A deeper understanding and appreciation for the twenty-five-minute film It’s Christmastime Again Charlie Brown was the last thing I expected to get this week. But that is what I got, and I’m not complaining. Of course, it’s not the only thing I gained from this week, but (in part because it was so unexpected), I think it’ll be one to stick with me.
This short is something of a classic in my house, and my family watches it almost every December—but in it, there is a particular line that made absolutely no sense to me growing up. At one point in the movie, Peppermint Patty trips over a curb in a sheep costume on the way to a Christmas play she doesn’t want to be in, and Marcie quips “slouching towards Bethlehem, huh sir?” Until this quarter, I hadn’t made the connection between Yeats and this line. Having now contemplated the poem and realized the connection, I can appreciate the deep irony of what Marcie is saying to a humorously ignorant Peppermint Patty. But that made me wonder—what other pieces have been influenced by this poem?
After a quick Google search, I found that even just this particular line by Yeats, “Slouching towards Bethlehem” has had widespread impact. In 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published as a collection of essays by Joan Didion—primarily describing her experiences in California in the 1960s. As the title might suggest, these essays shed light on what she found to be a much darker reality than what was otherwise advertised. This is far from the only piece to take inspiration from Yeats so explicitly, but it is definitely one of the most popular.
What I appreciate about both of these more modern references to “The Second Coming” is that they capture the broad theme of diminishing hope within the poem. In Charlie Brown, the writers use it as a way to humorously show how the small disappointment of always being cast as a sheep is seen as the ultimate disaster by Peppermint Patty—revealing how blind she is to the larger world around her, seeing her problems as the only problems. Didion, in contrast, uses this title for her work as a way to set the tone for her audience—because, even though she is publishing a work of nonfiction, readers know that the stories within are not going to bring hope or delight. These stories are meant to expose a place and experiences much darker than what they were popularly promised to be.
I think we are seeing some of this theme of unanticipated tragedy realized in our lives today—as coronavirus has taken ahold of the world and quarantine has fundamentally shifted our society in ways that have yet to be fully discovered. I think the good news, if there is any at all, is that poems like this one fundamentally prove to us that we are not the only ones in history to have lived through something unexpectedly bad, to be facing an unexpected disaster. The others who referenced this work, though facing calamities much smaller in scale than that of ours today, show us that facing unexpected darkness is something that almost everyone can relate to—as we face it now together.