Celebrate the true meaning of Christmas with Charlie Brown

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Oct. 15—Two years ago, Joplin's Stained Glass Theatre presented the classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on stage, which wrapped three days before Christmas. At first glance, it made sense that the play was staged in December. But why would the the faith-based ministry want to tackle a play based off the 1965 animated television special, which itself was based off a famed comic strip?

After all, it hardly seemed religious, considering the original movie poster shows Charlie Brown and Snoopy, iconic characters from "Peanuts" comic strip, standing next to a Christmas tree and a Christmas-lit doghouse.

But looks, they say, can be deceiving.

"'A Charlie Brown Christmas' has a special place in my heart," said local resident Kaylea Hutson-Miller earlier this week. "I've been a fan for — dare I say — decades.

"In graduate school, armed with the DVD, my roommates and I hosted a viewing party. For test-weary students, it was a great reminder of the season. I even have a nativity scene, with the characters playing the various roles."

Scratch away at the film's surface, and you'll see that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is built on a solid religious foundation. But does that message resonate today?

"Absolutely," said Jill Spencer in a 2019 interview, who directed the Stained Glass production. "I think people are searching like Charlie Brown was for the real meaning of Christmas."

Added Chip Spencer, Jill's husband, "Having the role of Linus onstage with the Joplin Stained Glass Theatre production, I can say the message is a life changer if someone allows it to do so. The Scriptures have the timeless message of hope: Christ. Charles Schulz, decades ago, hid that Easter egg of hope in Linus' retelling of the Christmas story. Linus dropped his blanket of security, the physical embodiment of 'I need this,' and told us what we really needed: the faith of some shepherds on a hillside long ago that saw, heard, were astonished and went and told the message they had been given. The message? I'm the real security blanket, I will be with you, I'll never leave you nor forsake you, I will comfort you, cry on me, let me be near you. The message that need be repeated and carried forth."

On Dec. 9, 1965, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" aired on CBS. "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz's main goal was to remind American viewers about the true meaning of Christmas. At the time, less than 9% of televised Christmas specials or episodes contained references to religion, according to researcher Stephen Lind.

Schulz wanted to change that. There was much fear among religious scholars about the evils of an overcommercialized Christmas overshadowing the true meaning of Christmas with Sears wish books, frenzied shopping sprees each year and stuffed stockings next to decorated trees. In the Peabody award-winning primetime special, Charlie Brown and the gang used clever dialogue and comical shenanigans to warn kids and parents about the overcommercialization of America's most cherished holiday. This is the very reason that, in the film's most iconic line, "Peanuts" character Lucy Van Pelt quips: "We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big Eastern syndicate."

"I love the message it sends — that commercialism isn't the answer — and how it weaves in the Christmas story from Luke in a nonthreatening manner," Hutson-Miller said. "Charles Shultz was a master storyteller, and he used the Christmas special to remind people the simplest of gifts, along with the true meaning of Christmas, is really what we need, rather than the crazy frenzy of shopping."

In an attempt to cheer up a depressed Charlie Brown toward the end of the special, Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14, in which angels from heaven tell a group of shepherds about the birth of the baby Jesus. When finished, Linus quietly turns to Charlie Brown and says, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Schulz was adamant about the Bible reading, despite TV executives concerns that religion during primetime was a controversial topic. When he heard that, Schulz famously remarked, "If we don't do it, who will?"

"Whenever I watch 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' it's not just a show that gives off the 'warm fuzzies,'" said David Carnine, a Christian. "To me, it is a story that helps expose the awful side of the commercialism of Christmas and the whole holiday season and refocuses its attention on the true meaning of the season."

The one hour "Peanuts" special went on the air as is, uncut, and was viewed and embraced by multimillions. It has since become a traditional Christmas classic, and was annually aired on CBS from 1966 until 2000 and later on PBS. After only airing on Apple TV+ in 2000, the show will once again air later this year, for free, on PBS.

"With the deadlocked shipping containers stalling delivery of physical goods, maybe Shultz's message will resonate more this year," Hutson-Miller said. "Life is more than the latest gadgets. Spending time with family and friends, making memories, is really the true gift of Christmas."

It took the most tremendous amount of courage for Schultz and his team to move forward with their vision despite the fact that the production was being sponsored by secular company Coca-Cola, said Carnine. "I believe this proves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way to get his message of love and salvation across to a hurting world that needed it — and still needs to hear this message of hope and truth."

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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