The first Charlie Brown television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, debuted on CBS on December 9, 1965. Its creators, as well as the network executives, were unsatisfied with its quality, and braced themselves for a flop—they thought it would likely run once and sink without a trace.
The vast readership of the Peanuts newspaper comic strip notwithstanding, it was an odd fit for the typical televised Christmas fare of its time, and perhaps even of today. The mood was downbeat, the pacing was slow, the animation sketchy and choppy in places—it was completed only 10 days before its scheduled prime time evening slot. There was no laugh track. It featured young child actors and amateurs speaking incongruously grown-up sounding lines, such as this one from Lucy: “Let’s face it, we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket...it's run by a big eastern syndicate you know.” The soundtrack was somewhat melancholy piano jazz, and the centerpiece was a long recitation by Linus of a passage from the Gospel of Luke, which not everyone thought appropriate for a cartoon. Snoopy with his thought-bubble dialogue was practically the protagonist of the newspaper strip, but in the special, all he could do was comically mug and growl—it was that or ruin the realism by having a talking dog in the show. For most of its runtime, it’s not exactly a joyful celebration of holiday cheer.
The CBS executives who screened it were particularly unhappy about it. Although it was sponsored by Coca-Cola and locked into its scheduled time slot, they did not get it at all and were very leery of disturbing the viewers of their gold-standard nightly prime time lineup with anything so unconventional. According to producer Lee Mendelson, at the screening for the crew, most reactions were pessimistic, but then “one of the animators, Ed Levitt, stood up in the back row and declared: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for a hundred years.’ The rest of us would have settled for two years...”
Ed Levitt looks to have been right. A Charlie Brown Christmas claimed an impressive market share that night, with some 15 million households tuning in. The reviews were glowing. It won an Emmy and a Peabody, and CBS ran it again the next year. It completely changed CBS’ approach to programming: in 1966 they telecast Chuck Jones’ animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and in 1969 they added Rankin/Bass’ Frosty the Snowman. Its yearly broadcast has become a Christmas tradition, eagerly awaited by growing legions for whom Christmas would feel deeply incomplete without it. This year Apple TV+ took over the rights, to the widespread outcry of nonsubscribers.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is even considered responsible for single-handedly eliminating the aluminum Christmas tree industry, dominant with American households at the time. Compassion for Charlie Brown’s scrawny sprig rerouted an entire generation away from metallic pink space-age conifers, straight back to natural pine and fir. Astro-tastic shiny trees have recently been making a comeback with fans of retro-’60s decor.
It turned out that what at first seemed like potential drawbacks, viewers loved, and continue to love. The slightly unfinished quality, combined with Vince Guaraldi’s elegant piano jazz, give it a winsome nostalgia that can bring one to tears. The soundtrack, along with the rest of Guaraldi’s albums, can be heard here on hoopla. Everyone loves the childrens’ choir songs and of course, the kids’ footloose dancing to Guaraldi’s ebullient “Linus and Lucy” while they are supposed to be rehearsing for the Christmas play. Without a laugh track, the children’s lines are achingly raw, and the deadpan humor really hits. In some ways, it’s the ultimate expression of Charles Schulz’s theme of the struggle between existential angst and religious feeling. Linus represents Schulz’s philosophical side, but neither has an easily parsed theology; other Peanuts characters represent other sides of his personality as well. Charlie Brown represents me as I am, he would say, and Snoopy represents me as I wish I could be.
The production of A Charlie Brown Christmas was a rushed affair. In April 1965, after Peanuts appeared on the cover of Time, Coca-Cola’s advertising agency sounded out producer Lee Mendelson about a possible Christmas special. He and Schulz and animator Bill Melendez immediately got to work banging out a scenario and trying to figure out how to bring a newspaper comic to animated life, on a very tight deadline and a meager budget.
Mendelson had heard Bay Area jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s crossover hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, and Guaraldi became an enthusiastic Peanuts team member. (I am here to tell you that every Vince Guaraldi album is wonderful, including the non-Charlie Brown ones.) Some are cool jazz, some are Brazilian and after the Peanuts era, a few are nicely arranged small group California fusion with Fender Rhodes, such as the underrated Alma-Ville.
During an early screening of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it became clear that the pace was plodding and the music very melancholy, so non-musician Lee Mendelson scribbled on the back of an envelope some lyrics for a song to be sung over Guaraldi’s opening theme—this became “Christmas Time Is Here”, which was sung by a five-person children’s choir recruited from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, along with “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and a few others. Mendelson was as surprised as anyone when this song became a beloved holiday classic, performed over the years by many famous singers.
Animator Bill Melendez had to coach the children to say their lines. Only two of the child actors were ‘professional’. Eight-year-old Peter Robbins, who already had an extensive resume, was chosen to speak the desired nondescript, ‘blah’ cadences of Charlie Brown. As he later noted, “it was very strange for an eight-and-a-half-year-old to have to pretend to be depressed about Christmas, the most joyous time of the year!” His agent recommended Christopher Shea for Linus, whose commanding diction, and slight lisp, were ideal for the character. Younger children, like six-year-old Kathy Steinberg who voiced Sally, had to be cued and recorded half a line at a time—this is adorably evident in Sally’s recitation of her money-conscious Christmas list.
Still, the downbeat strangeness of the special persists. (In my memory, it seems warm and uplifting; probably thinking of the “Linus and Lucy” dance scene, and the happy redemption of the Christmas tree at the end). But whenever I sit down to watch it again, I am struck by the depression and anxiety that emanate from Charlie Brown’s haunted eyes, his bleak outbursts against commercialism, and the callous treatment he endures from his peers. Does A Charlie Brown Christmas still work for contemporary parents, and a widely shared parenting style that is relentlessly positive and sensitive to triggering? Will it make it to Ed Levitt’s hundred years?
Peanuts brilliantly satirized the Cold War zeitgeist of anxiety, self-doubt, and psychoanalysis—leavened of course with zen wit and existential humor. Charlie Brown clearly needs some kind of therapy or help; when he sits down at Lucy’s booth, she is much more excited about the fee she is earning, and to brainstorm scientific labels for his condition, than she is about actually listening to him. Lucy claims no one has yet given her what she really wants for Christmas: “real estate.” Charlie Brown’s better-adjusted friends casually denigrate him, until they aw-shucks it at the end when they see the worth of his Christmas tree and sing the closing carol around it. For Peanuts, life is self-doubt and failure, and meaning is in little moments—an impromptu feast, a spontaneous dance party, snowflakes on the tongue. Happiness is found, if at all, in friendship and hard-earned wisdom, which unfold over time and are not easily quantified. Is this message enough to win over the new family tuning in to A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in 2020?
For every Charlie Brown Christmas true believer, there is a review like this one:
Two stars: Surprisingly depressing
Other than the historical value of looking in on a cultural need that led to the perception that projecting neurosis onto cartoon characters was entertaining, not much here. While a somewhat useful discussion ensued about what animated bullying, anxiety, and depression look like, this wouldn't be our target Christmas viewing. Any nostalgia quickly evaporated as we tried to explain to our daughter what social shaming has to do with the spirit of Christmas. The language didn't bother us as much as having to tolerate 20 min of cruelty in order to enjoy 5 min of redemption. The math just didn't pencil out for us. We will be donating this sad piece of animated history to the local library.
Some contend that A Charlie Brown Christmas teaches their kids to call others ‘blockhead’ and ‘stupid’ and that its emphasis on the over-commercialization of Christmas is a downer; fans argue back that the positive messages outweigh those. As one says, “don't miss the chance to enjoy classic movies because they are different from modern ones. embrace the chance to love, teach, and learn together!” But even some fans on this page agreed that a post-viewing debrief about the bullying and negativity was warranted. Naysayers seem to be in the minority overall: ratings were sky-high in 2015 for the 50th-anniversary broadcast, which had a two-hour time slot hosted by Kristen Bell, featuring musical performances by Kristen Chenoweth, Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Pentatonix, David Benoit, and the All-American Boys Chorus.
“The continued success of the special has surprised me as much as anyone,” Charles Schulz told TV Guide in 1985. “A lot of the drawings are terrible.”