Dec. 6 – A Charlie Brown Christmas

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
Original Air Date: December 9, 1965

Instead of breaking down the famous Christmas special you all know by heart, head inside to learn the behind-the-scenes stuff you probably never knew…

BACKSTORY:
Both Charlie Brown and Snoopy spiritually began life as nameless caricatures in the weekly comic strip for a St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper in 1947, known as Lil’ Folks, written and drawn by Charles Schulz.

Charles Schulz 1922-2000

After getting sacked, Schulz brought a strip with named, reoccurring characters to the United Features Syndicate, who published the comic nationally starting in October of 1950 under the title of Peanuts (a name both Schulz and I detested.)

Charlie Brown and the morose tone were perfectly set from the very first Peanuts strip

After nearly fifteen years of newspaper success, the opportunity to adapt the strip into an animated Christmas special came a’knockin’ and Schulz began the difficult production with the help of a former Disney animator, Bill Melendez (who remained the sole voice of Snoopy until his death in 2008)

A Charlie Brown Christmas in other mediums

Against all odds, A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn’t just an outstanding success; it’s become an America cultural institution. Following its premiere, it won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program, the ultra-prestigious Peabody Award, and has aired every year during the Holidays since its debut in 1965.

A scene from the pretty damned good, It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown, made in 1992

A Charlie Brown Christmas paved the way for several dozen more specials and four feature films, yet Schulz continued to single-handedly craft the comic strip until, almost literally, the day he died. Health concerns caused him to reluctantly retire, and as if inextricably tethered to the character he’d spent FIFTY YEARS bringing to life on an almost daily basis, his final original Sunday strip premiered in newspapers just hours after his passing.

BREAKDOWN:
Okay, we’re going to something a little different today, but let’s go ahead and kick this off the way most people my age saw it:

Poor ol’ Chuck… His animated Christmas special wasn’t the first; that distinction belongs to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer beats him out for the longest running Christmas special by only a single year. And ratings wise, the show even came in second place the week it aired (and to fucking Bonanza no less!)

I pieced together the opening pan shot. Click here to see it big as hell!

Will Charlie Brown ever catch a break? Yeah… from me at least. Of all the specials covered, of all the specials we still haven’t covered, of all the Christmas specials that are held aloft as timeless, classic, and otherwise beyond reproach… A Charlie Brown Christmas is my absolute favorite Christmas Special of all time!

Animating Snoopy was far easier than Ol’ Roundhead, hence his hefty screentime

I know I’m not alone, plus I think it’s fair to say Chuck’s Xmas has certainly gotten his due. But damned if this little special didn’t come together against all odds! Because Charles Schulz and director Bill Melendez got the football pulled out from underneath them more than a few times behind the scenes.

Pigpen, my favorite Peanut

The budget on A Charlie Brown Christmas was shoestring by any standard. In fact, the whole production was underwritten by Coca-Cola, who approached Melendez and Schulz with the idea in the first place, and not the other way around.

Also probably brought to you by Coke

That’s right, this special was originally “brought to you by Coca-Cola” both promotionally, and very literally. A two minute presentation was put together at Coke’s request, and the world had its very first instance of animated Peanuts!

Therapy: You get what you pay for

Older folks who watched the special in the first few years are all too aware of the connection. Before the FCC cracked down on such things, the original airings of the special featured the Peanuts gang interacting with the soda.

This shot, usually omitted from the TV broadcast, originally featured a Coke can

Somewhat bittersweetly, the footage of the Coke/Peanuts tie-in was removed after the sponsorship ran its course in the late 60’s, and has remained unseen to the public ever since. However, you can still hear evidence of the Coke sponsorship in the final seconds of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Perhaps you’ve noticed the Peanuts’ rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” fades out rather abruptly, cutting out the last few words? Find out why in the seven seconds below.

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While I think we can all agree we’re glad it no longer airs that way, I’d still kill to see the Coke footage. It’s a wonder it’s not available for public viewing. It’s not like the two had a falling out, judging by this Super Bowl commercial anyway.

He’s your dog, Chazz

Either way, Coke was very behind the special. CBS? Not so much. The network was convinced it had a giant flop on its hands, and if it had its way, the network would’ve axed just about everything special from this, um… Special.

To this day, these are the only dance moves I have

Obviously, part of the strip’s charm is that there are no adults anywhere. The kids are left free to question somewhat heady and existential questions about the world they’re only just discovering.

Snoopy gets in the spirit, and the spirit is $$$

To preserve that spirit in the Peanuts first animated TV special, almost no professional voice actors were hired, and instead real unprofessional children were cast in the roles.

“That’s an UGH! people”

According to legend, the child actors didn’t take to direction all that well. Nor could they work as long, or be prodded into the numerous retakes expected of professional actors. As a result, many reads had to be awkwardly cut together, sometime syllable by syllable.

Linus is in no way making a political statement of any kind

Sally’s vocal performance in particular makes for one of the most unique in all animation, featuring an adorable splicing of varying emotional tones and flubbed lines.

At worst, you’d call it cute

And guess what? It worked! The “unprofessional” voice work not only set A Charlie Brown Christmas apart from anything people had seen in an animated production before, it defined the way Peanuts characters would speak and sound for the next fifty years.

Always the shepherd, never the sheep

Of course, you could easily say the same about the legendary, musical score by Vince Guaraldi. Producer Lee Mendelson heard his Trio performing “Cast Your Fates to the Wind” one night on the radio, and asked him to compose music for the Christmas Special, and he happily obliged.

Some have called him “Flash Beagle”

Yet compared with the up tempo, often bombastic, musical accompaniments found in of-the-era toons, like Hanna-Barbera, Rocky & Bullwinkle, etc., Guaraldi is a bit of a baffling choice. And no one was more baffled than CBS, because they hated it.

But the kids love jazz trios!

A bunch of awkwardly voiced children coupled with a lite Jazz score with almost no original lyrics? That certainly wasn’t what anybody was doing in contemporary animation, let alone in a one-shot Christmas special. Little would they know, Vince Guaradi’s music and the lo-fi monotone chorus of amatuer children would go one to become a Christmas classic, played annually alongside staples like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

Nor would CBS foresee that “Linus and Lucy” would end up as a theme that will forever remain synonymous with the Peanuts, and Guaraldi would go on compose over a dozen more Charlie Brown TV specials and theatrical films before his death in 1976.

The hottest place in town? The Christmas Tree Farm!

So what’s a heartless conglomerate to do when left to air something they have no faith in? What networks still do to this day… they added a laughtrack. Yep, a version of the special with canned laughter was produced against the will of Schulz and company.

From It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown, but I think this is what it would’ve felt like

Although I could’ve sworn clips of the “enhanced” laughtrack cut used to exist somewhere on the net, but damned if I can find it now. Fortunately, that cut never aired because everyone involved was adamantly opposed to forced laughter on Schulz’s subdued punchlines.

Another pan shot composite, Click here to see it bigger

These are just some of the many skirmishes that go along with any network production; however, there was no bigger battle than the one fought on the side of GOD himeslf! As much as we all like to assume America is a nation of Bible-thumping religious nuts, CBS was most uncomfortable with Linus reading directly from The Good Book.

Tell it, Van Pelt!

It’s said that even the producers of the special pleaded with Schulz to remove Linus’ recitation of the Gospel of Luke from the finale… To which Sparky is said to have responded, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”

Nice

And thank Kris Kringle he did, I believe it still makes for one helluva an ending! Linus emboldens Charlie Brown’s faith in himself, through a message of hope, cultural tradition, and most importantly, the unwavering strength of all-around good will.

Nicer

Chuck’s been marginalized and kicked around for almost half an hour, yet now feels confident in his choice to extend a little Holiday courtesy towards the things that need it most. And wouldn’t you know it, that kind attitude can be contagious.

Fantastic

HIGH! In fact, I created the meter above with this special in mind as a sort of warning to my Atheist friends, assuming Christ would have a larger presence in most other specials. Turns out I was quite wrong. Just because there’s a religious message in this, one of the most well known Christmas specials, it’s practically a taboo and not evidenced in a billion others. And yeah, I think that makes it all the more special.

For God so loved this tree, he gave it to Charlie Brown

As a completely nonreligious person, I still think it’s a powerful revelation, and I don’t particularly care how literally Chuck, nor how any Christian or Atheist viewer, care to interpret it. I find it incredibly satisfying for my own reasons, and I know other people do, too.

None actually. Charlie Brown and Linus spend a substantial portion of the special expressing their dissatisfaction with the greed and commercialism surrounding the Holidays. And I don’t mean to speak for Schulz, but Santa is kind of the poster boy for that. You won’t see so much as a Santa hat in this production.

So awesome, I wish we had more balls to give it. A Charlie Brown Christmas might be old, but it’s the furthest thing from dated. The battles it fought to present its message were well won indeed, and as with most of the Peanuts television output, the special remains truly unique and timeless. You’ll find no greater Christmas special on TV or DVD. If you don’t watch this once a year, I don’t even know why you’re reading this site.

PRODUCT INFORMATION (Shop Amazon through us – it helps!)

A Charlie Brown Christmas is available on a standalone DVD and as part of the Peanuts Holiday Collection, which also includes A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I highly encourage all Hig-Def adopters to pick up either on Blu-ray as well, since almost any reason to watch this again is probably a good one, plus the stunning clarity reveals certain things you probably haven’t seen before if nothing else. No matter what version you pick up, all of these editions come with a making-of documentary, as well as the wonderful 1992 sequel, It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown.

Yesterday’s Christmas Special
SONIC’S CHRISTMAS BLAST


2009’s Dec. 6th Christmas Special
CHRISTMAS COMES TO PACLAND

8 thoughts on “Dec. 6 – A Charlie Brown Christmas

  1. Awesome article. I don’t think I’ve heard that theme after the opening, that’s some smooooth jazz baby. Also, I’d totally have those wide shots as my wallpaper if they were big enough. Have you had to shrink them down or is there really no way to have it at 1680×1050-ish?

  2. I mean, you did click on them to see the XL versions of the pan shots, right?

    Although, I suppose I could optimize them for desktop wallpapers. I am offering a service here…

  3. Oh yea and I do appreciate it, but the XL versions are 1852×534 and 2163×540 respectively. I was just curious of that was the full “unshrunken” dimensions. I know it’s an old print and native 1080p BluRay is probably not possible, but they look so great and I wanted a wallpaper version. If that’s the biggest size then it’s fine, I’ll scale/crop in Photoshop. I’ll even send it to you when I’m done. I’m sure other people would love a wallpaper.

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