Peanuts was a long-running popular comic strip. Created by Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz in 1950, Peanuts can still be read today in reruns, which are still new to many readers. The series ended when Schulz retired for health reasons in 1999. Sparky passed away February 12, 2000, the day before the last of the Sunday Peanuts strips was published.
The strip centred on Charlie Brown and his friends, a slice of life comic focused on just children. No adults appeared in the strip. Peanuts cemented the four-panel comic format in newspapers, though later in his career, Schulz moved to full panels. The comic became a hit, published throughout the world. This popularity led Coca-Cola in April 1965 asking for a Christmas special to sponsor. The result was A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The special first aired in December 1965 and was a smash hit. A Charlie Brown Christmas earned a 49 share the week it aired, second only to Bonanza. Almost half the televisions in the US were tuned in to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas; in a three-channel universe, the show dominated. The initial success led to A Charlie Brown Christmas being an annual tradition for fifty years.
A Charlie Brown Christmas follows Charlie Brown as he deals with the Christmas blues. He’s feeling that the holiday has gotten too commercial, with friends and even his sister, Sally, and dog, Snoopy, forgetting the meaning of the season. Snoopy has entered a home decoration contest to win cash, and Sally’s dictated list also mentions money. The blahs send Charlie Brown to Lucy’s psychiatrist stand. She determines that what he needs is to get more involved and all but shanghais him into being the director of the Christmas pageant.
The pageant rehearsal is chaos. The cast is busy dancing and barely pays Charlie Brown any notice. Lucy gets their attention, but once Charlie Brown is down his speech, the cast is right back to dancing. Charlie Brown does get the roles handed out, but he still doesn’t feel any better. Lucy, figuring that the set isn’t Christmas-y enough, sends Charlie Brown and Linus to find a tree. Others in the cast tell him to get a nice, shiny aluminum tree, preferably pink.
At the tree lot, all brightly lit and full of fake trees, Charlie Brown finds a lonely real tree. Feeling for the scraggly tree, he buys it and takes it back to the rehearsals. The cast isn’t impressed and laughs at him. Charlie Brown bemoans that there’s no one who knows the true meaning of Christmas. Linus then quotes from the Gospel of Luke*.
Charlie Brown takes the little tree back home. Snoopy’s doghouse, all decked out with lights and ornaments, won first place in the contest, but Charlie Brown tries to put the display out of his mind. He adds an ornament to his tree, which bends over under the weight. This turns out to be the last straw for Charlie Brown. Dejected, her slumps away.
Linus walks by and sees the tree. He wraps it in his blanket, which helps the tree gain strength. The rest of the cast arrives and helps redecorate the tree, turning it from scraggly to beautiful. Charlie Brown returns to see the result and to hear everyone say, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”
The special, as mentioned above, was well received. Along with the amazing ratings, A Charlie Brown Christmas won both an Emmy and a Peabody. The results came as a surprise to the creators. They had six months to pull together the special, a time frame that was far too short to result in any quality. The network felt that the voice talent sounded amateurish; given that almost all the voice actors were children the age of the characters, the accusation was accurate. The one adult, animator and director Bill Melendez as the voice of Snoopy, did the role just to fill the need; his work was kept because what he did as Snoopy worked well.
The audience, though, found that the special had charm. A Charlie Brown Christmas maintained the characterizations found in Peanuts. While Schulz had finished with the special and went back to working on the comic strip, Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson worked to bring the characters alive during the animation process, keeping true to Sparky’s creation. The decision to use children instead of older voice artists acting as kids was to keep an authentic voice for the characters. Only two of the actors, the voices of Charlie Brown and Linus, had worked professionally before the special.
The music also played a large role in the special. Jazz musician and compose Vince Guaraldi created and adapted the music in A Charlie Brown Christmas, including the now iconic piece, “Linus and Lucy“. He adapted Christmas classics, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Tannenbaum” to great effect. While the network wasn’t sure of the music, feeling that it didn’t fit, the audience and critics praised it.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is a great example of what can happen when production staff take pains to keep to the vision of an original work. Melendez went to great effort to work out how the characters would move when animated, even when keeping to a simpler animation because of time restraints. The result is a Christmas special that has aired every year since its first appearance in 1965.
* 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 until 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 amultitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on Eartrh, peace and goodwill towards men.
– Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8-14, King James version.