A Charlie Brown Christmas

I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas movies this season. It always helps me get in the Christmas spirit. One of my favorite movies is A Charlie Brown Christmas. This season there was talk of taking this movie off the market (streaming and network showings). Too religious, they said. Too “old school” they said. But this isn’t the first time this classic has met with opposition. Before it ever aired, the network protested.  Their main complaint?

“You can’t read from the Bible on network television!”

It was 1965 and Peanuts had been a favorite newspaper comic strip for 15 years. Charles Shultz, its creator, had done a short film with animator Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson, but he had never considered making a TV movie for Christmas; that is, until the producer called Schultz and said that an advertising agent for the Coca-Cola Company had suggested they create one. Within a few days, the producer and creator had written an outline for a script. It included three main chapters, 1) a sad Christmas tree, 2) a school play, and 3) ice skating.

The 25-minute animated film budget was around $150,000, which even in the 1960s was quite low. The creative team of Schultz, Mendelson and Melendez pressed on, however, until they had a full production to present to the TV network CBS.

The main complaint that the TV execs had against the film was the recitation by Linus straight out of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. CBS did not believe that a biblical reference, much less a direct quote from the King James version of the Bible, was appropriate for their audience. Charles Schultz, however, begged to differ. He is quoted as saying, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” Schultz refused to delete the scene or the scene where the children sing the religious carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

But the biblical reference wasn’t the only thing the network didn’t like. They also didn’t like that real children, not adult industry professionals, were used to record the voices on the film. (In fact, some of the children were so young that they couldn’t read their lines and had to be fed them by the producer one sentence at a time.)

Another thing that did not ring true with the CBS executives was the music. Jazz musician and composer, Vince Guaraldi, had already written a song called “Linus and Lucy” for a documentary about Peanuts that never aired. The creative team called Guaraldi and asked him if they could use the song on the Christmas special. The composer also wrote another song for the film, “Christmastime Is Here.” CBS thought the songs, especially the theme song, was too abstract and offbeat for a cartoon.

Under pressure by the sponsor Coca-Cola, the network finally conceded. A Charlie Brown Christmas would be aired on a Thursday night, December 9, 1965. More than 15 million TV viewers saw the show and the ratings for the show was at number two just behind Bonanza.

The film has had some changes over the years. One is that the Coca-Cola symbols are not shown on the present version since the soft drink company no longer sponsors it. A few more edits have been made, too. But only minor ones.

The original animation, which many thought was crude, is exactly as it first appeared in 1965. It has now been dubbed “classic” by animators and producers since.

At Christmastime, we focus on those who believed that the Infant in Bethlehem was the Messiah: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Wise Men. But what about those who didn’t believe? Some just couldn’t see the potential lying in a manger or later walking the earth.

Since Charles Schultz was a believer, he may have resonated a little with Jesus as His skeptics passed Him over. Network naysayers were just as blind as stubborn Pharisees to the treasure that was right in front of them.

An angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

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