Photo Credit: UFS/Charles Schulz/Courtesy The Neal Peters Collection
If you watch the Emmy- and Peabody-winning A Charlie Brown Christmas and compare it to other network Christmas specials, you'll see a clear one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other situation.
It comes at the point when Linus, spotlighted on a stage, solemnly tells the story of Jesus Christ (specifically, the second chapter of the King James version of the Gospel of Luke, verses 8 through 14).
Linus doesn’t mention Santa, elves, trees, reindeer, chestnuts, or tiny tots with their eyes all aglow. He just spells out the whole biblical story, chapter and verse. In so doing, he convinces the gang to see past the holiday’s commercialization and modernization, as well as Charlie Brown’s meager and derided tree.
As a Jew -- even one who loves Christmastime -- I had some trouble putting A Charlie Brown Christmas in its proper context back in the day. After all, there’s no A Charlie Brown Hanukkah (or A Charlie Brown Bar-Mitzvah for that matter, with Snoopy as the cheesy reception DJ). And Linus’ recital does come very close to a 700 Club moment.
But this Charlie Brown episode is not about the holiday season in general; it’s about Christmas in particular. And Christmas is, at its core, a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a celebration of MLK’s birthday. They're not just excuses to hold blowout sales on kitchen appliances.
For me, this makes A Charlie Brown Christmas not only appropriate, but a model for how kid shows can address and de-radioactivate religion in their Christmas specials. Linus teaches, not preaches. His story is told in the context of heritage and history, not revelation. In my view, he is presenting, not proselytizing.
The lines between avoiding, observing and promoting religion in kids media is crucially important and I like to think Charles Schulz -- a former Lutheran who later became a secular humanist -- knew exactly where to draw them.
Of course, it’s lucky there are no Jewish, Muslim, or atheist kids in Charlie Brown’s class. Those kids would feel as awkward and out of place in Peanuts Country as if they had proportionally-sized legs. But holiday shows don’t have to be politically correct, just respectful. This is a classic secular show about Christian kids learning to observe Christmas authentically. I can live with that.
As Linus says simply, "That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." And who can argue with that?