What Christmas is really all about

This column first ran in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Dec. 25, 2002.

Everything I ever needed to know I learned from Peanuts books.

My friend down the street, Peter Kamps, introduced me to the philosophical insights of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy when I was in first grade, far too young to understand the humor of Charles Schultz.
But there was something about those comics I identified with. Charlie Brown’s constant failings and Linus’ need for security were certainly part of it, but more important than that was something else we shared. I, like Schultz and his characters, was a church-going kid who learned more on Sunday mornings than I did during the rest of the week. I was more familiar with the geography of ancient Palestine than I was with the streets of 1970s Vadnais Heights.

Peanuts books gave me something I didn’t have in school: friends who were as immersed in the Scriptures as I was and who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about spiritual, ethical and religious questions.

Those were the days before video, so if you had a favorite TV show or movie, you might have to wait years to see it again. For me, the advent season involved waiting for my favorite television program of the year: “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

There’s no other Christmas special that compares. In part, it’s the melancholy mood set by Vince Guaraldi’s inspired piano soundtrack. In part it’s Charlie Brown’s sad quest for the true meaning of Christmas in a forest of aluminum trees.

But we’ve heard those stories before. Christmas movie after Christmas movie, holiday special after holiday special shows some poor kids, church mouse, Dickensian miser or Seussian monster seeking and finding the “true meaning of Christmas.”

At the end it’s always the same: Christmas isn’t about presents or commercialism or the hustle and bustle of shopping; it’s about family and warm fuzzies and giving and light and peace.

There’s one problem. That’s not what Christmas is about at all. “The Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Rudolph, the Grinch — good as they are, they all miss the point.

One Christmas special stands alone, because it’s the one that dares to say what Christmas is really all about. It happens when Linus steps to the stage and says, “Lights, please.” In his small voice he recounts the Biblical narrative of Christmas: “and there were in the same fields shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night …”

Our Hollywood culture edits that story out of Christmas, as they edit religion out of television during the rest of the year. TV characters talk about everything except religion, everything except the Bible, everything except Jesus.

My own faith ebbs and flows throughout the year, but Christmas is always high tide. Even at my most skeptical, I can’t resist the pull of a good story, and there’s none better than the one Linus tells.

It’s a story about the architect of DNA, the sculptor of the Grand Canyon, who lit the fire behind the Big Bang and wrote the script of the evolutionary drama. It’s about that Prime Mover taking the garb of human flesh and swaddling clothes and putting his fate in the hands of fallen creation. It’s about God the helpless baby, and not just any babe, but the son of a girl from a despised minority, descending not just to earth but to a stable and a manger, announcing his arrival not just to wise men but to lowly shepherds.

There’s nothing wrong with giving and family and warm chestnuts, but it’s all rather paltry compared to the rich fare of peace on earth, good will toward men.
In the usual slop of reindeer and elves, I hope we find again Linus’ precious pearl. In the jingling bells of Hollywood holidays, I hope we hear again glad tidings of great joy that shall be to all people.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.

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