“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
In his first television appearance, Charlie Brown asks this question, and it’s one we often find ourselves wondering after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Since it initially aired on CBS on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has offered an answer.
Generations of fans have been thrilled by the show, which features now-iconic characters such as Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and Lucy. However, the special was not always the huge hit that it is today. Let’s look at the origins of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The Beginnings of Charlie Brown
Peanuts, a comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz, debuted in 1950 and grew in popularity over the next two decades. When his figures appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, marketers became interested in working with him. Unable to sell a documentary on Schulz and his creation, documentarian Lee Mendelson decided to film a half-hour Charlie Brown Christmas special for the Coca-Cola Company on the spur of the moment. (Yes, the Christmas special with an anti-commercialization message began as sponsored material.) Even more strangely, it was sponsored by Coca-Cola, the corporation most known for commercializing Santa Claus.)
Mendelson confessed in a 2011 interview with Time magazine that he did not contact Schulz before agreeing to the arrangement. After that, he contacted Schulz and said, “I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.” When Schulz inquired about it, Mendelson said, “It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.” The two finished the presentation in less than a day, and Coca-Cola took up the show six months before it was scheduled to air.
A development schedule that will make you say, “Good grief!”
With limited time and money, the production encountered a number of challenges. Schulz’s characters have never appeared on television, except for a few automobile ads. Animators had to decide how to bring the characters to life while staying true to the tone and aesthetic of the comic strip. Mendelson was unable to locate a lyricist for the opening musical piece due to a lack of funding. So he scribbled the lyrics of “Christmas Time Is Here” on the back of an envelope himself. They finished the special in less than a week, with little time to spare.
Schulz, Mendelson, and director Bill Melendez also made some bold, unconventional moves that left bosses perplexed. For example, they picked a jazz soundtrack, which is unusual for a children’s show. Linus’ passionate statement, based on Luke 2: 8–14 in the King James Version, also aroused some concerns. The Bible was rarely (if ever) read aloud on television.
Melendez often casts genuine children to express the roles, which is rare for the time being. The only actors with prior professional acting experience were Peter Robbins and Christopher Shea, the voices of Charlie Brown and Linus respectively. The manufacturers must feed lines to the youngsters one at a time, thus the peanuts talk with a special lilt. (The role he took on in all following Peanuts specials and feature films was to save money, Melendez spoke to Snoopy.)
From commercial coke to traditional Christmas.
In spite of network criticism, the program was praised by reviewers as well as audiences. An early good review from Time magazine went into the sails of the production crew, and shortly there came acclaim in other publications. In its second time, the program finished just with Bonanza. The 1966 Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding children’s programming was awarded to a Charlie Brown Christmas and in 1965 CBS got the coveted Peabody Award.
Of course, the popularity of Peanuts grew. Indeed, the program predates several of Schulz’s most well-known characters, including Peppermint Patty, Woodstock, and Franklin. Mendelson, Melendez, and Schulz utilized the animation style, music, and overall tone of the Christmas special as a pattern for future Charlie Brown programs over the years, including It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! The half-hour format has spawned additional short Christmas favorites like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The soundtrack, composed by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, has also become a classic in its own right.
Every year, the special airs on television, currently on ABC rather than CBS. It has been edited several times throughout the years. Some of the artwork has been improved by animators, and most versions omit a brief mention of Coca-Cola in the original broadcast’s beginning.