In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the round headed lead’s quest to escape a melancholy brought on by the materialism and artificiality of the season climaxes with his blanket-holding friend’s powerful recitation of St. Luke’s nativity. It is remembered now as a classic, and typical of the accelerated “holiday” calendar,network TV already threw the show a big fiftieth anniversary party while the calendar still read November. Before you say “good grief” and drop your head, hear the good news that the original special itself will be rebroadcast on Christmas Eve.
It has been a banner year for the Peanuts crew with a new feature film rejuvenating the brand, but the success of the first step from comic strips to the world of animation fifty years ago was by no means assured. Linus’s famous soliloquy in the spotlight did not spring from halcyon days of yore when religious content was openly embraced by Hollywood. As David Michaelis summarizes in his masterful 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts:
Network broadcasting in the three-channel world of the early 1960s was driven by a single, impossible mission: to please everyone and offend no one. . . . So far as the world of national entertainment was concerned, religion—or, more exactly, religious differences—did not exist.
Michaelis researches and tells the story well, and what follows is largely drawn from his work.
Schulz insisted on the scriptural content in the face of nervous creative partners and queasy network executives. “The Bible thing scares us,” said one CBS vice-president after an early screening. Yet, Frank Stanton, then the president of the network, was supportive, though he would recall that some of his skeptical colleagues “thought I had really flipped.”
The story was a simple one, delivered in an understated way with the voices of real children and without the customary laugh track. Charlie Brown is down. His friends’ quest for presents and the best decorated house (or doghouse) seems to miss the point, but he’s not sure what the point is anymore. To combat these blues, Lucy suggests “involvement” in the form of directing the school Christmas play. The cast is not too interested in taking direction, and the mutiny seems complete when Charlie Brown brings back a sickly tree made of wood rather than aluminum.
Exacerbated, he exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus, then poignantly reminds everyone that the day is about the birth of a “savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (And watch for the nice touch of Linus subtly dropping his security blanket when saying the words “Fear not.”) Rejuvenated, Charlie Brown sets out with his tree only to face a final setback. The rest of the now clear eyed gang comes along soon thereafter, though, and transforms the little tree through love and the redirection of Snoopy’s prize winning display. Charlie Brown returns to a welcoming throng with whom he sings a rather religious carol proclaiming reconciliation and “glory to the newborn king.”
The show ran on December 9, 1965. The next day, as Michaelis quotes a New York adman, “all heaven broke loose.” The ratings were great and the critics effusive in their praise for the look, the message, and the score of Vince “Dr. Funk” Guaraldi, whose subtle jazz piano soundtrack would be hailed as ground-breaking. Schulz, no great fan of the genre, had merely tolerated the music, choosing to draw his line in the sand over the script. His determination produced in Linus’s oration what one prominent paper proclaimed “the dramatic highlight of the season.” A Charlie Brown Christmas would go on to garner a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and launch a long string of successful animated Peanuts specials. It has been on television annually ever since.
Charles “Sparky” Schulz drew the first of 17,897 Peanuts strips in 1950. As his fame mushroomed in the 1960s to a level difficult to fathom now as newspapers decline, he was put on a pedestal by evangelical Christians happy to have an important culture maker they could call their own. Robert Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, published in late 1964, would sell several million copies; and Schulz was glowingly profiled by Christianity Today in an issue that would hit the newsstands just days before the Christmas special hit the airwaves. While never publicly disavowing his saintly image, Schulz would eventually drift far from the fervent faith of his young adulthood.
Raised in a nominally Lutheran though not particularly observant household, Schulz’s spiritual walk began in earnest as a lonely 25 year old returning from the war in Europe to St. Paul, Minnesota. Befriended by the pastor of the Merriam Park Church of God, he later was baptized under the waters of Phalen Lake in 1948, emerging with a religious zeal that flamed for many years. He also admired Billy Graham and attended the preacher’s 1957 New York City crusade, later lending his own celebrity to the cause when Schulz talked of “Christian living” in Graham’s Decision magazine.
After moving his family to northern California in 1958, however, his church participation would slowly wane while marital strife and religious doubts would rise. The Christmas special was perhaps his last great act of faith. As his biographer put it, “Between 1965 and 1975, Schulz underwent a transformation.” He emerged as what we might today call spiritual but not religious, fearful of the institutional church and not even confident enough in his beliefs to instruct his children or provide needed moral support. In 1968, wary of potential damage to his reputation and lucrative cartoon empire, Schulz shuttled his oldest daughter—then 18, single, troubled, and over three months pregnant—off to an abortion mill in Japan. Another daughter, Amy, later to become a Mormon, would recall her father regularly reading scriptures silently to himself but lamented, “He didn’t share it with us.” Amy was 22 before she ever opened a Bible. Their California home was decorated at Christmas time with a tabletop crèche but, unlike Linus in the Christmas special, “No one ever told us what it was for.”
Schulz, often beset by financial worries, would pioneer the mass marketing of his characters. The Charlie Brown of 1965 lamented his canine’s prize winning decorations saying, “My own dog, gone commercial!” Today, Snoopy’s likeness regularly floats over sporting events hawking life insurance, and you can even buy a plastic version of the puny natural Christmas tree that Charlie Brown rescues in the special.
Yet, despite its incorporation into the very sea of commercialism that it bemoaned and Schulz’s subsequent spiritual slide, A Charlie Brown Christmas is still a gift that keeps on giving. For many, it is the only time they will hear the Incarnation narrative amid the holiday hype and Ho, Ho, Ho’s. Its apparent timelessness is a good thing because the entertainment industry shows no signs of picking up the biblical ball again anytime soon. The Great Christmas Light Fight is what counts as a new tradition these days. Give me Linus, Luke, and the Peanuts gang bellowing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” for another 50 years, please!
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from his native Texas. His online outpost is johnmurdock.org.