A Charlie Brown Christmas, that perpetual holiday favorite, is one of the best half-hours of television ever created. Its combination of a melancholy tone, minimalist animation, and a jazz score was unlike anything else on TV at the time — and is largely unlike anything on TV now. The medium doesn't jibe with unresolvable issues, like holiday malaise or the meaning of life, and even if A Charlie Brown Christmas has a happy ending, what sticks with you is its sense of a very gray December.
It's also one of the few overtly Christian programs that still airs annually on American broadcast television. Linus's concluding speech about the shepherds outside of Bethlehem is one of the few places in pop culture where the biblical account of Jesus's birth is forthrightly told.
Yes, there are still weekly televised church services that air in syndication or paid programming time slots. And there are whole cable channels dedicated to Christian programming. But for the most part, American primetime TV stays away from any depiction of religion stronger than, "Love thy neighbor, or at least think they're pretty okay."
And as Brandon Ambrosino pointed out at Vox, most Christian movies are pretty terrible, because they essentially proselytize in a way that alienates non-Christians and generally preaches to the choir. Yet Charlie Brown Christmas has fans from all faith traditions. That's mostly because of the melancholiness I mentioned above, but the overt religiosity also doesn't seem to turn some viewers off in the way it might in other programs.
So why is that?
Charles Schulz had a complicated relationship with religion
The Peanuts creator was Lutheran for much of his life. When A Charlie Brown Christmas was being produced, he told a fellow producer that Linus had to express a biblical message because if the special didn't do so, no one else would. But late in his life, Schulz described himself as a "secular humanist" in an interview, rather than a Christian or member of any one faith in particular.
Even in Peanuts' heyday, when Schulz identified more strongly as a Christian, his invocation of Biblical themes was less about extolling the virtues of Christian salvation or the church than it was about trying to use religion to answer questions of human suffering — emphasis on the suffering.
Whether Lucy was pulling the football away from Charlie Brown or Linus was trying to ponder the essential mystery of the universe, Schulz rarely focused on answers religion could provide, instead concentrating on the pain and questions that might prompt those answers.
That's a tricky balance to nail down, less because of religion or American Christianity and more because of how storytelling usually works. As a rule, stories set up conflicts that must be resolved, so when stories set up questions, we expect answers. When we don't get them, we tend to be upset by that — perhaps because we already know life is full of unsolvable questions, and we like art to be tidier.
But Schulz was obsessed with how life is rarely tidy. In four panels a day (and more on Sundays), he confronted the frustrations of living in this world. The answers he provided — whether from religion, philosophy, psychology, or just a well-meaning friend — were usually hollow in the face of the all-consuming questions.
A Charlie Brown Christmas follows this format perfectly
Linus's speech doesn't beat you over the head with the idea that Jesus is the only way to lead a truly happy life — though you could read it that way if you chose (and many Christians have done so). It also doesn't argue that life is an endless, meaningless grind — though you could also read it that way.
No, it's just the answer to a question. Charlie Brown asks, "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?" Linus answers.
Depending on your religious viewpoint, Linus is either expressing the hope that animates the Christian Advent season or simply explaining the roots of the holiday, so Charlie Brown can remember that this enormous, commercialized event began as a tiny religious celebration. Linus is not speaking as an expert — he's speaking as someone who remembers the line he has to deliver in a Christmas play. (This is subtly set up earlier in the special, when he's trying to memorize it.)
And so A Charlie Brown Christmas is slightly different from the Peanuts comic strips in one crucial way. Though Charlie Brown continues to feel glum, he finds momentary solace in Linus's words. Religion isn't an all-purpose panacea, but it will help you get through the day. Contrast this with many of the comic strips, where the focus often remained squarely on Charlie Brown's pain in the moment.
But the frustration that prompts Charlie Brown's outcry is still fresh in the audience's mind when Linus speaks. The Christmas season has given Charlie Brown tremendous anxiety. The play he agreed to direct isn't coming together at all. And the tree he bought to liven up everybody's holiday spirit was mocked for being so scrawny and small. The answer doesn't solve everything — but it helps in a way that works both as religious expression and in another way.
The focus of the climax isn't on religion — it's on friendship
Another crucial thing to note: If we read A Charlie Brown Christmas as a Christian work, then its ending isn't a call for salvation or conversion. Instead, it's a call for Christian kindness and charity, for looking out for your fellow man in his hour of need.
Linus first expresses this virtue when he answers Charlie Brown's question. But the others follow suit when they go with him into the snowy, dimming streets of the Peanuts neighborhood, the sky filled with twinkling, irregular stars. Charlie Brown places an ornament on his little tree, then believes he's killed it — returning to the pain that prompted his question — before his friends revive it with their amazing decoration skills. The scene provides another answer for how to deal with human suffering, this one less overtly religious in nature.
Religion is one way to try to deal with the horrible parts of life. But so is friendship, and reaching out to others around us to make sure they're doing okay. There's a reason so many religions, including Christianity, have a key commandment that boils down to, "Treat others the way you want to be treated." It's the best way of creating that moment of silent solace for as many people as we can.
Even as the Christmas season in the United States steadily grows more and more secular, to reflect a country that's much less homogenized in its makeup, it retains the centrality of charity, the need to make sure people who are downtrodden and ignored are treated with kindness and respect. That charity is a beautiful thing regardless of the impulse that drives it — whether religious, secular, or out of pure self-interest.
And it's how this time of year has gone for millennia. As the world grows darker, we do our best to make more light.