"Charlie Brown Christmas Tree"#89-16
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 19, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Luke 2:1-15
Did you ever wonder what happened to the aluminum Christmas tree? Mass-produced, spray-painted aluminum Christmas tree surged in short-lived popularity in the 1960s. In the early years of that decade, more than a million of these glitzy, metallic imitations were manufactured. But by 1967, they had complete fallen out of favor. And the main company that made them went out of business. So, what happened? The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree is what happened.
Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and the other characters from the popular comic strip, came out with his now-famous Charlie Brown Christmas special in 1965, the year that proved to be the beginning of the end for the aluminum Christmas tree. When it premiered at 7:30 p.m. on December 9, 1965, nearly half of all American televisions that were turned on were tuned in to the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
Halfway through the program, the nationwide audience hears Lucy van Pelt shout, "Get the biggest aluminum Christmas tree you can find, Charlie Brown!" Of course, Charlie Brown refuses to succumb to the glitzy lure of commercialism signified by that metallic giant. Instead, in pursuit of the true meaning of Christmas, he chooses a small, skinny, insignificant evergreen sapling. And Linus says, "I didn't know they still made wooden trees."
And ever since, that little sapling, buckling under the weight of a single red bulb, bedded with Linus' sky-blue blanket has become a sign, a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and today is credited with driving the aluminum imposter out of business. It illustrates the power of a simple story. It's a David and Goliath kind of story. The underestimated little guy topples a giant. And you know, it's also the backstory behind the Charlie Brown Christmas special itself as told by historian Stephen Lind in his book titled, A Charlie Brown Religion, which is a spiritual biography of Charles Schulz, the series creator.
The network TV giants were certain that Charlie Brown's Christmas special would flop. Like Lucy pulling the proverbial football from him right as he's about to kick it, the tripping point for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special was Charles Schulz's insistence that the story culminate with a reading from the Bible.
During the 1960s, most TV networks were already exclusively committed to secular entertainment programming. Even for Christmas specials, less than 9 percent of them contained any reference to the historic Christian faith. But Charles Schulz had told his producer, "We're going to have Linus read from the Bible." The producer said, "It's never been done before." Advisors said, "We can't do this. It's too religious," but Schulz was adamant.
Ten days before it released, they played the finished program for the New York City executives in their high-rise office, and they were not pleased. "The Bible thing scares us," they said. The Bible was the tripping point, and they were certain that Charlie Brown's Christmas special would fall flat on its face. But on the night of the first broadcast, more than 15 million households tuned in. And it was very well received, both by critics and the general public. Not only has it gone on to receive many awards and accolades and has been broadcast every year for the last 56 years, this simple but powerful story has even been given the distinction of single-handedly subverting the entire aluminum Christmas tree industry. Like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, the Bible, the epic story from which Linus quotes, is an underestimated book. Compared to the glitz of modern times, it may appear insignificant—an all-but-forgotten relic hidden in the top drawer of a dated motel. And yet, giants still feared it.
The Bible is a dangerous book. It's a powerful story with an uncompromising message focused on a singularly controversial Person, Jesus of Nazareth. Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and Linus and Lucy and Pigpen and Snoopy and Woodstock and all the rest, once told a news reporter, "Sooner or later, every person has to give an answer to this question: 'Who is Jesus?' You have to face up to it. You can't avoid it. It is how you answer that question that determines the course of your life."
Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except by Me." When Jesus made this statement in first-century Israel, it was no less controversial then than it is now. Who was He to make such a claim? He was an underestimated Man from an insignificant town, born in a barn and bedded in a feeding trough. Yet He claimed to be the Son of God. And His back would buckle under the weight of a Roman cross because of it. But God raised Him from the dead and proved that Jesus speaks the truth.
This is why His followers still tell the story of His birth today. Charles Schulz knew that the true meaning of Christmas was a tripping point, and it continues to be censored and sidelined by aluminum imposters. But the meaning of Christmas will always be the simple, yet powerful, story of Jesus, and voices like Linus' help us not to forget it. At the climax of that Christmas special, Linus dramatically recites from chapter 2 of the Bible's Gospel of Luke. Luke was an inspired writer and a careful historian.
He portrays the account of Jesus' birth like another sort of David and Goliath story. Luke tells us about the giant Roman Empire with its million-strong, militarized bureaucracy, its short-lived promise of mass-produced peace, and its emperor, its chief executive, Caesar, who was said to be the son of a god and the savior of the world. When you hear Luke's story, on the surface, it sounds like the aluminum imposter is in charge, directing the lives of insignificant people. But from them, among them, the weak and insignificant, for them, the Messiah, the King of kings is born.
Now, I've heard that the aluminum Christmas tree may be making a comeback, but Jesus and His kingdom will eventually put every imitation permanently out of business. Listen to how Luke tells it.
And it happened in those days. A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the earlier census that took place of Quirinius, the governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own city to register. And Joseph also went up from the city of Nazareth and Galilee to Judea, to the city of David, which was called Bethlehem. Because he was of the house and the family line of David, he went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a Child. And it happened, while they were there, the time came for Mary to give birth, and she bore her first born, a Son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a feeding trough in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shown around about them. They were so afraid. And the angel said to them, "Do not fear. For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Because today in the city of David, a Savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
And suddenly, there appeared with the angel a great company, an army of heaven, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people on whom His favorite rests." And after the angels had left them and went again into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has told us about." And they went in a hurry and found Mary and Joseph and the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. And when they had seen Him, they spread the word about what had been told them about this Child.
And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had said, and Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told, the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke.
When they approached Charles Schulz about turning his comic strip into a Christmas special, he pitched the idea about the counter-cultural Christmas tree. Now, Schulz wasn't alone in targeting the aluminum Christmas tree as a symbol of the excesses of Baby Boom-era Christmases. For example, in a Dennis the Menace episode from the mid '60s, Mr. Wilson insists on taking Dennis out to chop down a real tree to replace the inferior imposter Dennis' dad had bought. In a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show, the tree salesman says that he can paint the trees any color she wants, to which Lucy says, "Well, could you spray paint one green so that it looked like a Christmas tree?"
With these and other examples, historian Stephen Lind concludes. "To credit Schulz's Charlie Brown Christmas alone with the mid-century downturn of the artificial tree industry would thus be an overstatement. His special, however, would become emblematic of the shift." For Schulz though, the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree was more than a symbol of holiday minimalism. It's a story about love, how love can transform a sad, little sapling into a treasure. Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree stands for the deeper meaning of Christmas. It's not in the potential of the little guy to subvert the giant. It's in the power of God to give value to the forgotten, status to the outcast, and life to the dead—simply because He chooses to love us.
The first Christmas took place in Bethlehem, the city of David, and the events of Christmas are less of a David and Goliath story and more of a David after Goliath story. After toppling Goliath, David came into the pinnacle of his popularity and enjoyed a season of awards and accolades, but it was short-lived. In the end, David and his descendants after him looked more like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football. And after a thousand years of failures, David's kingdom was sidelined in an all-but-forgotten back corner of the Roman Empire.
And that's when God, like Charlie Brown and Linus looking for a Christmas tree, made a surprising choice. God chose to be faithful, to keep His promise, His promise that a king would come from David's descendants to restore our small insignificant sapling of a planet. And so, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, the Creator of the world, by His birth in Bethlehem, the city David, became also the Son of David. And by His life, His death, His resurrection and promised return, He has become our Savior. When Charlie Brown's famous creator, Charles Schulz, was coming into the pinnacle of his popularity, an editor from a prominent Christian magazine wrote him, asking for his permission to reprint an article that he had written.
The article was extremely well received on the first run, and many people were becoming more and more interested in hearing what Charles Schulz had to say. Schulz wrote to the editor and gave his permission for the reprint, but he added a caveat. Schulz said, "If you think it will do any good, then you may. But please know that I tremble with fear for being built up too much. People don't need me. They need to see Jesus only."
Jesus is who you need. Like Charlie Brown said of that sapling, "I think it needs me," I need Jesus. You need Jesus. He chose you, small and insignificant, buckling under the weight of your sin. He gives you infinite value because He loves you. Talk to Him with me.
Dear Jesus, thank You for all that You did to save me, to save the world and all who are in it. Give Your Word great power to topple all that would oppose it, and more and more would treasure Your love. Because You live and You reign as King with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
No Reflections for December 19, 2021
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" arr. Thomas Gieschen. From Glory to the Newborn King by the Concordia University Kapelle (© 1999 Concordia University-Chicago)
"O Little Town of Bethlehem" arr. John Leavitt (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)
"Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" arr. Mark Shepperd. (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)
"A Babe of Beauty" by Lois Schnoor & John Boda. From Gentle Stranger by the Concordia Seminary Chorus (© 1990 Concordia Publishing House & © 2004 Concordia Seminary Chorus)
"Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" by J.S. Bach. From Glory to the Newborn King by the Concordia University Kapelle (© 1999 Concordia University-Chicago)
"From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)