When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.
Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.
The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.
Still, much about the success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” did defy common sense and continues to do so today. Consider its pacing, for instance. “Charlie Brown” was one of the first animated holiday cartoons, appearing just one year after “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And yet, unlike “Rudolph,” in “Charlie Brown” very little happens. The special opens with a long, almost meditative take of children skating loops on the pond, the wistful original song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in the background. Many of the scenes that follow have a similar fragmented, ephemeral quality. Kids talk about Christmas cards, their lists for Santa; they throw snowballs; they dance; they talk some more. There is an almost documentary-like verisimilitude to the project. Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” and Melendez capture perfectly that peaceable aimlessness, that numinous timelessness that many American children experience during the holidays, their lives hushed like the landscape under a thick blanket of snow.
Into that wintry reserve trudges Charlie Brown, Schulz’s bald, moon-faced loser. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” he says at the start. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” Imagine the Coca-Cola executives who hired Mendelson and Schulz discovering that their new Christmas special was about a kid trying to figure out why Christmas made him depressed. Who is going to want a soda pop after that?
Not only does Charlie Brown keep talking about how sad he is, he spends most of his Christmas special spotlighting and attacking the ways commercialism has crept into the holiday. Things like Snoopy entering his doghouse in a Christmas decorating contest to win a cash prize; Lucy complaining that all she ever gets at Christmas are “stupid toys or clothes or a bicycle,” when what she really wants is “real estate” (you have to love Lucy); or little Sally writing to Santa that if gifts are too much trouble, “make it easy on yourself, just send money.” When Charlie Brown challenges this, she explains, with her absolute innocence, “All I want is what’s coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
“We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket,” Lucy finally admits. “It’s run by an Eastern syndicate, you know,” a comment that could hardly have been lost on CBS’s East Coast executives.
For its creators, though, the most problematic element of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was Schulz’s decision to build the climax of Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas around Linus’s proclamation of the Gospel of Luke’s Nativity story. Much like today, to discuss religion publicly was considered fraught with hazard. When Melendez first heard about it, he thought “it was a very dangerous place to go into.” There were no religious cartoons at the time; animation was “an entertainment,” not a church service.
Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.”
But it had been the religious dimension of Christmas that had drawn Schulz to the project in the first place. “If we can talk about what I feel is the true meaning of Christmas, based on my Midwest background,” Mendelson remembers Schulz explaining to him, “it would really be worth doing.”
He told Melendez, “Bill, if we don’t do it, who else can?”
That scene with Linus, in which what little action there is completely stops—Linus literally steps centerstage and calls for a spotlight—is certainly memorable. But for me, the real power of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” lies not there but at the story’s end. Charlie Brown, having been liberated from his sadness by Linus’s “tidings of great joy,” tries to decorate his pathetic, molting little tree, truly the Charlie Brown of Christmas trees. The placement of a single red ornament causes it to buckle, leading Charlie Brown to believe that he has failed once again. “Everything I touch gets ruined,” he says, abandoning the tree and the TV screen.
Then the other children show up. They have spent the entire half-hour either ignoring or making fun of Charlie Brown, calling him “a blockhead,” telling one another, “He’s not the kind you can count on to do anything right” in a pitch-perfect imitation of gossiping adults. But when they see that wilted little tree that he cared about sitting there near-dead and alone, their hearts are moved. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” says Linus. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
He takes his security blanket—which he has until now repeatedly refused to let go of—and wraps it around the tree’s base. The others remove ornaments from Snoopy’s now award-winning decorations, and together they transform that ugly branch into something that is still simple, but somehow beautiful. They gaze at it silently for a moment, then softly break into song.
Today the chances of selling a Christian-themed, anti-commercialism Christmas special would seem just as slim as they were in the 1960s. But more challenging in the present than either of these options is Schulz’s vision of a group of sweet (but also self-centered), adorable (but also kind of mean) individuals allowing their own self-interest and sensibilities to fall away before a humble, fragile life. To see with clarity that no matter who or what stands before them, they aren’t so bad, really. They just need a little love.