A good test of holiday mettle is the Christmas music we can’t stand and music we gravitate to. I pass on carols by boy bands, Mariah Carey, and cowboys. But among the works I’m surprised to find myself sticking with is Vince Guaraldi’s jazz take on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
The Charlie Brown Christmas special is 50 years old this month, but the music lives on. With his smooth West coast jazz style, Guaraldi turned out a melancholic “O Tannenbaum”, a snow-mystic “What Child Is This?”, and a hypnotic minimalist bossa-nova style “Little Drummer Boy.” “Christmas is Coming” is kinetic with understated elation. All of the songs are muted, but leave us smiling. They are full of introspection, empathy, regret, loneliness, and hope for a better day.
But what does this all have to do with our faith? The Christmas special, like the “Peanuts” comic strip, was driven by the attempt to gain perspective upon little defeats and small epiphanies. Charles Schulz, a devoted Minnesota Lutheran, like to sneak Christianity into popular culture. Only 61 of his comic strips showed Lucy pulling the football on Charlie Brown, but 560 of them have a Biblical or theological reference. When Snoopy was asked if it bothered him that the Bible wasn’t very high on dogs, he replied yes. But that he was willing to turn the other muzzle.
Still, Schulz’s Christmas Special on the “true meaning of Christmas” was his most defining work. You see, few Christmas TV specials or episodes in the 1960s made any reference at all to Jesus. So Linus rebels against the secular fripperies of “Christmas entertainments” by reading the King James Version of the birth narrative of Jesus, taking a full 51 seconds. Network executives were not amused, demanding its removal. This threat was a big deal. Remember, a year before, in 1965, Time magazine featured a cover asking, “Is God Dead?“ Somehow they imagined that a nation full of Christians would be offended by a Bible reading. Schulz answered, “I preach in my cartoons, and I reserve the same rights to say what I want to say as the minister in the pulpit.” He also disallowed any laugh tracks to cue viewers on when to laugh. They used the children for the children’s parts—unheard of!—and a children’s church choir for the musical compositions.
Schulz was a very real Christian. “Unshell” Peanuts and you will find the fingerprints of his faith. He converted to Christianity shortly after returning from a World War II deployment. Those days sparked a love for sacred literature. He voraciously devoured theological commentaries, and the margins of his personal Bible were filled with hand-written notes. Charles Schulz was a long-time Sunday School teacher at churches throughout the Midwest and California. He once even led one study group through a study of the entire Old Testament. He knew the story well.
Anyway, as the standoff ensued between the executives and Schulz, he said no Linus reading of Luke’s birth narrative, no program. Schulz didn’t back down. Because of the tight production schedule, and prior promotions, they let the program run as Schulz intended, certain they had a flop on their hands, a mere tax write off. Lo and behold, we are still listening and still watching.
Remember this when commercialism threatens to engulf your Christmas; when you imagine the world brooks no room for the birth of Jesus, like those first Bethlehem innkeepers; when you are pressured to back off your faith, to fit in, be more conventional, more secular, more boring.