Peanuts, Popcorn, and Christmas Cartoons

When I was young, I would get to watch some great TV cartoons during the Christmas season. Waiting to devour a bowl of popcorn, I would anxiously anticipate the appearance of the “special presentation” logo and with abandon throw myself into the stories of Frosty, Kris Kringle, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Nowadays, kids can watch these cartoons any time, through iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, but in my day kids could only watch them around Christmas time, which added to the excitement of the season. These shows reminded me that soon we would be celebrating the birth of Jesus—and that soon I would be opening my presents.

However, at my young age I usually “reversed” that order. If my parents or my priest were to have asked me what Christmas meant, I would have had quite a bit to say about what Santa might bring me for Christmas. If I had remembered—and that is a big “if”—I might have mentioned that Christmas is also about the birth of Jesus and the salvation of the world. In my youth, I had offered Jesus a backseat to Star Wars, and I had displaced the truly wonderful gift that I had received from God with opening my own Christmas gifts.

I could easily excuse my behavior as youthful exuberance, blame my immaturity, or point to the commercialization of the season. What I could not get around (even now) is that Linus—the character from Charles Schulz’s “Charlie Brown” comic strip—taught me better; he taught me what Christmas is really about.

Most of us probably recall “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a TV cartoon special that debuted in 1965 and has been aired every year since. In the cartoon Charlie Brown—the main character in Schulz’s strip—laments the commercialization of Christmas and falls into an emotional depression. Acting as the resident psychiatrist, Lucy (Charlie’s ever-present antagonist) suggests that Charlie Brown direct the school Christmas play, and in so doing find some peace within the Christmas season. However, rather than finding peace, Charlie Brown instead finds greater frustration: the Peanuts gang wants to modernize the Nativity story rather than highlight Jesus’ birth.

Seeking to create a more appropriate mood, Charlie Brown and Linus (Lucy’s gentler and kinder younger brother) set off to find a Christmas tree for the play. As they leave, Lucy requests that they get a “big, shiny aluminum tree.” However, in the midst of the many extravagant and fake trees in the lot, Charlie Brown finds and chooses a humble, unassuming evergreen—the only real tree available.

Despite Linus’s misgivings, Charlie Brown returns with this tree to rehearsal, where the Peanuts gang promptly laughs at him for his seemingly poor decision. Shaken by their response, Charlie Brown cries out, “Will somebody tell me what Christmas is all about?” Responding to his question, Linus takes center stage and recites six verses from the Gospel of Luke:

And the angel said unto them: “Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the City of Bethlehem a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:10–15)

After recounting the Gospel’s “infancy narrative,” Linus states, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Inspired, Charlie Brown decides to take his tree home to decorate it, to show the rest of the gang its true beauty. Charlie Brown borrows an ornament from the prize-winning Christmas display created by his own dog, Snoopy, only to watch the little tree droop from its weight. After crying out “I’ve killed it!”, he flees in despair.

Now sorry for their rough treatment of Charlie Brown, the Peanuts gang (inspired by Linus), follow after him, only to discover the humble tree bowed down by the weight of the ornament. Linus lovingly props up the tree to give it strength, and wraps his security blanket around its base. The gang decorates the tree with the rest of Snoopy’s ornaments as they sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Upon returning, Charlie Brown is stunned as his friends shout, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”

Charlie Brown learned something valuable that day: the joyful gift of our salvation comes wrapped not in worldly glory but in humility. The Messiah comes not in earthly splendor but in heavenly glory, wrapped in swaddling clothes rather than royal garments. The small tree chosen by Charlie Brown symbolizes the truth of the Incarnation of the Word of God: our salvation resides in an outpouring of love, not in self-glorification.

We can perhaps find even deeper symbolism in Linus’s security blanket (usually an ever-present fixture; he does not leave home with out it!). As Linus recites the gospel verse, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” he lets go of his security blanket. Linus has always depended on his blanket to have peace of mind, to feel protected, to feel safe. Yet, in this dramatic moment, he lets his blanket drop, symbolically reaching for the Savior to find true peace, protection, and safety.

Linus also wraps his security blanket around the tree after Charlie Brown flees in despair. This hopeful act suggests that Linus wrapped his fears around the Christmas tree, because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). In the light of Jesus’ birth, anxiety loses its grasp upon humanity; our security is no longer in earthly vessels but in the Lord Himself. Like Linus, we might consider letting go of our own security blankets in order to offer the same gratitude.

The brilliant Charles Schulz, through his thought-provoking and heart-warming characters, tried to convey to the world the true meaning of Christmas. Although I now enter into the Advent Season through the rich services of the Orthodox Church, I still carry in my heart the simple but profound lessons taught to me by the Peanuts gang.

And, now, when considering my “Christmas presents” I muse: Am I presenting the Lord with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, like the Magi? Or, am I offering him pride, covetousness, envy, and judgment?

What do I really want for Christmas?

The Rev. Dr. David Mezynski currently serves as the Associate Dean for Student Affairs at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. From 2004-05 Fr. David served as Assistant to the Dean, and from 2005-09 as Director of Student Affairs, at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA, before joining the staff at St. Vladimir’s.

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