'A Charlie Brown Christmas': The First Peanuts Holiday Special
Charles Monroe Schulz, a cartoonist from Minnesota, began his Peanuts series on October 2, 1950. It was actually his second syndicated comic strip, the first being Li’l Folks which ran from 1947 to 1950, which was a single panel comic running weekly in papers such as the Saturday Evening Post. In 1950, Schulz pitched Li’l Folks to United Feature Syndicate as a four panel comic for national syndication; the syndicate liked the idea, but requested he change the name in order to avoid confusion with both Li’l Abner and another strip called Little Folks. Schulz took the name Peanuts from the peanut gallery from Howdy Doody, though in subsequent years he grew to dislike the title he chose (as it would happen, no animated adaptation of the series would bear the name Peanuts until 2015’s The Peanuts Movie).
The first attempt at getting Peanuts on television was a half-hour documentary titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which was produced in 1963 (not to be confused with another special of the same name made in 1969). This documentary was produced by Lee Mendelson and included short animated segments directed by Bill Melendez (who also directed Ford commercials starring the Peanuts), with music by Vince Guaraldi. However, while it was shopped around to the networks, none of them were interested in airing the special.
It was in 1965 that an advertising agent from Coca-Cola, after seeing a copy of the documentary, got in contact with Mendelson about the prospect of a Christmas special. Just a day later, Mendelson met with Schulz to plan out the special, and an outline was developed within a few hours. Coca-Cola and broadcaster CBS gave the team $76,000 (an amount they would go over-budget by an extra $20,000) and only six months in which to make the special from scratch in order to air that Christmas season. Initially CBS wanted a full hour special, but with the limited time frame of production, it was brought down to half an hour.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
December 9, 1965
At Christmas time, Charlie Brown is depressed, feeling that the holiday has become over-commercialized to the point where he can’t understand what Christmas is supposed to be about. He confides in his friends for advice, and Lucy suggests he help direct the Christmas play that the children of the neighborhood are putting together.
Unable to get the children to follow his instructions, Charlie Brown decides to go buy a Christmas tree to set the right mood. While his friends expect him to get an artificial tree, Charlie Brown instead gets a small sapling, the only real tree available. Taking it back to the auditorium, the other children immediately break out into mocking laughter.
Charlie Brown once again asks what Christmas is about, to which Linus helps his friend by reciting Luke 2:8-14, the story of how the angels came to the shepherds to tell them of the miracle of Jesus’ birth.
Charlie Brown takes the tree back home, taking an ornament off of Snoopy’s doghouse to decorate it, but it droops down to one side. He runs off, upset, but comes back a few minutes later to find his friends gathered around the tree, having realized they were wrong to judge the small tree so quickly. They decorate the tree until it looks pretty, and then join together in song.
For the voice acting, which was done early into production, Bill Melendez turned to casting children to give an authenticity to the voices that adult actors couldn’t provide. Many of the characters retained their voices from the 1963 documentary; Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy were voiced by professional child actors Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, and Tracy Stratford respectively. For the rest of the voices, Melendez cast children from his neighborhood in Southern California.
The music, like the 1963 documentary, was done by jazz musician Vince Guaraldi. He reused his well-known tune “Linus and Lucy”, which had first appeared in the earlier special, along with making some new music performed by his Trio band.
Lee Mendelson wrote the song “Christmas Time is Here” in the span of 15 minutes a few weeks before the special premiered. For this song, as well as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, singing was provided by a child choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The choir’s director Barry Mineah wanted the recording to be perfect, but Guaraldi and Mendelson wanted more authentic singing like it would be among an actual group of children; in the end, they used slightly off-key takes to replicate this.
The special faced a number of production issues from all sides during its six month production time. It was found that some of the younger children in the cast, including Chris Shea, couldn’t read their scripts, so they had to be read their lines and then repeat. Schulz himself was very critical about the soundtrack, hating the jazz direction that composer Vince Guaraldi had chosen to go with. Animation was also very difficult; Melendez insisted that the character designs remain faithful to the way Schulz drew them. The animators found that what worked in a comic strip didn’t necessarily work in animation, as Charlie Brown’s round head was the biggest contention in terms of how to draw him turning around. As a result, Snoopy was given more screentime than initially planned due to being far easier to draw.
At one point during production, a disagreement arose between Schulz and Mendelson regarding the scene where Linus gives a speech about the true meaning of Christmas. Schulz wanted the special to capture the religious aspect of Christmas which was so vital to his own childhood. Thus, the Nativity scene was included, but when the rough cut also included a solid minute of Linus quoting the New Testament, Mendelson argued that including such strong religious overtones would scare away advertisers. However, he eventually relented and the speech was kept.
There had also been the expectation from the network that the special, like most animated programs at the time, would have a laugh track. When Mendelson brought this up to Schulz, Schulz abruptly left the room for several minutes, then came back as if nothing ever happened. The laugh track was never mentioned during production again.
The plug was almost pulled on the special twice before it made it to air. The first was when an executive from the ad agency that represented Coca-Cola, McCann-Erikson, stopped by the animation studio partway into production. From the little the exec saw, he was less than impressed and warned that Coca-Cola would cancel it if they saw it, but was persuaded not to report his opinion back. The second was three weeks before the special aired, when Mendelson and Melendez gave a private screening to CBS executives; they hated it, feeling what they expected to be a comedic feel-good special was anything but. The execs told the pair that they wouldn’t be ordering additional specials and that, while the special would be shown as it had already been paid for it, it would only be shown once and never again.
A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965 at 7:30pm. Much to the surprise of the CBS executives, the special performed well beyond expectations, garnering an estimated 15 million viewers, 50% of the viewing audience for that night. CBS quickly backpedaled on their decision to not make additional Peanuts specials, and would go on to air around three dozen Peanuts specials over the next 30 years.
Fifty years later, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become one of the most popular and iconic Christmas specials of all time, a beloved broadcast network mainstay during the holiday season.