‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ Emerges as Yuletide Miracle

It no doubt will run for 100 years — and more — and here’s the reason why.

Courtesy Apple+
A scene from 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.' Courtesy Apple+

Millions of viewers are spending their holiday weekend with 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” unaware of the miracles it takes for a movie with such strong Christian and anti-commercialism themes to endure as a yuletide classic.

In an interview with USA Today, executive producer Lee Mendelson recounted an ad executive for Coca-Cola, who commissioned the special, saying if he told his agency what he thought after screening an early version, they’d cancel it. Mendelson responded, “If you believe in Charles Schulz and his characters, you’re just going to have to trust us that this is going to be great.”

“If we’re going to do a Christmas special,” Schulz said when informed of the concept, “we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about.” Mendelson felt that quoting from the Bible was risky. “If we don’t do it,” Schulz asked, “who will?”

The special begins not with joy but with Chuck griping to Linus about his depression. “I think there must be something wrong with me,” he says. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”

Hoping to lift his funk, Linus’s sister, Lucy — who laments never getting what she really wants, real estate — makes him director of the school play. “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket,” she says, “run by a big Eastern syndicate.” When she invites Charlie to sell out, too, he rebels.

“This is one play that’s not gonna be commercial,” he says, and declares that they need a tree. The other kids pine for “a great, big, shiny aluminum” one. After Charlie returns with an anemic, but real tree because it “seems to need a home,” his cast is merciless to the point of cruelty.

They call him “stupid,” “hopeless,” and “dumb.” Everyone — even Charlie’s dog, Snoopy, and sister, Sally, who asked Santa for cash — laughs in mockery. Disgusted, Charlie asks if anyone on stage knows what Christmas is about, sparking the cartoon’s most significant moment.

Linus quotes the Angel of the Lord telling shepherds cowering in the face of his celestial majesty, “Fear not, for behold! I bring you good tidings of great joy,” and as he speaks these words, the boy drops his security blanket, symbolic of casting away his fear.

This is the central message of Christ’s birth, that mankind needs no longer fear death. Charlie’s dark mood lifts, and the other children embrace him and his anemic tree, transformed by the realization that Christmas is not about gifts, cards, or the shiny metal trees that the special helped drive to extinction.

When CBS executives saw this massive downer, they had already taken Coke’s money and were stuck. “You made a nice try,” they said. “We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.” According to IMDB, they were “horrified” at the “blatant message,” and Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke was just one break with TV’s conventional wisdom.

The special had no laugh track and a novel jazz score. Halting dialogue resulted from casting kids too young to read and coaching them to recite the script one syllable at a time. When Mendelson saw what’s now the longest-running cartoon special in TV history, he agreed “that it was maybe just too slow, and we had failed poor Charlie Brown.”

One animator, Ed Levitt, called him crazy.

“This is,” he said, “going to run for a hundred years.”

What followed was a ratings miracle. About half the TV sets in America tuned in to the December 9, 1965, premiere. The soundtrack sold millions of copies and is No. 2 on Billboard’s top albums this year. In 2020, when AppleTV+ limited “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to subscribers, fans rebelled anew at commercialization. AppleTV+ has since offered it for free.

Today, the world remains awash in depressing news, commercialism, and people uncomfortable sharing the morality of the Bible. The special that did everything “wrong” inspires us still, because Charlie Brown did what’s right, and stood up for the true meaning of Christmas.


Mr. Karayanis worked for the king of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, for over 25 years with stints in TV news, on campaigns, and ghost/speechwriting for a variety of newsmakers. He is the creator/host of the History Author Show on iHeart Radio, producer of its documentary-style video specials, and a contributor of political and social commentary for various news organizations. He is a producer for the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show.

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