Christmas in a Minor Key: Reflections on "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

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Editor's Note: At our home, we make sure to schedule a time each year to sit down together a watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, the animated classic created by late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. A couple of years ago, Sojourn Church member, Michael Morgan, wrote this reflection for our church website. He has given us permission to repost it here:

Christmastime is here. Bring on the blitz of traditions and travels, wants and wishes. Get the shopping done, get the family together, get the food ready, get the getting going. Fill the snowy expanse that is the holiday season. With so many things trying to get in, sometimes it seems like nothing succeeds and Christmastime is empty instead of full; Christmas in a minor key. This can only mean it’s time for the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Charlie Brown is searching. For meaning, for escape from materialism, for Christmas. He confides in his pal Linus that even with Christmas on its way with gifts and cheer, he still feels melancholy. Through the course of an afternoon, Chuck looks where we all tend to look this time of year. He looks in his mailbox for a Christmas card, for some human connection and affirmation. He looks to the 5-cent psychiatrist; perhaps a mental health adjustment will help. Ultimately, Chuck’s enlisted to direct the kids’ Christmas play and so he looks to a satisfying career to put his heart at ease. And we certainly see how that works out.

Meanwhile, Snoopy dives into Christmas commerce full tilt, festooning his doghouse and erstwhile WWI fighter plane with an arsenal of lights and ornaments. Taking Christmas by storm, in hot pursuit of a glorious cash prize.

At the pageant rehearsal, Charlie Brown learns a lesson in herding cats and so even merry company and music can’t cure what ails him. Beneath the cheer lies vanity, snobbishness, and shallow revelry. Actors, right? In need of a break and determined to set the right tone for this Christmas play, Chuck sets off with Linus to get a Christmas tree (following the modern equivalent of a star in east: two roving spotlights). A nice, shiny aluminum one, Lucy shouts after him. Looks matter.

Confronted by an explosion of neon kitsch at the tree lot, Charlie Brown nearly despairs until he finds a spindly, real tree. Wood and needles, the least commercial, most plain thing he has seen in the whole town. With apparent peace, he takes the one true tree to show the others. His humble offering earns him humiliation. What a blockhead.

Deflated and frustrated, Charlie Brown cries out, ‘Does anybody know what Christmas is all about?’

Linus knows. In what may be the last place a passage of Scripture gets a sincere reading in all of primetime TV, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 center stage in a single spotlight. Beneath all the hyper-exaggerated veneer, Christmas is really about something as simple as the birth of a baby (albeit a birth announced by angels and the glory of the Lord). It’s the emotional turning point, the moment of quiet clarity. I tear up every time.

On a side note, maybe the glory that shone round about those shepherds long ago has been echoing through the years and, in an effort to recapture it DIY style, people have just gotten a little crazy. Maybe the aluminum trees are just an over-cooked reflection of something real after all.

Of course, that’s all easy to swallow. Christmas™ has grown gaudy and superficial. Tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Have some goodwill towards men. But, simplicity is only half the point. In the next five minutes, Schultz and the animators drive home a seditiously counter-cultural point, exposing the hollowness of mere tradition and DIY glory, to replace it with something enduring.

Comforted by Linus’ soliloquy, Charlie Brown carries his Christmas tree home. As he walks through his snow-bound town, all the other trees stoop under the weight of the drifts. Bowing in the direction of Chuck’s sad little tree oddly enough. Seemingly giving due deference. At home, Charlie is astounded to see what his beagle’s been up to. Snoopy fed right into the hype and glitz of his culture and did up his little red house into a festive juggernaut. I tell you, he has already received his reward. First place. Good grief.

Charlie Brown takes a crimson ornament, a token of Snoopy’s best effort, and hangs it on his own tree. The poor, wretched thing buckles under the weight. ‘I’ve killed it.’ Indeed, Chuck. Haven’t we all?

A dejected boy heads in from the cold. The Peanuts gang shows up (hopefully to apologize for being mean as snakes) and slowly notice that the tree ain’t all that bad. It just needs a little TLC. Snoopy could probably spare some lights and bells. But wait! Is the whole premise about to come undone? Is the commercialist brigade about to take the last lonely refuge of humble simplicity and bling it into oblivion? Thankfully, no. When the gang finishes, it remains a real tree, but a tree fully revealed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the kids start humming ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. Glory to the newborn king. Indeed, glory has found its home. Not on a dog house, but on the one true tree. The emblem of Christmas. Snoopy’s reaction might just be the most subversive moment of the whole show. His glory has been robbed and given upon this tree and instead of moping or snarling about it, he joins the singing. Every tongue confesses that the lights look better on the tree, even the dog who thought he had cornered the market on glorious display.

Charlie Brown returns, touchingly stunned to see what’s become of his lowly little tree. His honest search has been rewarded with a beautiful vision far more than he could have imagined. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

The Jesse Tree and Other Advent Resources

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Many families mark the days of advent with a traditional advent calendar, opening a tiny door for each day leading up to Christmas. Our family advent tradition, the Jesse Tree, focuses on tracing the storyline of God’s family from Creation to Cross.

We all have a family tree–branches filled with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The Jesse Tree is a way we remember God’s family line and our own place in it. As Christian parents, we remember our adoption into God’s family by his grace. As we teach our children, we pray that God will include them in this family by giving them living faith.

What is a Jesse Tree?

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In our home, it is a tiny one and a half foot discount store Christmas tree. On it, we hang a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree represents the story of a person in Jesus’ family tree. In Isaiah 11:1 we read, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. And it was from David’s lineage that Jesus came. That’s where the idea of using a Jesse Tree to celebrate Advent came from. Before a symbol is hung on the tree, a Bible passage or a story from a story Bible is read. This is the story of God’s family, the story of the Christian family. As we read his Word, we remember that Jesus came for his family. Jesus comes to us, and he will come again. Come Lord Jesus. I've worked on a Jesse Tree project guide with the Arts ministry at our church, Sojourn Community Church--Midtown in Louisville, KY. It includes sample symbols by artist Tim Mobley, beautiful cover art by Elise Welsh,  instructions for how to make Jesse Tree ornaments, and family devotions based on the Jesse Tree.

Other Advent Resources

Over the years, we've used several different devotionals with our Jesse Tree. We've found the following resources to be particularly helpful:

  • Sam Luce has posted about how there are 24 Old Testament stories in the Jesus Storybook Bible that lead up to the birth of Christ. One year, we chose to read one of these each night as we put up our Jesse Tree ornaments.

  • Another helpful resource is Ann Voskamp’s book, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, which was designed for use with a Jesse Tree.

  • My friend Scott James has written a children's book entitled, The Littlest Watchman, which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the "root from Jesse" prophecy. The Good Book Company has created an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making your own Jesse Tree.

  • We have also used Marty Machowski's devotional Prepare Him Room, which unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ's coming during each week of Advent. The devotional has an accompanying 4-week children's ministry curriculum that our church has used during Advent season with our church as well.

  • Finally, you might consider these Bible memory ornaments from She Reads Truth, which provide Scripture memory passages for each day of Advent.

Have you ever used a Jesse Tree in your home? If so, what tips have you found to be helpful?

Prepare Him Room: An Interview with Marty Machowski

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a list of Advent resources that our family has used during the season. One we've used and enjoyed a couple of times now is the  Prepare Him Room: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus devotional by my friend, Marty Machowski. Back in 2014, I corresponded with Marty and asked him questions about the devotional, storytelling, and the message of Christmas. Here is how he answered my questions.

Jared: Why did you decide to write an Advent devotional? 

Marty: Prepare Him Room started as an Advent devotional for Covenant Fellowship, to help our congregation focus on Christ in the Christmas season. After receiving good feedback I decided to rewrite the devotional for families beyond our church and added the Christmas short story and a few more activities for families. 

Jared: Can you tell me a bit about the format of the devotional?

Marty: Prepare Him Room provides three devotions for each of the four weeks of Advent. The first devotion explores an Old Testament prophecy. The second devotion highlights an announcement of that same prophetic message, like Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce God’s plan to bring her a son. The third devotion explores the Scriptural fulfillment of the prophecy and announcement. 

In addition to these Bible devotions, there are family activities, outreach ideas, and a four-part short story, designed to be read on the weekend.

Jared: We've only read the first chapter as a family at this point, but my kids are already asking--is the Bartimaeus story true? Where did you come up with the idea?

Marty: I love telling stories to my children. I just make them up as I go along. That is how Bartimaeus started out. I even put the song the children in the story sing, "A Grueling Life," to music. When our home school ministry was looking for a story line for a Christmas musical, I gave them my rough story and the song.  The director changed the story a bit to make it work and gathered a host of songwriters to turn it into a musical. 

After that, I decided to polish my original storyline and added details and set the story in history. The California Gold rush left a lot of orphaned children back east in the big cities. There were 30,000 orphans in New York City alone. That is the setting I chose for the story. 

It is my hope families will read the Bartimaeus story each Christmas building a family tradition that will go on for years.

Jared: What helps you grow as a storyteller? What is your system for recording stories? 

Marty: Recording stories is easy with today’s smart phones and voice memos.  All you have to do is open an app, and start talking. Most of my stories, while enjoyed by my own children, are not that great.  But every now and then, I come up with a winner – a story that my children want to hear again and again.  If you tell enough stories, you bound to create a good one now and then. Even if you never publish a story, your kids will absolutely love listening to the recordings later on.

Jared: Christmas is a season for giving, but often we have a tendency just to think about ourselves. How can your devotional help a family that is more inwardly focused to be more outward? 

Marty: One of the most frequent weaknesses of a solid Christian family is reaching out to friends and neighbors. Even though most Christians agree that evangelism and outreach are important, the busyness of life often robs us of the opportunity.  When you consider that Christmas is the one season in the year that most people are open to coming to church, it provides a perfect chance to invite folks to church. 

Too often Christmas is about getting – gifts, food, parties, vacation time, and more.  But the message God ordained is one of giving.  God gave up his Son for us, the most amazing gift of all.  When we consider what a great salvation God provided, completely all of grace, it should move us beyond study to action. 

I wanted to help families do more than study Scripture; I wanted families to live the Scripture they study.  When it comes to Christmas, the message is clear – it is all about proclamation.  Whether it is the prophet Isaiah, “For unto us a son is given,” or the angels, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” the message is meant to be spread.  The celebration of Christ’ birth was never intended to remain within the four walls of our homes.

I'm really thankful for Marty's kindness in sharing his time with us. If you found this interview encouraging, please leave Marty a note of thanks below.

Family Friday Links 12.2.16

Here, at the beginning of the Christmas season are some online resources we've found helpful:

Tim Challies put together a post of books teens should read. He says, "... each of them is suited to twenty-first century teenaged readers and together they will provide a foundation for the Christian life that will prove both deep and wide." Parents lead the way in giving your teens great resources. Use them as conversation starters or even for family devotions. You will learn right alongside them.

The Desiring God site had a post by Kristin Tabb on kids in worship. She describes it this way, "What you want is refreshment and inspiration; what you get is low-level tension, discomfort, and distraction as you brace yourself for what might happen next." She goes on to explain both the weariness and the wonder of it all. Parent's of little one, read this and be encouraged.

Our friend, Timothy Paul Jones, wrote a post entitled, "Advent: The Difficult Discipline of Celebrating the Waiting". In it he writes, "... Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent looking ahead. Advent is a proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ through the discipline of waiting." He goes on to explain the meaning of waiting and its importance.

What have you been reading or writing online lately? Leave us a link in the comment section and we will check it out.