On December 9, 1965, nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to watch the premiere of the first Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Christmas, and in particular holiday specials, would never look the same. Rightly looked upon as a holiday classic, the animated special is even more of a marvel due to the fact that it very nearly never happened.
What is now the second-longest holiday special following the Rankin-Bass production of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, the special was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson mapped out the feature in a handful of hours, and were put on a tight five-month deadline to have the animated short ready in time for Christmas. Musician Vince Guaraldi had already written his famous “Linus and Lucy” piano piece, but he was also commissioned to write the rest of the music for the special. Opening song “Christmastime is Here” was recorded just four days before the premiere.
The sponsors were not impressed. “They thought having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense,” Mendelson recalled in a recent USA Today article about the making of the special. “They didn’t like the (voice) actors being kids, and they just didn’t like the show in general. They said: ‘You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.’ ”
Viewers disagreed. The show was a ratings smash, pulling in 15 million viewers. Last year, 6 million people across the country still tuned in to participate in what has become an annual holiday tradition. There are many things that make the show a true classic: it’s laid-back pace, its typically strong cast of characters, its childlike sense of innocence as well as its themes exploring the true value of Christmas in the wake of corporate consumerism.
Nowhere is this charm more evident than in the always riveting moment where, responding to Charlie Brown’s question about the true meaning of Christmas, Linus gets up on stage and starts reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Everyone was worried this scene would scare off sponsors, but not Schulz.
“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson tells USA Today. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”
The rest of the crew was wise to trust Schulz. This scene is the heart of the special; without it, the message would not have the same impact. Christopher Shea, who was 7 when he voiced Linus for the special (all of the child characters were voiced by actual children), noted this when he discussed the legacy of that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.
“At the time, being just 7, I didn’t realize the depth and perception of what I was reading, even though our family did have deep religious values. From a very early age I remember our whole family listening to the Messiah every year as a holiday tradition. But as I grew older I came to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas as it was told on the TV show. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will always treasure.”
If reading from the Bible on national television was controversial 50 years ago, how much more so would it seem to be today? And yet, households around the country will tune in each year to hear its message, even if they celebrate the season for reasons that have nothing to do with baby Jesus in a manger.
I think that’s probably because this scene so brilliantly goes against two major social streams of the last 50 years. One is consumerism; certainly an issue in 1965, it’s even more prevalent today. With the advent of commercials and targeted advertising, we schedule our lives around the “shopping season,” with Black Fridays (and Thursdays), cyber Mondays and the mad rush to spend before the year is over. In comparison to that, Linus’ one-minute consolidation of the Christmas story is positively quaint. In that way, it is also a great relief. If this is what Christmas is about, it sounds a lot less stressful than all the other stuff I’ve been running around doing.
The speech also seems to fly in the face of the last 50 years of Christian history. The church has a lot of mud caked on its shoes for choosing to bed with politicians, rising with the “moral majority” of the 1980s and continuing today with presidential candidates like Ted Cruz proposing some sort of terrifying theocracy where Christianity functions more like big brother, regulating everything we say and do. Theologically, we find ourselves mired in legalism once again. It’s icky stuff, but Linus comes to remind us all that Christmas is a time where we can get back to the fundamentals of why Jesus came and what it looked like when he did.
It’s the clearest, most pure distillation of the Christmas message I can imagine hearing. No political agenda, no asking for money, no attempts to shame viewers or scare them into religion. “You’re sick of consumerism? Let me tell you a story. This is what Christmas is all about.” We westerners have managed to muck up the clear and concise gospel message almost beyond recognition, but Linus is not guilty of this. He’s just sharing a pretty awesome story.
And what a witness! Linus doesn’t say “this is what Christmas means to me,” or, “this is how I celebrate during this time of year.” He, and by extension Schulz, is making a stand to say “this is what Christmas is all about,” what everything else we love about this time of year stems from. It’s a bold stance, especially today, but it’s one of the reasons the scene still holds so much power. This may be the only time any part of the gospel message is heard in a household all year. And the secular and spiritual alike welcome it with open arms.
The great television critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up what truly makes this special, well, special, even to modern audiences, in an article he wrote for the Newark Star Ledger upon the show’s 30th anniversary in 1995.
“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas finds beauty in simplicity. Ice skating upon a lake. A sad looking tree that needs a little love. A baby boy, born in a manger, who would one day be the savior of the world. Christmas is a stressful time of year for many, and the special doesn’t shy away from that. Charlie is frustrated with the holiday too (“My dog has gone commercial! I can’t stand it!”), which is why the ultimate message is so inspiring. We change along with Charlie, slowly moving away from cynicism to appreciation for home and heart, friends and family and the God who came down as a man to bring us all together. It’s hard to hate the holidays after being exposed to it.
After an initial staff screening of the special, animator Ed Levitt saw what Coca-Cola didn’t. He stood up and declared, “A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for 100 years!”
We should all be so lucky.