There’s an album that I listen to every single year throughout the entire month of December. I’m listening to it now, as I type Santa Letters (one of my favorite jobs here at the paper) and sip on a little Friday morning hot tea.
It’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. If you’ve never heard it, find it. If you’ve never seen the Charlie Brown Christmas short that it came from, watch it this year. Because for the normal ones among us who have watched this thirty minute special year after year since 1965 when it was created, our understanding of Christmas will forever be intertwined with Charlie, Linus, Snoopy, Schroeder, and Lucy.
It was here that we first learned how to dress up a pathetic tree: take a tree with about four branches and add some tinsel, and suddenly the tree will be overwhelmingly green and full (though still small). It was here that we first learned how to dance: get a little light jazz going and step daintily in place, flinging your head from side to side like those inflatable ‘sky dancers’ outside of car dealerships.
And it was here that we all first learned to be a little self-righteous about the meaning of Christmas. Charlie Brown wonders aloud to us, year after year, why Christmas has become such a commercial trap. Finally, Linus the small gives us the answer to Charlie’s 25-minute question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about??!?” “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” Linus says. Then he walks out on a stage and recites the nativity story.
In my house growing up, we listened to this particular soundtrack year after year, especially on the night that was dedicated to putting up the tree. We ate snickerdoodles and Whoppers candy, out of a little dish set that had Christmas trees on them. Mama baked the cookies while Papa and the kids went and brought home the tree (or in later years, when the ordeal and the loose needles became too much, assembled the fake tree), then we all gathered in one room to decorate. Lights were tested by the lights committee, broken balls were swept up, 10-year-old homemade yarn ornaments were carefully placed. The angel with the porcelain face, acquired at a yard sale, was saved carefully for last.
And to this day, I feel compelled to listen to Vince Guaraldi at home when my husband and I put up our little self-assembled tree. We light candles and sit in the dark to look at the mangy masterpiece—after putting on the $10 ball collection, the two lone strings of lights, and all the paper cutout snowflakes I made last year—talking quietly and listening to Guaraldi, Bing Crosby, and Dave Barnes in endless rotation.
Christmas is not the same as when you were a child, I know that. When you were a child, there was a dimension of total possibility to it. You truly had no idea what the limits of Christmas were. Going asleep on a Christmas Eve, it was absolutely possible that when you woke up, you’d have an actual pony, an actual rifle, that your parents would actually be together again like you asked. As far as you knew, you might even catch a glimpse of Santa himself, or of a flying reindeer. The shimmering possibility was what caught your breath as you lay there, maybe whispering to siblings, or simply feeling that all your life had led you to this moment of trying to fall asleep so that the morning would come.
That is the part of Christmas that is hardest to get back. Because we know now that the possibilities are NOT endless. The presents under the tree will only be there if the money is there to buy them. There will be no restitution, because the divorce was final 20 years ago, and people don’t change easily the way we thought.
I can’t hammer this point hard enough, it seems. That wondrous possibility is the part of Christmas that can only be recovered in the knowledge of Christ himself. We learned as children, early, that when we lay awake and believe that the best of all possible outcomes could be waiting for us in the morning—we are disappointed. The pony isn’t there, or it’s there and it’s not what you thought.
As Christians, this is the thing that we can assure ourselves of: the best of all possible outcomes is coming. As we wait for the morning year after year, we can know that when it comes—it will be the best of all possible outcomes. The hopes that we’ve buried are not unreasonable. Rather, they are part of the promise:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? …For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 31-32, 38-39).”