Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christian Symbols In 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

I was going to write on this before Christmas anyway; really, I was. But, in case you somehow haven't heard, Obama has decided to turn Christmas into a political propaganda piece to advance his legislation. In America, we are onto Obama: we know he does intentionally idiotic things like this to intentionally upset people when he's really doing something corrupt and evil but wants people to be distracted away from what is really going on (the "wag the dog" analogy which has been going on for years) and this latest outrage--and it is an outrage--is just another example. What if a Christian said that Ramadan was just a means for Muslims to go on a diet and lose weight? That's not even as bad as what Obama has done to Christians. So I am not going to discuss him in any other part of this post. Merry Christmas to everyone, with all my heart, and may God preserve from this evil we have brought down upon ourselves. 
"I know no one likes me," Charlie Brown says, walking along, "so why do we have to have a holiday to emphasize the fact?" A Charlie Brown Christmas aptly summarizes the massive problem with Christmas: we want to be liked, we don't want to be loved. When we are liked, we are popular and successful; when we are unpopular and unsuccessful, that is when we discover we are loved. This is nothing new: it has nothing to do with the commercialism of Christmas or getting Christmas cards in the mail, it has every thing to do with Original Sin and the separation of humanity from the Face of God. Being liked is a feeling of immediate gratification: getting great gifts and going to glamorous parties makes us feel good about ourselves, but it passes. Listening to Linus tell the story of the birth of the King of Kings makes us feel loved and it stays with us. So how does a little animated film come to celebrate being watched by millions every year for fifty years? The power of its symbols and how they speak to our hearts.
The first images we see in the film are images of the barrenness of winter: dead trees and frozen water. Why? It describes the condition of the human heart before Christ entered the world. The water symbolizes Grace, and Grace is the very Life of God Himself: Grace is frozen, and it can't be accessed, it hasn't been released so it can help us to grow and live as we ought to live, that is, following God's commands and coming as close to God as possible, instead of just skating around in circles like the kids in the movie. Charlie Brown can sense that something is wrong, but he isn't spiritually mature enough to be able to discern what it is that he wants vs what it is he and all humanity need. 
The school building from which Charlie Brown and Linus first emerge is yellow; why is that important? Because yellow is the color of gold (like Charlie Brown's iconic shirt) and that yellow house symbolizes the soul, the soul filled with God's divine Grace; they are leaving the house because the rest of the film is going to be a presupposition that, "What if Christmas didn't happen? What if I knew nothing about Jesus and the long awaited messiah?" so leaving the yellow school behind is leaving behind the knowledge of the great dignity of the soul, the image of God in which we were created and by means of which we have been redeemed. That they are coming out of a school means that we ourselves are going to be schooled, that we need to receive an education and that is the purpose of watching the film.
Then they come to the wall.
Charlie wears a brown deerstalker (hunting) hat and a red jacket. We know that hats symbolize our thoughts, because the head is the place where our thinking originates, so we can say that with the hat, Charlie Brown is "hunting" for a reason to embrace Christmas and find inner-fulfillment. His red jacket means that, exteriorly, he has put on the "wedding garment" for the feast, but because of what he says, we know he feels empty-inside. Linus, on the other hand, has his blanket and keeps it close to himself; why? It's blue, so it's a sign of his wisdom, and him sucking his thumb and holding his blanket close to his head is a gesture of meditation. The green hat he wears shows that he has thoughts of hope; Linus isn't thinking about himself, he's thinking about the Gospel and the Angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds, not the presents he will get or won't get. It's snowing, so this is a sign that Charlie Brown is experiencing a state of Grace (God is sending Charlie His own Life to help and direct him). It may not seem like this is helping Charlie, but if he weren't depressed, he wouldn't go to Lucy, and if not that, he wouldn't be asked to be the director, and if not that, he wouldn't get the tree or provide Linus with the chance to remind everyone what the true meaning of Christmas is all about. 
Leaving the yellow house which signifies The House Of The Lord, Charlie and Linus then stop to ponder at the wall and here is where Charlie articulates his problem; it's not in the words he says, it's that he is on one side of the wall, and the meaning he is searching for is on the other side of the wall. With Original Sin and the expulsion from Eden, man became separated from his home, his purpose and his father; with the birth of Jesus, the Way was opened to us to regain all that had been stolen by Sin. Charlie Brown, then, sitting at this wall, and feeling melancholy about the coming of Christmas is a remembrance of what it was like for humanity before the first Christmas, before the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.
Enter Snoopy.
As Snoopy skates upon the ice, he forms a chain which everyone seems happy to be a part of as they join hands and skate together, then Snoopy loses control and everyone goes flying in every direction. Taking Linus' blanket, Snoopy then catches Linus and Charlie and throws them around, with Charlie flying into a tree that shakes all its snow off and onto him. What does this mean? Because Snoopy is a dog, he symbolizes the animal appetites (like when he has his dog bowl full of bones he munches on, that's our basic, natural nature, to fulfill our appetites) and most people go along in life getting their appetites filled in an orderly way (the chain of skaters) with careers and marriage, for example, but ultimately, that ends in disaster, because those things do not lead to anything in an of themselves and they do not prepare us for our end, our finality; they are good, but they are supposed to serve a higher purpose and bring us closer to God.
No one likes to suffer, but suffering is the only way to redeem our souls. The symbolism of snow is important because it's a form of water (frozen): in the process of our thinking, there is the reflective state (water in liquid form), there is the boundaries and confusion of an issue we explore and go through (water in vapor form, such as fog, clouds) and then the thought that has solidified into an accepted conclusion or thesis: in this case, Charlie Brown has thought out that Christmas is a wonderful time of year, just not for him, and it's another example of how he's a failure in life and so, it's really no different this time of the year for him than any other time of  the year. 
When Snoopy grabs Linus' blue blanket, his blanket that symbolizes wisdom, Linus and Charlie are thrown around and basically spinning in chaos, which no one likes, but the "disaster" of Charlie spinning out of control and hitting the tree foreshadows the larger events that will take place in the film between Linus and Charlie. In other words, the little Christmas tree Charlie Brown gets from the tree lot and is rejected by everyone, is being foreshadowed by the tree Charlie hits when he goes flying out of control. Why do it this way? Because patterns such as these is how God Himself works in our lives, which leads us to the next point: Lucy.
This is a particularly important scene because it demonstrates how Charlie is being self-centered, and being centered on ourselves causes us an increase in pain. Not only does it separate us from God, but also other people, in this case, Violet. Charlie isn't thinking: it's rough not getting a Christmas card, so I will send out cards to make sure everyone gets one; instead, he's thinking, I'm hurt that no one has sent me a Christmas card, so I'm going to spread that pain to someone else so they feel hurt or at least embarrassed, which is what Charlie does in being sarcastic to Violet about sending him a Christmas card. 
When Charlie Brown goes to see "the doctor," it's because, as Lucy puts it, he knows something is wrong; the problem is, Charlie is going about it all wrong and seeing the wrong doctor. Christ is the Divine Physician, the "doctor" who knows what is really wrong with us. For example, in Exodus: Gods and Kings, when Moses (Christian Bale) has gone up Mt. Sinai looking at the Burning Bush, there is a mud slide and Moses breaks his leg (symbolic of how he misses his "standing" in Egypt as a general), and when God comes out, Moses wants Him to go get help but God says, there is much more wrong with you than just a broken leg meaning that Moses is dead in his soul, Moses has no faith nor knowledge of God or of what it is Moses should do with his life; we can say the same of Charlie Brown (please see Parting Red Sea: Exodus Gods and Kings for more).
As we discussed above, snow symbolizes a fact which we have all ready decided upon as being true. When we eat something, we are "digesting" it: we are taking it in and thinking it over, "chewing the cud," as the Bible puts it. The previous scenes have led up to this, which means we are supposed to ingest and digest what we have so far seen: not getting a Christmas card, being sarcastic, feeding our animal appetites (Snoopy and his bowl of bones he munches on) and decide how, if at all, we fit into this scenario. Linus saying that it "needs sugar," means that he does NOT fit into the scenario, that he is nicer and not as hard and sinful as the rest. Why doesn't Lucy eat December snowflakes? She waits until January, when Christmas is over, because then, when she has to digest the way she has acted, she doesn't, she can use all the times she was wronged to justify her position: "I know when I've been insulted! I know when I've been insulted!" she yells as she passes out the scripts. She isn't concerned with her own conversion, but using the treatment of others to justify not changing herself. 
Without realizing it, and in spite of her mis-diagnosis, Lucy suggesting that Charlie direct the Christmas play is actually a step towards Charlie Brown understanding what Christmas really is about: it's not about Charlie Brown getting involved, as Lucy suggests, rather, it's a moment of Charlie Brown putting himself in God's place and realizing what needs to be done and why.
What Charlie Brown really needs, and many people do, is to go to Confession, and his attempt at getting "therapy" through a crack psychiatrist proves it. Psychiatry can and does help many people, fundamentally, however, what causes problems in our lives are sins destroying our soul, and psychiatry doesn't do anything to help the soul, only God does (please remember that Lucy "really wants" to receive real estate for Christmas, demonstrating that she wants to invest her life in "this world," not the next world, she doesn't want to become a Christian--or a better Christian--she wants to become more worldly, which means, she isn't capable of helping Charlie Brown with his Christmas blues, and the very reason why she herself gets so depressed: she's asking for the wrong things, like many of us). Sally, Charlie's little sister, "Only wants what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share," but the truth is, like for so many of us, we really have earned nothing but hell fire because of our sins, and we certainly don't want our "fair share" of punishment for the sins we have committed. We always think much better of ourselves than what we deserve. Being a convert to Catholicism, I remember my trepidation at the idea of actually having to tell someone all my sins; however, it wasn't until I began going to Confession that I began to really understand what Love is, because that was when I was most naked, most vulnerable and the most unloveable, and that's when God showers us with His Love the most. That's the moment when you realize the difference between being liked and being loved. I heard the words of love and forgiveness in the priest's absolution and words of advice he gives (a priest doesn't "forgive" you of your sins, only God can do that, because it's against God that we have sinned, but the priest has the authority to absolve you of your sins, like a debt your owe for which he tears up the promissory note). No one likes having to admit they have messed up, but understanding and examining how you have abused your free will to choose something less perfect than God (or even morally fatal to your soul) is a huge step in self-awareness and decorating your soul with the glorious virtues that will testify on your behalf when you stand in judgment before God. For a lot of people, however, they don't want to have to confess their sins because they don't feel like they are really sinners; others don't want to because, after they have been forgiven, they are then called upon to forgive others, and they can't bear to do that. If you aren't Catholic, you can still go to Confession: when you enter, just tell the priest that you are not Catholic, but you want God to know that you are sorry for your sins (or you need advice or to talk to someone). Since you haven't been through Confirmation, the priest can't absolve you, but he can give you a blessing and making this peace with God, He will bless you according to the requirements of your soul that only He knows.
The idea of the Christmas play is a stroke of genius because it invokes the William Shakespeare conceit of "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely actors," from As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII). In other words, we are all in a play, the film makers are arguing, and we have to make a choice: either we will act out what the world wants us to act out, or we will act out the Christmas story every day in every moment of our lives. That is what it means to be a Christian. What happens next is what has happened historically: chaos.
To some degree, we can say that the "true meaning" of Christmas is to win money, money, money! When we make acts of charity, we bear with the shortcomings of others, we accept insults and failures, we have earned our rewards in heaven (not that heaven can be earned, but we are preparing our souls to receive what it is that God wants to give us when we are ready to receive it). The commercialism complained about in the film is no excuse not to enjoy Christmas: I have free will; as a Christian, I am bound to resist the temptations the world throws at me to keep me from God; if I succeed, I have glorified God and saved my soul; if I fail, I have abused my free will and chosen the lesser goods (or even the evils) to the perfect and glorious God. If, however, I am making sacrifices and offering my victories and struggles each day to God, in this way, every day becomes Christmas. I can't blame "commercialism" on not having a Christmas mood, or not being in the spirit, I choose to pray to the Spirit to help me do what I need and ought to do. When Snoopy decorates his dog house, that is a sign of our worldly appetites putting on the exterior signs of Christmas, but neglecting the interior realities that have to be put in order first. It's a fine symbol to put lights on the house at Christmas: the house is a symbol for the soul, and we hope that, in the world of darkness, our souls will be a light unto Christ, and filled with Him; are they?
Charlie Brown gives simple directions so the actors will know what to do and when: "It's the spirit of the actors that counts. The interest they show in their director," he tells the crowd. In this metaphor, we can see God as the director and in giving us the Ten Commandments: He provides us with His directions; don't commit adultery, don't take My Name in vain, do not covet what your neighbor has, do not kill one another, keep the Sabbath holy,... are you taking the Director's cues? Are you showing interest in what He wants you to do, or are you, like the Peanuts gang, doing whatever it is that you see good in your own eyes?
Music is good. Dancing is good. Being with friends is good. Relaxing is good. Doing what you enjoy doing is good. But when it interferes with time set aside to worship God, that is bad, because it reveals that you are doing what is good in your own eyes, rather than in the eyes of God, that your will comes first, not God's. In this scene, each is doing what is good in their own eyes, in spite of the fact that they have gathered together to do the Christmas play which will give honor and glory to God. 
Charlie Brown realizes that the group isn't interested in doing what they have all agreed they are going to do: put on a Christmas play depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. At this point, Jesus, Mary and Joseph haven't even been mentioned; no one is cast in the role of a member of the Holy Family and this is a sign that, metaphorically, we are still in the "Old Testament" (Lucy wanting to be the "Christmas Queen" is, basically, a usurpation of Mary's role: Lucy's name, meaning "light" in Latin, and her blue dress, symbolizing wisdom, would make Lucy a candidate as a holy woman, but because she has ignored the call of the spiritual life [remember, she wanted real estate] she doesn't qualify as the Christmas Queen, and not many women do). With Charlie Brown's idea of getting a Christmas tree, Charlie is, unconsciously, acting out what God Himself did: they won't listen to Me and My Commandments, so I will send them My Son, who is signified by the Christmas tree.
The role of the Inn Keeper and Inn Keeper's Wife is, essentially, the role each and everyone of us play in the drama of life: our souls are the inn; quite simply, is there room for Christ? Are we too busy looking in the mirror like Freida to see when He is wanting in, or are we so dirty from our sins that we think we look better than what we thought we did (not as sinful as what we really are) like Pigpen? The digression on Pigpen's dirt is interesting because we are all made from dirt: from dust we came, to dust we shall return. But Pigpen misses the point: all the people Charlie names off, are those who were not alive to experience God's mercy, the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Christ. Those are people who died with the fear of returning to dust, but we live with the hope of life eternal; Pigpen, then, lives as if Christ never came. Freida, on the other hand, is so pleased with herself that she "doesn't need Jesus," because she feels perfect the way she is. 
As Linus and Charlie leave the play, something important happens: there is a repeating of the opening scene when Charlie and Linus leave the yellow school building to go out from it. Why? Again, we are being reminded that we are going to learn something. When Linus suggests following the search lights to find a tree, it's an interesting negative example of society (and not just modern society, but throughout human history in general): we have searchlights guiding us to buying Christmas trees, but we don't have searchlights directing us on how to become Christmas trees ourselves. We have to become living trees decorated with the golden ornaments of virtue, the silver ornaments of the Word of God, the red decorations of charity and aglow with the light of hope and faith.
What do the aluminum trees symbolize? The unnatural, specifically, hearts that are "hardened" and unnatural. The heart that puts on Christmas joy and cheer and enjoys the holiday, but that doesn't understand anything about opening the heart and letting God in to transform you into Himself. 
Who does the little tree symbolize? Charlie Brown himself. It's not that Jesus Christ needs Charlie Brown, but that Charlie Brown needs Jesus Christ. Just as the Burning Bush is a glimpse at what God will do to Moses' soul (Moses will be the bush who is on fire with love for God, which is a prophecy of Jesus who will be the Tree of the Cross on fire with Love for God) so this little tree is a statement about the state of Charlie Brown's soul: there just isn't much life there, is there? What would the tree look like if it were your soul being illustrated?
This is a good scene. Snoopy dancing obviously invokes the joy and fun of the animal appetites. The music Schroeder plays is meant to be elevating, but it's not Christmas music, it's secular music, it does not give glory to God (Beethoven wrote lots of religious pieces, Fur Elise just isn't one of them). Schroeder, then, is wanting to turn Christmas into the celebration of the secular. When he plays Jingle Bells for Lucy in a heavy organ style, she doesn't like it because it's too elevated and she wants something that is more "within her grasp" and easy to access, which is why she prefers the single, off-key notes of the melody.
As we all know, no one likes the tree when Charlie Brown brings it back in; why not? Because they tree symbolizes Charlie Brown, and if the tree were meant to set the right mood, it has: all the people who will be in the audience to watch the Christmas play are as spiritually deprived of the Gospel as Charlie Brown is, but no one wants to admit that. Why not? Because you cannot give what you have not received. In other words, the Peanuts gang are themselves just as bad--if not worse--than Charlie Brown spiritually, and that being the case, how can they comfort with wisdom and holy joy those who are coming to see the play to receive those very gifts? They can't. So the gang doesn't want "that kind of person" coming to the play, and also, they don't want to see themselves as poor little trees either.
Which leads us to Linus,....
Why would the shepherds be afraid of the angel of the Lord appearing to them to bring them good news? Sin. The angel is so pure in its being that it terrifies the shepherds who are but mere sinful mortals (and the shepherds probably aren't what any of us would consider to be "bad people," who are violent and looters, but decent people; however, when we are close to the presence of the Divine, and a being who is without sin [like angels because they never sinned] all of our sins are magnified thousands of times, the wounds become unbearable and we know how terribly we have sinned because we can feel it in our very soul). That is why the shepherds are afraid, and why the Gospel records that they are afraid: man did not have someone to whom he could appeal for mercy, for understanding about his sins or for intercession with the Father. Yea, those shepherds were terrified (remember, even Mary, the Immaculate Conception, who never knew sin at all, was afraid when the angel appeared and told her she was to bear the Christ). So, instead of continuing to be afraid, now we can rejoice, because we have a Way to overcome sin and enter into heave, which we didn't have before. 
Earlier, we saw Linus telling his sister Lucy that he couldn't possibly memorize all his lines as a sherherd, and in that short space of time; here, however, Linus has no problem reciting the Gospel account of the birth of Jesus with no problem, which is exactly as it should be. There are probably lots of useless things you and I can recite, but do we know anything truly meaningful like the story of man's redemption, when God came to the earth to save us because we could not save ourselves?
Notice that, as Charlie Brown leaves the school (which is now red instead of yellow, because red symbolizes the color of love, and Charlie has learned how Christmas means love), all the gang follows him; why? Because now he himself can act as a kind of shepherd, the message being revealed to Charlie through Linus and his recitation of the Good News. But hearing the Good News is not enough: now, he has to put it into practice. Like most of us, he doesn't get off to a great start. What does putting the red ball on the tree mean?
This is a great part in the film, and yet we don't like it when it happens in our own lives. Again, the tree symbolizes Charlie Brown and where he is spiritually and why he doesn't enjoy Christmas: he doesn't understand what a miracle it is. As he comes to understand, every day, on a deeper and deeper level, he will grow, and understand the sacrifice of the Cross as well. Each of the kids decorating the tree are decorating Charlie Brown's soul so he can mature from the puny little tree, into the well-decorated Christmas tree he wishes to become (because that is how the Holy Spirit works: He shows you what it is He wants to give you or do for you, then you basically have to pay the price so you are worthy of it and don't blow it when you get it or become it). Taking the decorations from the dog house (the symbol for worldly appetites and approbation) signifies a conversion, a turning away from the world and towards the spiritual. Each of the kids has insulted Charlie Brown in some way: "You block head, you can't do anything right!" "Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Brownest!" etc. The insults they have heaped upon him are now the very same decorations which are being used on the tree: when we accept abuse and are humble rather than proud, God turns the wounds into virtues and the injustices become the vehicle of our crowning glory; so, the more abuse Charlie Brown receives, the more beautiful his Christmas tree (his soul) will become when he offers it up and unites it to the Sufferings of Jesus Christ
We know red is the color of the appetites: either a person has an appetite for love (and they try to fulfill the appetite with various forms of love) or they have an appetite for wrath, anger and revenge. We can be confident that, hearing the words Linus spoke echoing through the night, that Charlie Brown is filled with the love of the Holy Spirit, but that simply isn't enough, as most of us know: Charlie Brown is in his infancy as a Christian, not having a long, mature or seasoned soul in matters of spiritual warfare, Charlie Brown might want to make great acts of love (the big red ball ornament) but he simply isn't ready for that; there might also be some kind of self love involved: "I'll decorate this tree and show them it really can work in our play," so that he becomes a kind of hero and gets to win the moment. It's innocent enough, but it's also something we have to watch our for in our own lives.
Perhaps the most important element of the decorated Christmas tree is the base: I'm sure you noticed that the wooden stand is made in the shape of a cross, because the Shame of the Cross and the work of redemption was the basis of Christ being born; that knowledge, however, isn't enough, which is why Linus has to wrap the base in his blanket. Blue, as we know, is the color of wisdom: blue denotes sadness because wisdom is the most expensive treasure mankind can buy because it can only be bought with our experience which comes through suffering. Without our wisdom to understand the Cross, we would despair because of the agony of Christianity, or we would completely ignore its most important lesson. 
Why do they conclude the film with a song? Singing is the highest form of prayer there is; it's to unite your heart and mind in the praise and worship of God, so singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is to join in that celestial choir, and invite us, the viewers, to do so as well. Remember, dear reader, if you get upset about he commercialism of Christmas, rebel: turn inwards, and give praise to God, and that will go towards preparing your soul to receive Him all over again.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner