By William Kopcha
I recently had the good pleasure of seeing, for the first time in many, many years, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie (which is free on Hulu and takes about 25 minutes), here’s a brief synopsis:
Charlie Brown, a lad of about eight years, is mysteriously struck with a case of the blues – a phenomenon that baffles him, since Christmas is approaching and he “should be happy.” After consulting his friends, including seeking “psychiatric help” from Lucy for a grand total of 5¢, he pins it on the “commercialization of Christmas.” His friends think that putting him in charge of the Christmas play will cheer him up, but not only does it never materialize, his actors send him out on a mission to get a Christmas tree to use as a prop – apparently a thinly-veiled excuse to get rid of him. He chooses the only real tree in the lot, which ends up being a tiny, pathetic-looking thing that wins him a lot of abuse from his peers, who in the end, for no apparent reason, decide that it’s not so bad after all. Miraculously, this makes everyone (including Charlie Brown) happy. Singing ensues.
As a kid, my analysis of the movie was basically this: “First Charlie Brown was sad. Then Charlie Brown was happy. Yay Christmas!”
Now, it is (somewhat shockingly) obvious that the movie is essentially Charlie Brown’s cry of existential alienation. It’s deep – deep in a way that makes me wish I had a fireplace and a bathrobe so I could sit around with a snifter of cognac, listening to Schroeder’s jazz rendition of “Christmas Time is Here” and basking in my own intellectualism. For now, my desk lamp and burnt coffee will have to do.
Charlie Brown starts the movie being the only one who realizes the utter absurdity of the world around him and, by the end, adds only Linus – a kid who is still toting around his blanket and sucking his thumb years after he should have outgrown this and who, somehow, is the only sane and rational one in the entire story, using his few, measured words to poignantly express the Biblical Christmas story and its theological implications for the salvation of mankind, the true cause for Christmas joy. By contrast, the rest of the world clings to symbols that it neither understands nor cares to understand. The Christmas tree lot pushes flashy pink and yellow solid aluminum trees that become an end in themselves; his dog, Snoopy, enters and then wins the neighborhood “lights and display contest,” again an expression of joy that has been completely divorced from its origins; Lucy, rather than giving him psychiatric advice, goes on about how much she loves the sound of nickels going in her collection jar and then diverts the conversation with a bunch of canned psychobabble and prescribes distraction; later, she declares herself the “Christmas Queen” on account of her beauty and becomes insulted when he doesn’t immediately agree; Charlie’s little sister dictates her letter to Santa to him, encouraging Santa to send either very specific gifts or cash, and declares that all she wants is her “fair share;” everyone else seems never to really listen to a word that Charlie Brown says (save, of course, Linus) despite physically hearing and instead carries on with whatever their preferred distraction is, be it throwing snowballs at a can or dancing instead of rehearsing for the Christmas play.
They don’t understand his trepidation and berate him for wondering if there is actually something to understand about the world, calling him a “blockhead” who “can never do anything right.” Schroeder seems to see understand the absurdity, uttering a very exasperated, “Good grief!” at Lucy’s assessment that Beethoven was over-rated because he never got his picture on a bubble gum wrapper, but chooses to bury himself in his piano playing rather than exert the effort of saying or doing anything to oppose her. Essentially, everyone except Charlie Brown and Linus are too absorbed in materialism, infatuations, achievements, nonsensical theories and self-justifications, and themselves to realize or even care that they might be missing the point.
The older I get, the more I feel like Charlie Brown. People are really good at lying, and most of all at lying to themselves. I guess it’s easier than the alternative. And I don’t mean to belittle the value of having other people who care enough to stick with you when you don’t see eye-to-eye – sometimes it is the simple fact that I have a community that keeps me going.
But it is really the few Linuses in the world, and specifically, those that I have found in Orthodoxy – and why not in Orthodoxy, while we’re at it, which preoccupies itself so much with the Truth and discerning reality such that we can act with real love, without pretense or ulterior motives – that have not only solidified my presence as a body in the Church, but have also served to motivate me to serve It in a more active capacity. Some members of my family and my college OCF are included in this category. However, like Linus, who initially tells Charlie, “You’re the only person I know who could take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem,” they’re not always nice about it – but sometimes this is the only way that I’m sure that they’re sincere. I once dubbed a certain nun “the mean one” in a monastery that I was visiting, only to discover that in addition to yelling at people in church, she also made sure that people who needed it got time near a space heater that was the church’s only source of heat. (It was January in Eastern Poland.) I once witnessed a the abbot of another monastery chew out a novice in public for misuse of the monastery car, only to hug him and reassure him that he yelled at the novice because he loved him and was concerned for his safety. Closer to home, there is a certain priest’s family that mine has been very close to since they moved to our town. Both families have since moved. Now, the mom yells at me if I don’t come to visit. She yells at me if I do come to visit – apparently, I don’t do it often enough or should have called first. Either way, she yells, and in so doing, I know that she cares if I visit or not. She cares whether or not my visit is the best that it could be. She cares. Period. So she yells. She doesn’t say, “How are you?” and expect your only response to be “fine” and then go on as if you don’t exist. Given the alternative, I’ll take the yelling, thank you very much.