We all love A Charlie Brown Christmas—the music is unstoppable; the humor is dry, but not too dry; the transitions are choppy and raw, but not amateurish. Overall, I’m convinced that the aesthetic is perfect.
And the content is clear but subtle enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewers. But then again, let’s consider that content. What is the overall jist of A Charlie Brown Christmas? After all, as far as I can tell, this beloved Christmas classic never actually reaches Christmas morning. Sure, we’re told that Christmas time is here, and at the end we hear “Hark, the herald angels sing…” But, this comedy is really about the heartache of missing out on the Christmas spirit that everyone is supposed to have during the Advent season, the culture and ethos of anticipation, whether that be anticipating “real estate” or something else.
Charlie Brown just doesn’t get it.
I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
And the existential angst of not ‘getting it’ seeps into his whole life, cultivating an isolation and loneliness that his peers only exacerbate. Frankly, they torture him.
What is it that Charlie doesn’t get? It’s not that he lacks the material comforts of a material Christmas. And for all the brutality of his peers, Charlie is offered a pretty crucial role in the Christmas play. Rather, Charlie Brown sees a hollowness in the commercialized parade that everyone calls Christmas, even bemoaning how commercialized his dog has become when he sees the decorated dog house.
In response to Charlie’s unenthusiastic approach to the season, Linus declares, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brownest!”
And likewise, of all the Christmas Specials in the world, this one is the Charlie Brownest!
But what makes all this an Advent message?
“The purpose of [Advent] is to take an unflinching inventory of darkness.” The Episcopal priest, Fleming Rutledge, says in her new book, Advent: the Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, that the season of Advent is not a season of light, but rather a season of darkness. “That’s why the Anglican tradition refuses to celebrate Christmas until Christmas Eve. It’s one of the very best things about us, one of the things we do really well. Our liturgy is designed to show that we are willing to refuse the easy comforts of the commercial Christmas. Advent is an exercise in delayed gratification” (173).
I think that A Charlie Brown Christmas, I mean, Advent works in about the same way. Charlie Brown is confronted repeatedly with unhappiness, isolation, ennui, and confusion. And we’re forced to sit with him through these awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful moments. And they’re never explained away. None of the meanness he’s shown by his peers is redeemed.
Instead, Charlie learns—first through the character of Linus, and then through the experience of caring for a dying weed of a Christmas tree—that his darkness is not merely his own. Whatever fear he might have had that his isolation was unique to him is dispelled. Darkness has tried to overcome the light, as St. John tells us.
But the Light won’t be shut out. God enters into the darkness of the world, and overcomes it.
What I think A Charlie Brown Christmas shows really well is that before we can hear and understand the Christmas message, we need to first hear and then acknowledge the Advent state of the world. We need to come to terms that the world languishes in darkness, and we along with it. And then, once we know and repent of the darkness in and around us, and only then, will the Christmas message make sense. Only then does it make sense to sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”
Keep the Advent in Christmas, folks.