Revisiting A Charlie Brown Christmas
My wife and I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas the other night. I hadn't seen it for many years, and I really enjoyed watching it again; it brings back a lot of nostalgic memories for me. When I was a little kid in the 1960s, my family watched A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. That was probably the norm for most families in those days, but my family is Jewish, so we generally had no interest in Christmas shows. A Charlie Brown Christmas was different. The only other exception was How the Grinch Stole Christmas! My big brothers and I would root for the Grinch! ;-)
A Charlie Brown Christmas is beautiful in its simplicity and earnestness. Who doesn't love the scene when the kids are dancing to that fabulous jazzy piano by Vince Guaraldi? And I love that the kids are doing dances of the period (1965); Sherman does the Frankenstein, Frieda does the monkey, and that dance the boy in yellow does with his head hanging down on one side and then the other; I don't know what you'd call it, but it was damn funky. Those kids had style, man!
The awkward, stilted delivery of the voices and the choppy, low-budget animation all adds to the simple, almost homespun charm of the show. One of the show's creators wanted to fix these technical issues in later years, but Charles Schulz vetoed the idea. Thank goodness he did.
Revisiting anything that was a regular and happy part of one's youth can be emotional and nostalgic, and as I watched the show the other night, I admit to almost getting teary-eyed towards the end when the kids start ooo-ooo-ing Hark the Herald Angeles Sing.
But as I watched it, something occurred to me. If A Charlie Brown Christmas were to air for the very first time today, a lot of people from "my" side of the political spectrum - progressive - might be up in arms about it. What might drive us crazy is, of course, the scene where Linus tells Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang the "true meaning of Christmas" by reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the King James version of the Gospel of Luke, 2:8-14.
If that show were to air for the first time today, many of us would probably feel that it was a further step in the pell-mell rush to inject Christian theology into every aspect of our society, and another attempt to brainwash children into believing that Christianity is not only the official religion of the United States but the one true religion. We'd see the show as further indication that the dream of an America where everyone is free to worship - or not worship - as they please while the government and the "public square" remain secular, is dying, if not already dead.
At first I felt kind of bad about it. I thought to myself that maybe those of us who, like me, feel that Christianity is almost constantly being forced on me and on society as a whole have become suspicious and defensive. If today we'd get offended and upset about the bible quotes in A Charlie Brown Christmas, I thought, maybe we've become oversensitive and perhaps too strident.
But then I thought better of it.
The thing is, when this show first aired in 1965 and for many subsequent years thereafter, America was a different place. The wingnuts like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson were just that - wingnuts, and not men who have the ear of the president, as the fundamentalists do today.
In 1965, fundamentalist Christians were a part of the fringe element in America. Most of mainstream society looked on Christian fundamentalists as being maybe just a little bit crazy, throwbacks to the time of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Billy Sunday and the tent revivalists of the early part of the 1900s. The idea of the wall of separation between church and state was not looked at as an offense to God and a method by which evil, secular-humanist liberals oppress decent, God-fearing Christians; rather, it was seen as a necessary and important part of American society.
In 1965, I don't think anyone thought the message behind A Charlie Brown Christmas was "Christians good, non-Christians bad" or "believe in Christ or burn!" In fact, in 1965 the suits at CBS tried to get Linus' bible quotes removed from the show, thinking that viewers didn't want to sit through hearing biblical quotations.
Back then people knew that the intended message of the show, including the part where Linus quotes the bible, is much more inclusive and even, dare I say it? Secular.
The message was less about the birth of Christ than it was about peace, and about the hope of a new dawn for humanity, a time of peace and justice and freedom. Peace on earth, good will toward men. In fact, IMO the message, even through the context of Linus' bible quotes, is much closer to a 1960s hippie/secular-humanist point of view than to the message of the fundamentalist hell-fire and brimstone bible thumpers.
Thus, the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas, bible verses and all, didn't come from that dark place in the hearts of the Fussin' and Foamin' Fundies. You know the place I'm talking about; that place from which came the messages that feminists and the ACLU share the blame for the attacks on September 11, that the constitution is for Christians only, that "just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians," and that America is a Christian nation. The progressives of 1965 and many subsequent years had no concerns about A Charlie Brown Christmas or the message it held, because the message wasn't from the fundamentalist point of view.