In May, producer Lee Mendelson convinced Coca-Cola to sponsor a Charlie Brown Christmas special and CBS gave it the green light. To animate the special Peanuts creator Charles Schulz wanted to use Bill Melendez, who had worked on Disney films going back to Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi as well as many Bugs Bunny/Looney Toons cartoons. Melendez had already brought the Peanuts characters to life when Schulz licensed them to Ford commercials from 1959 to 1965. (Though Schulz decried commercialism, he also licensed his characters to Dolly Madison and Met Life.) Schulz trusted Melendez because he rendered the characters just like they were in the strip, though the ads are disconcerting when viewed today because Linus has a Brooklyn accent.
The previous year’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer showed that holiday specials could break the mold, with its story about misfits (including an elf who doesn’t want to make toys but would rather be a dentist) who stop the abominable snow monster and save Christmas. A fable about the value of nonconformity, it was narrated by Burl Ives, who had been blacklisted for being “red,” a Communist sympathizer.
Mendelson pushed for a laugh track since all comedy shows had them. But though Schulz’s hero was known for being “wishy-washy,” the biography Schulz and Peanuts (2008) revealed that the creator was not when it came to his art:
“Well, this one won’t. Let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way.”
Then [Schulz] rose and walked out, closing the door behind him.
Mendelson, shocked, turned to Melendez. “What was that all about?”
“I guess,” replied Melendez, “that means we’re not having a laugh track!”[i]
If the lack of a laugh track was upsetting, Schulz dropped a bomb when he informed the producers that Linus would recite the Gospel for one minute. “We can’t avoid it; we have to get the passage of St. Luke in there somehow. Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?”
Schulz taught a Methodist Sunday school for adults and drew a single strip panel about teenagers called Young Pillars for the Church of God magazine, even though Schulz hadn’t attended church regularly for the last seven years. He tried to avoid the issue, but if asked about church by the press he said, “I don’t know where to go. Besides, I don’t think God wants to be worshipped. I think the only pure worship of God is by loving one another, and I think all other forms of worship become a substitute for the love that we should show one another.” In his Sunday school classes, he would raise a topic but just listen to people discuss it and not offer his own opinion.[ii]
Mendelson made one last push to cut the Biblical recitation for the sake of entertainment, but Schulz “just smiled, patted me on the head, and left the room.”
At the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the bags around Charlie’s eyes indicate he is heavily stressed out. “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 might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
He is also disturbed by the over-the-top Christmas decorations on his dog’s house, his little sister’s unbridled greed, and the commercialization of the sacred holiday, echoing the folkies who Dylan booed at Newport. (Wisely, an opening sequence with Snoopy catapulting Linus into a Coca-Cola sign was cut.[iii])
Psychiatrist Lucy encourages Charlie to direct the school Christmas play to “feel involved” with the holiday, then instructs him to buy a tree for the show — preferably a pink aluminum one. Instead, Charlie picks out a sickly little natural one instead, just as Jesus, champion of the weak, would have done. The kids all denounce Charlie for not picking a good tree.
“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he howls.
“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus recites the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-14, which announces Jesus’ birth. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Re-inspired, Charlie tries to decorate the tree on his own, but the heavy ornaments appear to kill it. But the rest of the gang use the decorations from Snoopy’s house and turn it into a beautiful tree. Charlie joins them in singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the snow under the sparkling stars.
Compared to the gentle standards of today’s children’s programming on Disney Jr. and Nickelodeon, the kids’ cruelty to Charlie and his depression are pretty severe. The CBS executives didn’t like it because they thought the music was weak and the kids sounded amateurish. Indeed, most of them were real little kids, not pros, who had to be recorded reading one sentence at a time, with their lines edited together later. But the show was already listed in TV Guide, so CBS honored its commitment to run it. They just wouldn’t be ordering any sequels.
The special aired on December 9. The execs of little faith were stunned the morning after to see that it brought in a 49 share of the Nielson ratings, meaning half the TVs in the country tuned in. It was the second most-watched show that week, behind Bonanza, and the highest-rated Christmas special in history. Variety called it “Fascinating and haunting,” and it won an Emmy and a Peabody.[iv]
“Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you,” Schulz said when accepting the Emmy.
Schulz vetoed the idea of polishing the amateur voices and low-budget animation for future rebroadcasts, as they made show as real and endearing as the little tree. Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown soundtrack would go on to be one of the best-selling holiday albums of all time. The perennial airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas became a unifying bastion of tradition in the face of the culture wars that lay ahead.
[i] Michaelis, 347.
[ii] Michaelis, 350.
[iii] A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas (DVD bonus feature).
[iv] A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas.