Multiple generations of kids will agree that it doesn’t really begin to look a lot like Christmas until A Charlie Brown Christmas graces the airwaves. Premiering 55 years ago on Dec. 9, 1965, the beloved animated special — written by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz — not only captured the spirit of the season, it also launched an entire tradition of Peanuts animated specials.
But as the cartoonist’s widow, Jean Schulz, reveals to Yahoo Entertainment, the first audience to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas didn’t exactly view it as a gift. Instead, when the special’s producer, Lee Mendelson, screened it for the sponsors and CBS executives, they were convinced they were giving Peanuts fans a lump of coal. “Lee thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve ruined Charlie Brown!’” she says, laughing. “You can imagine a bunch of advertisers and executives looking at it, and thinking it was sluggish and slow. But they had to run it anyway, because they had booked the airtime. They thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll just let it go.’”
Fortunately, there were at least two people who believed they were watching something special. The first was Schulz himself, who had worked hard to ensure that the half-hour cartoon remained true to the spirit of the comic strip he had launched 15 years prior, in 1950. In fact, several of the special’s most famous moments — including the Christmas pageant and Linus’s famous scripture reading — come directly out of the comics. “Sparky felt as though he’d put his best ideas into it, and that it expressed everything he wanted to say,” Jean says of her husband, who died on Feb. 12, 2000, one day before his final Peanuts strip appeared in newspapers. (“Sparky” was Schulz’s childhood nickname.) “But you can see how what Sparky was looking for was different than what an advertiser was looking for.”
The other person who was on Schulz’s wavelength was Time magazine television critic Richard Burgheim, although Mendelson didn’t think that would be the case when he saw the writer exiting the screening room. “He walked out of the screening, and Lee thought, ‘Oh no,’” Jean says. But when Burgheim’s review appeared in Time the day before the special’s Dec. 9 premiere, it made a definite impact on the ratings. “He wrote, ‘You’re going to see something that is different and will really amaze you,’” she remembers. “At that time, Bonanza was the big show on TV, and we got a bigger audience than Bonanza! If he had not written that article, who knows how many people would have tuned in.”
Once people tuned in that first night, they never stopped. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired annually on CBS until 2000, before moving over to ABC for a 19-year run. This past October, Apple acquired the rights to all previous Peanuts-related media and planned to stream the holiday specials — including A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas — exclusively on its Apple TV+ streaming service. (Apple TV+ is currently the home of new Peanuts shows like Snoopy in Space.) But after the ensuing outcry, the company struck a deal with PBS for a broadcast TV airing on Dec. 13.
“I’m glad that Apple made that decision,” says Jean, who oversees Peanuts’ legacy as the president of the board of directors of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I’m over 80, so I don’t stream things! Putting it on PBS is natural for the audience who are used to seeing it on television on a certain time of day, and we’re also grateful to Apple that they made a dedicated place for people to see Peanuts content.”
To celebrate 55 years of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Jean shared some other stories behind a television gift that keeps on giving, from the absence of Santa Claus to Snoopy’s mischievous streak.
A Christmas (special) without Santa
When Schulz sat down to outline A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the thematic points at the forefront of his mind was the increasingly commercial nature of the holiday season. But he had to sell that idea to his collaborators, including Mendelson and director Bill Melendez. “It was Sparky who started out saying, ‘This is the story,’” Jean says of the trio’s creative process. “They let Sparky lead: He came up with the idea of Lucy only wanting money, and Charlie Brown being depressed because he can’t get into the Christmas spirit. Bill would be the one to know how to liven it up and make it funny, and then Lee was the businessman who had to talk to the television stations and the advertisers. I always felt it was a lovely collaboration, and the collaboration lasted a very long time.”
Interestingly, the main advertiser that Mendelson recruited for the Christmas special was The Coca-Cola Company, which famously popularized the image of Santa Claus that endures today in movies, TV shows and commercials. Working with a commercial giant like Coca-Cola would seem to cut against the cartoonist’s feelings about encroaching Christmastime commercialism, which may explain why Santa’s image is nowhere to be seen in A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Although Charlie Brown’s sister Sally does dictate a letter to jolly old St. Nick requesting a long list of merch or, failing that, the gift of cold hard cash.) According to Jean, though, her husband wasn’t looking to make a point by leaving Santa Claus at the North Pole. “I don’t know if anybody ever said, ‘Should we have them go to a department store and talk to Santa,’” she says, instead pointing to a different piece of Christmastime iconography that functions as part of the special’s message. “The commercialism that they're fighting against is kind of represented by that pink aluminum tree. I don’t know if people know those trees anymore — you see them once in awhile in thrift shops.”
The battle over Linus’s sermon
Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez agreed on almost everything about A Charlie Brown Christmas… except for Linus’s climactic quoting of scripture. In a speech taken directly from the Gospel of Luke, Charlie Brown’s security blanket-carrying pal reminds the Peanuts gang what he believes the season is all about. Schulz previously had Linus quote that passage in a comic strip that ran in daily newspapers on Dec. 20, 1959.
In both versions, it’s a simple, straightforward expression of faith that directly reflects Schulz’s own religious upbringing. “It wasn't that Sparky was the evangelical leaning person,” his widow explains. “He just loved the Bible, and thought there were just marvelous things in the Bible that were true.” But his collaborators weren’t convinced that a moment like that was ready for primetime. “Bill said, ‘You can’t put the Bible on television,’” Jean explains. “And Sparky’s answer was: ‘If we don’t, who will?’ Lee said that Sparky then got up and walked out of the room, and he and Bill just sat there, saying ‘What do you think that means?’”
Ultimately, Schulz got his way and that moment has long since been enshrined in TV history. Even non-believers can find something to appreciate in Linus’s sermon, which preaches his specific feelings without feeling preachy. “Even if you’re not a Biblical scholar or someone who has read the Bible, Linus’s scene is the high point, but the rest of the show is just as important,” Jean notes. “Every now and then I’ll hear somebody say, ‘The show is tilted towards the Biblical scene,’ but I think the rest of the show sustains itself. As with any good show, it has a peak, but it’s about the whole.”
Snoopy will never speak
Snoopy was a silent character when Schulz originally launched the Peanuts comic strip in 1950. Two years into the strip’s run, though, the cartoonist rewarded his breakout character with the gift of “speech” courtesy of thought balloons that gave flight to his World War I flying ace fantasies and would-be bestselling mysteries. That conceit was something that Schulz never intended to translate to the screen, though. “I remember Sparky saying, ‘Snoopy doesn’t talk!’” Jean says with a laugh. “Whether it was an advertisement, show or even a book, he always said — totally deadpan — ‘Snoopy doesn’t talk.’ He felt that once you’ve done that, you’ve taken away the magic; he’s not Snoopy anymore, he’s just a dog cartoon character.”
Having decreed that Snoopy needed to remain silent, Schulz left it to Melendez — who had gotten his start working on such classic Walt Disney cartoons as Pinocchio and Bambi — to figure out his role in A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Sparky wasn’t an animator, and he felt that Bill would know how to make Snoopy’s presence come across in animation. Bill had a sense about that, and Sparky trusted him.”
It was Melendez who decided that Snoopy should function as the class clown of the Peanuts crew, engaging in crowd-pleasing slapstick antics, whether it’s stealing Linus’s blanket or mimicking Lucy when she’s in full rant mode. That characterization has set the tone for Snoopy’s animated persona ever since. “We always want to be true to Sparky,” Jean says. “We were working with an animation company one time, and they wanted to have Snoopy talk in thought bubbles. But Sparky instinctively knew that once Snoopy talks in an animated special, you’ve created something else. He wouldn’t have been able to carry on the comic strip if that had happened.”
The kids are alright
It’s always a strange experience for a cartoonist to watch the characters they’ve sketched on the page to walk and talk on the screen. But Jean says that her husband had a very specific idea of how he wanted the Peanuts gang to sound. “He did not want to use professional actors, and he didn’t want child actors. He wanted that innocence, and Lee and Bill agreed. It was probably harder to direct someone who wasn’t an actor, but it was Sparky’s decision.” And it’s a choice that made a big impression on the Time television critic, who described the voices as “charming” in his rave review.
Schulz also knew early on that he wanted the bulk of the special to be scored to jazz, rather than Christmas music. Enter pianist Vince Guaraldi, who quickly came up with the signature Peanuts theme without even previewing the special ahead of time. “He was like Sparky in that he was an artist who had it all in his head. He didn’t need to see a scene to write the music to that scene. That special was a really unique combination of artists that just happened to come together. It was wonderful.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas is currently streaming on Apple TV+ and airs Sunday, Dec. 13 on PBS.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: