Imagine bringing together children, light, faith and the true meaning of Christmas in one animated special that still charms audiences more than 50 years after it first aired. A Charlie Brown Christmas does precisely that. What you might not realize is that at first, the odds against its success seemed as daunting as Charlie Brown’s odds of kicking a football held in place by Lucy Van Pelt.
In 1947, Charles Schultz, known as Sparky to his family and friends, created the four-panel comic strip Li’l Folks for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, featuring the antics of elementary school-age kids. Charlie Brown (the name of a real childhood friend), Patty, Shermy, and a dog named Snoopy were the original characters.
When United Features Syndicate picked up Schulz’s strip in 1950 for national syndication, an editor changed its name to Peanuts (despite the artist’s objection) to avoid its being confused with an earlier comic strip that had a similar name. Lucy, Linus, Sally, Violet, Schroeder, Marcia, Franklin, Pig-Pen, Peppermint Patty (a different character from Patty), Woodstock and many others eventually joined the cast. Adults were never seen.
At its peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 newspapers. Schulz produced nearly 18,000 original strips before he retired in 2000. He died that year on February 12, the day before the final original Peanuts strip was published. All subsequent strips are reruns. Unlike other comics that have continued long past the deaths of their creators, United Features Syndicate honored Schulz’s request and chose not to hire a successor to continue drawing Peanuts.
Schulz maintained a different, more relaxed outlook on Peanuts TV specials, however. New series starring Snoopy and other characters from the strip currently appear on the Apple TV streaming service. But, of course, none of these contemporary productions would have even been pitched if A Charlie Brown Christmas hadn’t earned its place in American pop culture and provoked demand for more.
Schulz didn’t leap directly to television. The first step on the path that led to the initial Peanuts TV special was taken in 1961, when he allowed his characters to appear in a series of animated commercials for the Ford Falcon, a small compact car. Bill Melendez, an animator for Walt Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, tackled the task of translating Schulz’s characters into moving images.
In early 1965, Lee Mendelson, a television producer, was asked by the advertising agency that handled Coca-Cola’s account whether he had an upcoming Christmas special they could sponsor. According to the 2001 documentary The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson said, “Absolutely.” That was a lie, but he immediately set to work on turning his lie into the truth.
As recounted in the 2001 documentary, Mendelson called Schulz and said he had sold what he called “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Sensibly, the artist asked, “Well, what is that?” Mendelson replied, “It’s what you’re going to write for a presentation the following Monday.” Schulz suggested bringing in Bill Melendez to help outline the Christmas special. The Coca-Cola executives liked the pitch and asked for it to be ready for broadcast in early December – giving the men just six months to write a script, cast voice actors, compose a musical score, and draw, ink and paint more than 13,000 animation cels needed to render a 30-minute-long television program.
They wrote storyboards depicting the Peanuts gang organizing a play centered around the meaning of Christmas. Composer Vince Guaraldi contributed the light jazz background music and vocals, which Mendelson described in the documentary as “ … being very adult-like and kid-like at the same time,” a curious choice for the soundtrack of an animated holiday special aimed at children in the year 1965.
The men cast real children as the Peanuts characters instead of adult actors who sounded like children – another bold and unusual choice. They recruited regular kids from families they already knew instead of professional actors, with the exception of the two 11-year-olds who voiced Charlie Brown and Linus. “The 10- and 11-year-olds could pretty well read without our help, but … we had to coach the five- and six-year-olds … and feed them half a line at a time … which is why there is a sing-songy pacing to the voices in the show,” Mendelson said in the 2001 documentary. Bill Melendez, who directed A Charlie Brown Christmas, provided the voice of Snoopy. The dog’s little yellow avian companion, Woodstock, debuted in the strip in 1969 and Melendez voiced the bird in later Peanuts specials.
Schultz emphatically refused Mendelson’s suggestion to add a laugh track, even though that was fairly standard in children’s animation at the time. The creators also wove in a Bible quote from the Book of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-14 of the King James Version, famously spoken by Linus: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them …” When it was suggested that including a Bible verse in a commercial work of animation made the special seem too religious, Schultz reportedly said, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
After delivering the finished show, Mendelson had jitters, fearing that he and his colleagues might have ruined Charlie Brown. He needn’t have worried. When CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965, 49% of all televisions in the United States tuned in, yielding the highest ratings to date for a prime-time Christmas feature. When A Charlie Brown Christmas won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, it opened two sets of floodgates: one for animated Christmas specials of all sorts, and a second for Peanuts TV specials.
As of December 2021, there are 46 Peanuts specials in total, eight of which were produced after Schulz’s death. These include the classics It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, neither of which could have been made without the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
One of the first collectibles to appear after the 1965 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas was a companion children’s book, written by Charles Schultz and published that same year, which tells the story of the TV special in a read-along format.
Since then, A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Peanuts comic strip in general has given rise to a mind-bogglingly wide range of collectibles in every conceivable format. Schultz called merchandising ‘The Things’ and was ambivalent about this aspect of managing the Peanuts universe. In an interview for The Washington Post in 1985, he explained, “ … I … had five kids to support and put through college. And I have United Features Syndicate that takes half the money, and they’re pushing for things – and it keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
The items associated with A Charlie Brown Christmas that perform best at auction are individual colored animation cels which were actually used to produce the special. Those signed by Charles Schulz, Mendelson, Melendez, and/or the voice actors can inspire serious bidding wars. Animation cels that reference the special’s original sponsors, Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison, have their fans, too. Seasonal rebroadcasts of the show removed them to comply with FCC regulations that outlawed advertising within children’s programming.
More than half a century has passed since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, and more than two decades have gone by since Schulz died. Yet, the holiday adventures of the hapless, confused, gentle third-grader Charlie Brown continue to cast their spell and enchant new generations.
Summoning the faith to do better, even if it’s just improving a scrawny Christmas tree, is why A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a classic. It’s the simple things that matter the most, as Linus, in his youthful voice, says in a key scene: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” So be of good cheer, Christmas time is here.”