On December 6, 2005, I wrote about A Charlie Brown Christmas at my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm. Although I’ve linked to the post a few times over the years, I’ve never reposted it. Since the show is back on ABC tonight, here it is, edited somewhat.
In the middle of the 1960s, many people perceived that Christmas was under attack by the annual frenzy of commercialism—our national obsession with shopping and decorations that threatened to swamp the true meaning of the season. Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, and Lee Mendelson were three of those people, and so in 1965 they produced A Charlie Brown Christmas in response—a quiet little television special that found everyman/outsider Charlie Brown searching for that true meaning, and finding it, thanks to his friend Linus. Since then, the program has become the quintessential holiday TV special.
Nowadays, we’re used to entertainment ostensibly aimed at children that contains content adults can enjoy, too—think of the in-jokes that pepper animated theatrical films and shows on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Years ago, such programs were rare. So when CBS executives first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas, it wasn’t what they were expecting, and they didn’t like it. Not enough jokes, no laugh track, too slow-moving, too religious. It can be argued that the program isn’t really a kids’ show at all—but whatever it was, network executives saw it as that most deadly of things, then and now: a thoughtful television program. But they put it on anyway, and despite their doubts, it was a hit. Pre-empting Gilligan’s Island on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the second-highest rated program of the week, and TV critics adored it. Eventually, it won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
Another reason CBS objected to the show at first involved its contemporary jazz soundtrack, which was radically different from the norm for kids’ TV. Even before I knew the first thing about jazz, I knew that I loved the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s a mix of traditional carols and original pieces, on which Vince Guaraldi’s piano runs the spectrum from contemplative and cool to energetic and joyful. But give some love, too, to Jerry Granelli, whose percussion work is mostly done with brushes that give the album the distinctive feel of falling snow throughout, and to bassist Fred Marshall, whose stuttering solo on “Christmas Time Is Here” and delicate swing on “O Tannenbaum” are highlights. . . .
Even though A Charlie Brown Christmas was, and is, subversively anti-commercial, it needed sponsors to get on the air. Coca-Cola originally commissioned it, and its first broadcast contained two Coca-Cola product placements. When you watch it now, there’s a scene at the beginning in which Snoopy tosses Linus off the skating rink. You see the toss but not the landing because originally, Linus crashed into a Coca-Cola sign. After the first broadcast in 1965, the scene was edited out, as was the message at the end, “Merry Christmas from your local Coca-Cola bottler,” so as not to scare away other potential sponsors—such as Dolly Madison snack cakes, which sponsored the program throughout most of the 70s and 80s. . . .
Perhaps its fitting that A Charlie Brown Christmas airs tonight, in the wake of our ludicrous Black Friday frenzy. Here in 2013, commerce has swamped the holiday again, and in ways Charles Schulz, Lee Melendez, and Bill Mendelson could not have imagined. So A Charlie Brown Christmas is a valuable corrective no matter which way you swing. You can find meaning in it whether you’re a religious person to whom the story of Jesus is important, or a thoroughly secular person who enjoys Christmas for its cultural touchstones and the opportunity it gives us to celebrate and honor our loved ones.
For much more on the show, the music, and other Peanuts animated specials, you can’t do better than Scott McGuire’s Peanuts Animation and Video Page. If by some unfortunate miracle you have never heard the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the whole thing is here.