spoiled children who tear the wrapping off all their presents in five minutes, leaving the rest of Christmas Day to be a sorry anticlimax. There should be more – in fact, there is more – but it gets lost once the God of Spending has been propitiated.

The other eleven days of Christmas offer a non-commercial chance to reflect on the lessons of the season. The whole miserable drama of presents out of the way, Christmastide provides an opportunity for a celebration that contains at least a little more meaning than we currently get from December 25th. Since we’ve all but ruined the latter, perhaps we can find a way to profit from the space provided by what is, after all, the rest of the holiday.

There’s some room left for meaning in the other days of Christmas. Who knows? Perhaps A Charlie Brown Epiphany could be a television special for our time.

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