I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. – Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown helped me understand that I love jazz before I knew what jazz was. Vince Guaraldi is what I associate with Christmas music. When other people turn on The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole or A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives, I turn on Guaraldi to help me through the holidays. There is a darkness to Christmas. If you don’t see it, it’s because you’ve probably had the luxury and privilege of not experiencing that darkness. Even as a child, I related to Charlie Brown, despite the humor often being meant for the adults in the room. Charlie had been taught that there were certain things to feel, expectations from those around you. When he didn’t feel the ways that were considered normal, he felt broken and incomplete as a person. He associated not feeling happy as something intrinsically undesirable about him, which is what we continue to be taught, even now. When I hear that signature piano, I feel a little less lonely, because I know Charlie Brown gets me. Guaraldi takes me to a place where people really do believe that it’s ok for a christmas tree to be sparsely decorated and balding. Charlie Brown and Guaraldi give me the fantasy that people care more about each other than the appearances of their trees, lighting displays, and gift wrapping, or that they’ll at least acknowledge their consumerism when confronted. To those who find deep joy in these seasonal rituals, consider what it might feel like to not have these comforts of routine. What would it be like if you had a tree like Charlie Brown out of financial necessity, knowing it was viewed as less by everyone at the tree lot, and not with intentional purpose? Or what if you didn’t have a tree at all? Would the holidays be a kindness to you then? What if you had very recently lost a loved one? What if you were separated from your family? For me, for example, every Christmas for years, when I spent the holidays with one set of parents, I knew the other was disappointed to be without me. For many of those years, I didn’t understand that their disappointment was not my fault. Even more so, what if negative events happened during holidays past and each new anniversary brings up pain and suffering? Please enjoy the things that make you smile. I really, really mean that. But, while you enjoy those pleasurable customs, please don’t judge others unfairly or shame them for struggling to smile.
The sad irony is that this cultural belief that one must be happy at Christmas only furthers to reinforce the disconnectedness and melancholy that thousands of people feel in the months of November and December. For those with mental illness, their symptoms may get markedly worse during the holidays. Some people struggle specifically around the winter months due to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Regardless of identified emotional health issues, people are nonetheless coping with the basic stresses of the season. This strain is felt in greater degrees by women, who tend to take on the planning, organization, and general preparation of the holidays. Lower middle income families and those living in poverty are especially pressured by the cultural expectations surrounding the holidays. There is an overall perception that gifts must be purchased, a feast must be cooked and provided, and time must be spent together for Christmas to be meaningful. For many, many families, this just isn’t possible, but the guilt and pressure persists, regardless of how unreasonable the demands truly are.
If you’ve always had the holidays off, you’ve likely had a salaried position with paid time off. Not only could you take some days off for the holidays, you probably got paid for them too. About a third of the U.S. population is classified as lower income and nearly a sixth of people employed in the U.S. are in low-wage jobs. Many of those employers offering little pay are busiest during the holidays. While the rest of the country is able to take vacation and celebrate, other people are working in groceries, restaurants, hotels, and other service industry areas to help make the experiences and consequential memories of other people a reality. Well-meaning people ask children what they wrote on their wish lists, not understanding that a significant amount of children do not have this luxury. Asking them is reminding them of what they do not have. In a society that still uses naughty and nice as a tool for behavior management, a lot of kids are left believing that maybe they weren’t as good as they thought they were and others with the benefit of privilege believing themselves to be deserving. The months of November and December in the United States are a microcosm of the rest of the year. Those who already had opportunity and access to begin with judge others without those same advantages for not working harder to achieve success despite their own personal successes not being entirely their own. In December specifically, many children learn year after year the harsh truth of the world. It is not fair, and it probably never will be.
Again, I really do mean what I wrote earlier. If the holidays are a merry time for you, please enjoy them. My words here aren’t meant to suggest that your joy isn’t valuable. Your happiness in the holiday season serves great good. This contentment you feel brings warmth to many people. For some, November and December are the months that make the rest of the year worth enduring and still others find the holidays bearable because of those people who decorate entire neighborhood blocks in coordinating yard displays synchronized with a local radio station. But, there are some people, myself included, who don’t feel the glow. We try to feel the glow, and occasionally we do from time to time, but it’s usually fleeting. We are the real life Charlie Browns and when everyone else is smiling and we want to cry, it really does feel like something is wrong with us. Like Charlie Brown himself, even when we succeed in what we’ve set out to do, we’ll probably think we failed and that our own personal red ornaments are disastrous, futile attempts we shouldn’t have even tried. When “even my anxieties have anxieties”, the holidays are just plain hard. November is around the corner, and for any countless number of reasons, there will be people who feel the darkness. Some have found their Guaraldi, some are still searching, and some don’t yet believe that there is any Christmas music they could possibly like. The baby in a manger that Linus reminds Charlie of grew up to be a man who felt great sadness. He felt the darkness and the isolation. If Jesus was truly human then maybe Jesus was a Charlie Brown sometimes, too.