Controlling Happiness in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Culture, Featured, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Impact Admin

– By Sam Hendrian –

“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

These relatable words spoken by Charlie Brown to Linus at the beginning of the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas perfectly capture the numbness that the commercialization of Christmas has brought over time. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Well, maybe not for everyone.

By now, it is safe to say most people understand on a basic level that lasting happiness cannot be summoned by money. Nor music nor munchies nor mistletoe mushiness. But even though we understand this truth, we do not always believe it. So whenever “the most wonderful time of the year” comes along, we speed up the spending, maximize the music (and then some), cultivate the cookies, and multiply the mushiness, somehow expecting to feel a greater joy than we do at any other time of the year.

Yet Charlie Brown in his unwitting wisdom discovers happiness is not something that can be controlled at a switchboard of sentiments, especially when a person seems trapped spending their days lonely and overlooked. Take my favorite exchange from the movie:

CHARLIE: “Thanks for the Christmas card, Violet.”
VIOLET: “I didn’t send you a Christmas card, Charlie Brown.”
CHARLIE: “Don’t you know sarcasm when you hear it?”

Perhaps this is just Charlie Brown being humorously self-pitiful. He is certainly not as lonely and forgotten as he makes himself out to be. Even so, there are countless people on this Earth who truly are lonely and forgotten, the absence of a Christmas card being the least of their worries. They have no money to spend on gifts, nor anyone to give them gifts. The sound of Christmas carols may summon warm memories that are swiftly suffocated by the despairing fear of never experiencing memories like them again. Cookies are probably stale and store-bought, leftover from last week’s soup kitchen meal. Hugs and kisses are but a fleeting fantasy.

If the comforts we associate with the holidays were taken away, would we still be happy? Might we realize the specific happiness we craved was never really happiness to begin with? The rest of A Charlie Brown Christmas answers this question in simple yet profound detail.

When Charlie Brown is tasked with directing his classmates in a Christmas pageant, he takes the job quite seriously but is quickly disillusioned by how modern and commercialized his peers want the production to be. He and Linus go out to find a Christmas tree to establish the “proper mood” for the show, but most of the trees are steeped in fakeness and only exacerbate his anger at the commercialization of Christmas.

The only real tree he and Linus can find is rather pathetic-looking, being only about two feet tall and having just a few branches. Linus says that the tree “doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit,” but Charlie Brown defends the tree with what is perhaps the film’s most moving line of dialogue:

“I don’t care. I’ll decorate it, and it’ll be just right for our play. Besides, I think it needs me.”

Charlie’s defense of the tree is a projection of his compassionate heart. The little plant may appear insignificant, even worthless—certainly not worth proudly displaying in a Christmas pageant—but Charlie sees a preciousness in its insignificance. Beyond that, he sees some of his own reflection in the barely-blossoming branches.

Yes, the boy who has always felt overlooked is having a life-changing revelation. If he wants to be seen and loved as the priceless human treasure he is, then he first has to recognize the lovability of something (or someone) else under a façade of insignificance. As The Beatles once sang, the love we take is equal to the love we make.

And is not that what the Christmas story is about on multiple levels? First, we have the tiny baby born in an animal feeding tray who happens to be our eternal savior. Then we have the beautiful driving force behind our savior’s mission—the passionate belief that each of us little, often pathetic humans is worth saving, is worth loving.

Subtlety speaks more powerfully than clarity. While A Charlie Brown Christmas ends on a note of religious clarity—Charlie and his suddenly-matured peers singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—its true poignancy is in its subtlety. By caring for the little Christmas tree, Charlie teaches us all that real holiday joy cannot be controlled, especially through material pleasures. Rather, real happiness flows freely, if unevenly, when we make the effort to see as God sees, to love as
He loves. For as St. Francis of Assisi once prayed so poetically, it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

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