For half a century, it’s been one of the most significant phrases in American Christianity. A prelude to something sacred in an unlikely place: the Gospel of Luke, King James translation, as recited by Linus van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
My parents were atheists; I knew almost nothing about Christianity as a child, although I got the lay of the land when I was sent to Catholic school in sixth grade. Before that, my parents—especially my mother—actively worked to keep me and my sister free from religion, Christianity in particular. But we had our gods. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny reigned over us, with great kindness and generosity, and if we came, eventually, to a crisis of faith, we dealt with it privately. My sister and I understood that our feelings about Christmas were very important to our parents. The brief—transmitted in the silent language of the family—was to be happy, because our parents had had terrible childhoods, and instead of working out their pasts in psychoanalysis or “involvement,” they threw themselves into these perfect Christmases. It was the most wonderful, extremely tense time of the year.
My earliest grasp of how Christianity worked came from the Charlie Brown Christmas special—funny, cool, beloved by all. The special was first broadcast in 1965, when Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip was in the initial flush of its stupendous popularity (the characters had been on the cover of Time magazine that spring), syndicated in hundreds of American newspapers. Millions of children knew and loved it, so half of the work was already done: We knew that Lucy was crabby and Sally was romantic and Schroeder was single-minded. In that time, television was not an endless range of possibilities, every watcher a Prospero, conjuring up visions on command. In those days you had three networks, and if one of them was broadcasting a show for children at night, you can bet that the news had been shouted down school stairwells and across playgrounds, and you can bet that all of us were in position, sitting on family-room carpets and living-room couches, breathing as one, soaking it all in.
In a minute and a half of unhurried exposition, the territory of the special is laid out. The Peanuts gang is skating on a frozen lake in the nighttime, while a Christmas song plays in a minor key. But Charlie Brown and Linus aren’t with them; as ever, they are both of the group and apart from it. We watch them leave a house through the back door, walk down two steps, and cross a snow-covered yard; then they pass through the gates of a chain-link fence and it begins: They leave the realm of parents and walk out into the night, which magically belongs to the children. Lights shine from houses; the grown-ups are in there, creating and protecting the world of newspapers and breakfast tables, and everything else. The children have their own work, and they are left, undisturbed, to do it. Charlie Brown and Linus walk over what seems a long distance, their ice skates slung over their shoulders. As they turn onto another street, the camera pulls far back, and you get a sense of how big the town is and how small the boys are in it. After a while, they come to a low brick wall, and Charlie Brown clears some snow so they can rest their elbows on top of it. And at last there is some dialogue, as Charlie Brown says, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Linus gives him an alarmed look, and they start walking again. “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that. But I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
The call to adventure has been issued! But it’s more of an “inside” job.
In a quintessential mid-century dilemma, Charlie Brown doesn’t have to do anything; he just has to change the way he feels. It’s Waiting for Godot, brought to you by Coca-Cola. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had to leave his family, escape death at the clawed hands of the Abominable Snowmonster, then guide Santa’s sleigh around the world through a pea-soup fog. The Grinch had to steal every Christmas tree and present and roast beast in Whoville and then return all of them. Karen had to try to get Frosty the Snowman back to the North Pole before he melted. But Charlie Brown? He doesn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. All he has to do at Christmastime is cheer up. Who doesn’t?
Charles Schulz had what Maurice Sendak had: respect for children. He understood the way they think and feel, not the way adults want them to think and feel. He understood that there’s a point in children’s growing up when Christmas doesn’t work its magic as reliably as it once did. Schulz let them explore a taboo subject, Christmastime unhappiness, while still reassuring them that Christmas is a good and fun and wonderful thing. He also insisted that there be no laugh track, saying that if the children found it funny, they would laugh. And he insisted that children, rather than adult voice actors, read the dialogue.
Another reason A Charlie Brown Christmas has staying power is because it’s cool. That’s because in 1963 the producer, Lee Mendelson, had an experience that many people had that year. He was listening to the radio when a song came on that wasn’t like any other. It was the B side of a single from a jazz album called Impressions of Black Orpheus. The song was “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and if you’ve never heard it, you should play it right now. It’s a song that comes over you in a powerful way, somehow expressing the way that melancholy and happiness can combine into an intense emotion. Mendelson heard it on the radio and thought it would be perfect for a documentary he was then making about Schulz, whose work had a mid-century sophistication. The documentary never aired, but when the animated special came around he decided—what the hell?—to use the same music. That was the genius decision, the force that keeps the show from being dated.
Schulz had a complicated relationship with Christianity. He had grown up with a casual, midwestern Lutheranism, but during the Second World War, he became a strong believer. When he came home to St. Paul, Minnesota, he converted to the fundamentalist Church of God, and for a while he preached on street corners. All the suits had said no to the religious element in the special, but Schulz insisted. Everyone at the network was prepared for a flop, but Schulz wasn’t thinking of network executives when he made the special. He was thinking about children and about the nature of God. The suits didn’t understand it, but from the first broadcast, the kids who watched it loved it, and made it a huge hit from then on.
The special turns on what could have been the most banal plot in the world: A character who is disgusted with the commercialization of Christmas tries to uncover the meaning of the holiday, looks in all the wrong places, and finally learns the truth. Try to find something new in that one. Charlie Brown has looked for Christmas, unsuccessfully, in the lot full of aluminum Christmas trees; in the letter to Santa that his little sister, Sally, has him write (“Please note the size and color of each item and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated make it easy on yourself: just send money.”); and in the elaborate decorations Snoopy has put on his doghouse (“My own dog, gone commercial!”).
Standing in the wings of the school auditorium, where he has the impossible task of directing his friends in a Nativity play, Charlie Brown cries out in anguish: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And then, in his calm, reassuring voice, Linus says, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” And he walks to the middle of the stage and begins. You never know if Linus believes the words he recites, or if they were just so many lines to be memorized—and that’s Linus all over.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding
in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid
From the minute Linus starts talking, I feel like I’m holding my breath. It feels as though I’m being called back to something, as though finally I’ve been reunited with something elemental.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people
It’s ridiculous, it’s television—corporate America, Coca-Cola. But:“Fear not.” On that empty stage, in that small boy’s voice, it has a spellbinding power over me.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
This is 17th-century prose describing something that supposedly took place 1,600 years earlier. So why does it feel like news from the front?
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.