Reflections on A Charlie Brown Christmas

Looking forward to this season’s showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the 47th year, I reflect again on just how so many stars aligned along the way in Sparky’s career in general, and with this show in particular.

In 1965, the year A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted, the media focus was not what it is today. There were just three television Networks, and no VCRs, so once the special played, audiences had to wait a year before seeing it again. Talk about anticipation!

I have also been reflecting about how the Christmas special would not have happened if it had not been for Sparky and his collaboration with Lee Mendelson, the special’s producer, and Bill Melendez, the animator. It was Sparky’s dedication and discipline in making the Peanuts comic strip the best it could be and continuing that dedication for another 35 years so fans always had something fresh to look forward to in Peanuts. And it was the collaboration of Sparky, Lee, and Bill that provided new Peanuts animated specials over the years.

The first star to align was probably the call from John Allen with McCann Erickson, the advertising agency that represented Coca-Cola, who asked Lee Mendelson if he had a Christmas special. Lee took it from there.

Bill Melendez, Sparky, and Lee talked through the show, which married some of the themes from the comic strip with new ideas. Initially it was Lee and Sparky who outlined the special, with Sparky determining that the “true meaning of Christmas” and wintery scenes were necessary. Once Bill was brought on, who originally brought the Peanutscharacters to life in animation for Ford Falcon commercials, the three began to establish the core of the program.

Since Lee had produced documentaries, but neither Bill nor Lee had created a prime-time half hour show, it seemed they deferred to Sparky on certain things. As Lee remembered 40 years later in the book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, when he suggested using a laugh track, “‘Absolutely not,’ said Sparky. And that was that.”

Some of the themes, like the Christmas performances and the commercialism of holidays, had already been addressed in the Peanuts comic strip, but the animated special gave them the opportunity to amplify the conversation (see two examples below). It was also in the early 1960s that Sparky was teaching adult Sunday school at the Sebastopol Methodist Church, so the suggestion for Linus to read the quotation of the Christmas Story from St. Luke was a natural one for Sparky. When Bill said that that wasn’t done in a cartoon, Sparky answered him by simply saying (and he quoted it frequently later), “If we don’t, who will.”

Image of Peanuts strip originally published on December 17, 1961
This Peanuts strip was originally published on December 17, 1961
Image of Peanuts strip originally published on December 5, 1963.
This Peanuts strip was originally published on December 5, 1963.

As he always did, Sparky followed his instincts, and he worked with Bill and Lee to create a timeless, albeit risky, special.

Lee Mendelson tells the story that when the show was finished, Lee, Bill and about ten of the animators gathered to watch it. When it was over Bill and Lee were concerned that it seemed too slow, and that they may have missed the mark. Some of the others felt the same. But one animator stood up in the back of the room and said, “You guys are nuts. This is going to run for years and years.”

Later, when CBS executives gathered to watch the show, they were cool toward it. They thought it was too slow, the kids’ voices (another innovation for its time) were not dramatic enough, and they questioned mixing jazz with Christmas music.

It was not until a reviewer for TIME magazine was allowed to see the animated special that its impact began to be revealed. According to Lee, the reviewer left without saying a word and Lee didn’t know what that indicated. A few days before the show aired there was a glowing review in TIME. This is an excerpt from the article:

Security is a Good Show
December is the gruelingest month, the time when there seem to be more seasonal ‘specials’than regular shows on TV. But this Thursday, (7:30 PM EST), CBS will carry a special that is really special.

The reviewer continued to praise it, saying it was unpretentious and that the kids’ voices, though occasionally amateurish, contributed to the refreshingly low-key tone. He ended with: “…A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children’s special this season that bears repeating.”

Image of TV magazine with A Charlie Brown Christmas cover

Image of TV magazine with A Charlie Brown Christmas cover

Image of TV magazine with A Charlie Brown Christmas cover

Coca-Cola sent out press releases, and many newspaper TV sections showed Charlie Brown and his tree on their front pages.

50% of the country tuned in to watch the show. Frank Stanton was the President of CBS, and if he wasn’t a fan of Peanuts and Schulz before, he became one then—and the relationship between Sparky and Stanton continued for the next 40 years.

—Jean Schulz