A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS TV as a 30-minute animated Christmas special written by Charles M. Schultz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. The comic was hugely popular at the time when the TV special debuted on December 9, 1965.
Though this was not Shultz’ first TV special — that would be 1963’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown — nor the last, it would become the most enduring. It is a staple of holiday viewing today, and Christmas is not complete without gathering the family and friends around the TV to watch it.
San Francisco Bay Area musician Vince Guaraldi, known at the time for his hit “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” provided what was then an unusually melancholy jazz soundtrack along with traditional and classical music for the special. Along with producer Lee Mendelson, it took Schultz a day to outline the story for the sponsor Coca-Cola, weeks to write it, but 6 months to film.
There is a significant scene near the end of the special when, as Charlie Brown asks what Christmas is all about — amidst the over-commercialism, school plays, and Santa wish lists — his friend Linus recites the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke in the Bible, read from the King James Version. This was unusual among Christmas specials, directly and overtly relating the religious nature of the holiday: the producer was concerned that would make it controversial and the network had its qualms. Many were anxious about it and thought it would not be successful, but Charles Schultz was most insistent that the true meaning of Christmas should be captured in the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. Shultz’ faith was deep and personal and he asked the producer “If we don’t do it, who will?”
Viewers loved it. It got a 45 Nielson rating, meaning that nearly half of Americans watching TV that night saw this show. Young children supplied the kid voices in the show most of whom weren’t actors, something unheard of at the time. There were no adults. There was no laugh track, the animation was simple and flat, even by 1965 standards. Nevertheless, it won both a Peabody Award as well as an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. The soundtrack went triple platinum. Live stage productions were made of it, there’s even an app for it.
Charles Schultz lived in Sebastopol, California not far from where I grew up. In 1969 he opened an ice skating rink in nearby Santa Rosa. When I was young we’d go there to skate and marveled that there were stained glass renditions of all the Peanuts characters in an Alpine setting. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s still there and now though known as the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, or more commonly as Snoopy’s Home Ice.
I have watched A Charlie Brown Christmas every year now for over half a century. It never fails to move me when I hear Linus say with simplicity and innocent profundity:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
…That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Merry Christmas Charlie Brown.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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