Saturday, December 12

advent 2009

What Christmas Is All About

This is the thirty-fifth anniversary of Chrismon trees at First Baptist Church, and we are meditating upon the symbols of our faith much like we contemplate the decorations on the Chrismon trees, many of which were developed by Frances Kemp Spencer of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia, in 1957. The evergreen tree represents eternal life, and the decorations are images and symbols of the life of Christ and the meaning of Christmas.

Interestingly enough, however, the most familiar statement of the meaning of Christmas may be the understated declaration of a child who usually sucks his thumb and carries a blanket, and the most recognized symbol of faith, the transformation of a little tree.

Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16)

The story goes that in 1965 when Lee Mendelson, the producer, Bill Melendez, the animator, and Charles “Sparky” Schulz, the cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Peanuts, presented a review version of A Charlie Brown Christmas to the producers at CBS, they did not like it. They claimed that it was slow, that it did not have a laugh track like most of the other shows of that period, that the background music was primarily jazz, and that the voices of the characters were those of untrained children. Furthermore, according to the story, they thought it was too traditional, and even the producer and animator had concerns about Charles Schulz’s insistence that the story end with a certain speech by Linus.

But what did they know? Or as one writer put it, “Good grief, were they wrong.”

Forty-four years later, there are videos, DVDs, books, bobbleheads, plush stuffed figures, collectibles of all description, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and at least one showing of the original animated classic on network television every year enjoyed by a substantial percentage of the viewing audience. The children who watched it in 1965 for the first time now watch it with their children and grandchildren who themselves are watching in delight for the first time.

The story of the round-headed Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas while he rails about his commercialized dog and the commercialized Christmas world, is spare, ironic, humorous, and touched with the note of cynicism from which Charles Schulz’s work gets its flavor. (Lucy says to Charlie Brown, for example, as she asks him to help her write her rather self-serving letter to Santa, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what’s coming to me.”) But the story also is deeply moving and replete with symbols of the season, secular and sacred: ornaments and lights, gifts and cards, pageants and shepherds, Wise Men and the star, the stable and the manger, and Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus. In fact, as everyone knows, one of the subplots is Charlie Brown’s quest to find a Christmas tree. He brings back to his friends a spindly little reject on which he has pity, and they call him a blockhead.

Charlie Brown says, “I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” And out of frustration he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He walks to the center of the stage dragging his blanket and asks for the lights. As the spotlight settles on him, he recites the old, old story from Luke 2, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night….”

“It comes across in the voice of a child,” says Schulz’s wife, Jeannie. “Sparky used to say that there is always a market for innocence.”

And what of the little tree? “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” Linus says. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” He wraps it in his blanket and decorates it with the lights and ornaments from Snoopy’s doghouse. In the last scene, the children are singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as the tree stands tall and beautiful as if reborn.

A Christmas tree is not much without love, nor is a Chrismon tree, nor, for that matter, are we, at Christmas or any other time. As a symbol of faith, Charlie Brown’s little tree is not so bad. All it needed was “a little love” and, as Linus knows, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

– Van Pool

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