Putting the ‘Christ’ Back in Christmas

Lou Aguilar,
President Donald Trump added a radical twist to the annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony last Friday by invoking the divinity of Jesus Christ. You would think revering the season’s central figure would be expected, but you’d be wrong. Although his predecessor, Barack Obama, mentioned the Nativity in general terms as “the story of a child born far from home … who’d ultimately spread a message that has endured for more than 2,000 years,” the more direct Trump went right to the sacred heart of the matter.

“As the Bible tells us, when the wise men had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshipped him. Christians give thanks that the Son of God came down to save humanity,” Trump said. In fulfilling his promise to renormalize the greeting “Merry Christmas” away from the deliberately vague “happy holidays,” Trump venerated the Yuletide’s raison d’être. Hollywood didn’t get the memo, though. That’s no surprise; the industry has long had a problem with religiosity.

Last week, ABC re-broadcast the perennial classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, on its 54th network run. By now almost everybody has seen the Peanuts holiday special, along with its show-stopping climax. Right after Charlie Brown, depressed by the commerciality of his Christmas, cries, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?,” Linus calmly responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He climbs onto the school stage, gets spotlighted, and proclaims the Gospel according to Luke, King James Version, verbatim on national television:

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And there were, in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them. The glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there were with the angel a multitude of Heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace and goodwill toward men.”

This scene would be anathema to any contemporary Hollywood production, and it was controversial even in 1965. Rookie animation producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez actually argued against it, afraid it would kill their big break. They were already on thin ice for two revolutionary decisions on a kids’ show: the adult jazz score by little-known composer Vince Guaraldi, and having child non-actors voice the dialogue. A literal deus ex machina ending was suicidal, they thought. “There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible,” said Mendelson. “It’s kind of risky.” But the third man on the team disagreed and demanded they use it — Charles Schulz, the Peanuts creator. “If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,” said Schulz, a Sunday school teacher. “If we don’t do it, who will?”

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