Often during the run up to Christmas, I listen to the “Charlie Brown Christmas” Album by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s largely instrumental—it’s the background music as Chuck, Linus, Snoopy, and the gang navigate the Christmas season—so I don’t become too distracted as it plays while I work. There’s the more upbeat “Skating” track that evokes joy as the Peanuts kids go out to their local pond for an afternoon of delight.
However, Guaraldi also wrote many of the tunes to portray Charlie Brown’s own uncertainty around the season. Charlie’s feeling down at the beginning of the show, and he shares his feelings with Linus. He says,“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. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” His friends try to help, as you know, but they also give Charlie Brown a bit of space to navigate his feelings during what is supposed to be “the hap-happiest season of all.” Even Chuck mentions that he’s “supposed to feel happy,” as if there’s something wrong if he’s not buying in to the consumeristic frenzy of this time. As if things could buy him happiness.
The Prophet Isaiah declares, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” It had been a time of difficulty for the people of Israel who had faced oppression from the Assyrians. But the years of hardship had come to an end, and a new king Hezekiah was ascending the throne. It was a time of promise and renewal—of light streaming into the darkness of tyranny. The parts of the poem that we didn’t hear tonight describe burning the boots and garments worn during the bloody conflict, and the way God lifted the yoke of their burden. And then, the prophet writes, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests on his shoulders.” For the Israelites, of course, this was an actual child, very likely Hezekiah himself, a descendent of David. And the words of this poem have come to mean more to those of us who follow Jesus, as we celebrate and remember his birth, for he also brings light to dark places.
I’ve been reading about the impact of gratitude in our lives lately. You may have heard about a groundbreaking 2003 study done by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, in which they asked test groups to journal about specific things in their lives each day: one on only negative events, another on events for which they were grateful, and the third on neutral aspects of their day. The ones who focused on gratitude evidenced a much higher wellbeing than the other test subjects. Many other studies have bene done since, all replicating the outcome that practicing gratitude increases our well-being.
Which is all fine and good, but what if you aren’t feeling particularly joyful, or you’re in a difficult time of your life. Researcher Brené Brown describes the connection between joy and gratitude in her years of data collection. She writes, “For me it was very counterintuitive because I went into the research thinking that the relationship between joy and gratitude was: if you are joyful, you should be grateful. But it wasn’t that way at all. Instead, practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives.” She continues, “Practice is the part that really changed my life, that really changed my family and the way we live every day. When I say practice gratitude, don’t mean ‘the-attitude-of-gratitude’ or feeling grateful, I mean practicing gratitude.” She describes in her family after they say grace over their dinner, they ask each other what they are specifically thankful for. She mentions daily gratitude journals. You can begin each day or close each night recalling three specific things recently for which you are thankful.
David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, says, “It’s not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful.” And in the midst of dark time, in the time of a global pandemic inflicting on all of us a collective PTSD, or in the middle of your own personal darkness—a painful divorce or a wayward teen or a financial crisis or a job disruption or a hard diagnosis or the death of a loved one—taking time to find gratitude can become just another thing to add to our overly full to-do list. Or maybe it feels a bit fake.
Maybe we just start with being thankful for the words of Jesus who said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Just knowing that the One we follow desires for each of us to experience solace can be enough to sustain us. And it may allow us to begin noticing other things in our lives too. A shared cup of coffee with a friend, or a letter that came in the mail, or a favorite cookie, or a new mystery, or a walk outside, or the way the daylight is lengthening in the afternoon, or the smile we saw on the face of a young baby, or the birds chirping in the morning, or the lights decorating homes, or the deep and abiding love of God. When we begin to practice gratitude—specifically recalling and possibly jotting them down—our joy begins to grow.
As it did for Charlie Brown. After Linus tells Charlie the true meaning of Christmas, that at Jesus’ brith angels declared glad tidings of great joy for all people, Chuck takes that little tree and places a single bulb on it. It bends over and sheds the majority of its needles. Charlie Brown is overwhelmed and wanders off, when his friends come behind him speaking words of encouragement to the tree. “It just needs a little love,” says Linus, wrapping his security blanket around the base. The others help decorate it too, with Lucy saying that Charlie Brown did get a nice tree. With that expressed gratitude, the tree sparkles, as does Charlie Brown after he takes it all in.
As do we, when we express our gratitude for moments in our lives. As we navigate the days ahead, I pray that we might take the opportunity to see all the goodness around us that we can be thankful for, and through that gratitude find joy and peace.
Photo by Ryan McGuire on Pixabay.