The late Charles Schulz, the quiet and reserved bespectacled creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the entire Peanuts franchise, was once called a magician with a pencil, an artist who captured our imaginations and left us with a daily smile for well over a half-century.
It’s been two decades since the last original Peanuts comic strip ran in newspapers, en 55 years since Schulz’s beloved animated Kersfees special first debuted on CBS television. Tog, the charm of the hapless Charlie Brown and all the gang still resonates with young and old alike, especially at this time of year.
It’s because a slow, rather rudimentary comic strip somehow still manages to communicate to a noisy world profound theological truth in simple, easy-to-understand themes.
Charles Schulz never professed to trying to evangelize through his cast of characters, but in so many ways that’s exactly what he did, and all with a light touch and regular doses of humor.
“He just loved the Bible, and thought there were just marvelous things in the Bible that were true,” reflected his widow, Jean Schulz, now in her 80s.
The late Robert L. Short, a theologian who eventually went into ordained ministry with the Presbyterian (USA) Church, wrote a bestselling book back in the 1960s titled, “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” where he pointed out a litany of the subtle Christian symbolism in the popular comic strip.
From Charlie Brown as the everyman wearing a T-shirt of thorns, Lucy as a crabby symbol of Original Sin, Schroeder as a world-wise victim of idolatry to Snoopy as the “hound of heaven” - “a little Christ who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” – Short’s work became the book of the year in 1965.
Schulz’s newspaper comic regularly entertained me as a kid, and I particularly enjoyed his December strips as storylines built anticipation toward the big day.
The subject of Santa Claus regularly took centerstage. When Charlie Brown offers to write a letter to the red-suited big guy for Linus and begins the correspondence, “Dear Santa,” his friend objects. “Perhaps we could put it a little stronger,” he tells Charlie. “”Wat van, ‘Dear O, Mighty-one’?”
When Lucy excitedly tells her brother Linus that Santa Claus is headed their way, a pajama-clad Linus solemnly declares, “Let us fervently wish him safe journey!”
Yet when it came to the television special, which was sponsored by the Coca-Cola Co., Santa Claus makes no appearance at all. In plaas daarvan, the program tackles the commercialization of Christmas and Charlie Brown’s dogged and determined search for its true meaning.
Charles Schulz was committed to sharing the true meaning of Christmas, and he was willing to lose the television opportunity if he wasn’t allowed to do it.
In writing the special with producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, Schulz insisted on including a passage from the gospel of Luke, which contains a detailed description of Jesus’ birth and the popular Christmas passage read in churches all over the world.
But the spiritual emphasis made his collaborators nervous.
“Bill said, ‘You can’t put the Bible on television,’” his widow Jean remembered. “And Sparky’s (Schulz’s nickname) answer was: ‘If we don’t, who will?’ Lee said that Sparky then got up and walked out of the room, and he and Bill just sat there, saying ‘What do you think that means?’”
It meant that Charles Schulz was committed to sharing the true meaning of Christmas, and he was willing to lose the television opportunity if he wasn’t allowed to do it.
“Even if you’re not a Biblical scholar or someone who has read the Bible, Linus’ scene is the high point,” Jean suggested.
It’s the high point of the show because the Incarnation – God coming to earth in the form of a helpless baby – is the whole point of Christmas. I’ve been reading and studying the Christmas story all my life, but never has it been more succinctly stated or described than by Linus van Pelt’s reading of Luke’s gospel.
The next time you watch the scene, you might also notice that just as Linus reads the angel’s words, “Moet nie vrees nie,” he drops his security blanket – undoubtedly suggesting that Jesus’ arrival to a weary and worried world dispels us of our terror and trepidation.
Robert Short’s bestselling book ends with a sweet and gentle drawing of Snoopy hugging his master, accompanied by these words:
“Be of good cheer, Charlie Brown! For after all is said and done, there is someone who loves you – and this ‘someone’ is only a very humble, peanut-sized representative for One much greater than he.”
No matter your age, I hope you’ll take a moment to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the coming days. Charles Schulz was everything a cartoonist and humorist should be – and the world is a better place because of him.