For many people the true sign of the holiday season kicking off is the annual airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. There’s just a certain kind of magic tied to reuniting with the Peanuts gang every year, following Charlie Brown’s woe-is-me worries about the holiday, encapsulated in his famous quote, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”
The simplicity of the 1965 animation style also draws on that nostalgia of a simpler time, whether it’s the kids skating on the ice pond to Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time is Here” or dancing on stage to Schroeder’s piano playing. But the iconic special featuring Charles M. Shulz’s characters, almost never came to beHere are some surprising facts about ’ Charlie Brown’s television debut, which first aired on CBS on December 9, 1965.
The Idea of Animating the Comic Was Not Welcomed
“The Peanuts” comic strip made its newspaper debut on October 2, 1950, enjoying success in its 2D form. The idea of giving voice and motion to the characters wasn’t exactly embraced. Ahead of the premiere, The New York Times said in an August 1965 story that “television is running a big gamble,” citing concern that it would be “tampering with the imaginations of millions of comic strip fans both well and self-conditioned on how Charlie Brown, Lucy, and others should act and talk.”
This Wasn’t the First Time the Peanuts Gang Was Animated
Despite the outrage, the Peanuts crew had actually made their first animated appearance in a Ford Falcon commercial five years prior. And in a tongue-in-cheek moment, Linus asked in the ad, “Is this a commercial?” But that was the only sentiment of the trademark Schulz humor that appeared.
Yet if it weren’t for the Ford business, the Peanuts specials may not have ever happened. Producer Lee Mendelson was working on a documentary about Schulz when he contacted Bill Melendez, who animated the commercial, to include some of his work in the project. That connection eventually brought together the team that would work on the Christmas special.
The Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi Ad Wars Sparked the Project
The impetus for the special came from an unexpected source: soda. Pepsi was flying high with its successful Pepsi Generation campaign in 1963 and continued its reach by sponsoring Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. But McCann-Erickson, the ad agency behind Coca-Cola, wasn’t going to just sit by idly, so ad exec John Allen asked about a possibility of a Peanuts Christmas special. Mendelson and Schulz got to work on a concept and turned in a single sheet, triple-spaced treatment a few days later—and Coca-Cola immediately signed off.
Back in the ‘60s, it was common for sponsors to be worked into the program — and that is exactly what Coca-Cola did. In the opening scene of the special, you see Linus and Charlie Brown fly off the ice rink after being entangled in Linus’ blanket. Charlie Brown hits a tree and the title card “A Charlie Brown Christmas” appears. Linus’ fate has since been cut from the special, but in the original, he crashes into an advertisement that says, “Brought to you by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola.”
The Majority of the Voices Were Real Kids, Not Actors
Instead of having professional voiceover actors adopt children’s voices, Schulz wanted to preserve the genuine nature of his characters by using actual kids. While Peter Robins, who voiced Charlie Brown, and Christopher Shea, who was Linus, were child actors, most of the others were regular kids, many from Melendez’s California neighborhood. Some were so young that they couldn’t read, so they had their lines read to them and repeated them back.
Execs Didn’t Originally Like Special’s Jazz Music
In a battle between creators and execs, the network thought that the sophisticated soundtrack from Vince Guaraldi skewed too old for the young audience and that it didn’t match up with the branding. They hoped for something that sounded more like a kids’ show. However, it’s a good thing they lost that battle, as Guaraldi’s music is now as iconic as the special itself.
The Lyrics to “Christmas Time is Here” Were Added Last Minute
The creators held a screening days before the airdate, and among the many notes that were given was the request that the opening ice skating scene’s soundtrack needed lyrics. So Mendelson wrote down the poem “Christmas Time is Here,” put it to Guaraldi’s tune, and the classic song was born.
The “Meaning of Christmas” Reading Was Almost Cut
Perhaps one of the most talked-about moments during production was when Linus stepped on stage to read the scripture from the Gospel of Luke, a scene that took up 51 seconds of screen time. When Schulz was told that readings like that weren’t done in cartoons, he said, “If we don’t, who will.” Schulz’s gut instinct was correct, with the New York World-Telegram writing, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”.
There Was Another Version Prepared With a Laugh Track
Among the shows on CBS’ primetime schedule during the 1965 fall season were The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Gilligan’s Island. In breaking that comedy mold, A Charlie Brown Christmas was oddly quiet because it lacked the canned laughs that were on every other sitcom. But Schulz was insistent, believing the audience didn’t need to be told when to chuckle. That said, the network still had doubts, so they created another version with the laugh track and had it ready, in case Schulz gave in.
Executives Were “Disappointed” With the Final Cut
Schulz’s wife, Jean, wrote, “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.” One programming executive, Fred Silverman, remembers that “the general reaction was one of some disappointment … That it didn’t really translate as well as we thought.”
A Positive Review in “Time” Gave the Special Hope
The first sign that maybe the executives were shortsighted came from a Time review. “According to Lee, the reviewer left without saying a word and Lee didn’t know what that indicated,” Jean wrote. The “glowing review,” as she called it later said, “A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children’s special this season that bears repeating.”
About Half of America Tuned In
Snoopy would never settle for being an underdog, and neither did the special. More than 15 million households — nearly half of all American TV sets at the time — watched the premiere that Thursday night, instantly turning the special into a hit. Less than a week later, CBS announced it would air again the following year, and it has continued until today, first on CBS for 35 years, then on ABC starting in 2001, and finally now on PBS and Apple TV+.
It Paved the Way for More Christmas Specials
The success made networks embrace kids’ programming at night, with Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas the following year and Frosty the Snowman in 1969. There have also been 44 additional Peanuts television specials since.
Schulz Was Surprised By Its Success
Decades later, even Schulz himself couldn't believe how ingrained in the culture the special was. “The continued success of the special has surprised me as much as anyone,” he said in 1985. “A lot of the drawings are terrible.” One that sticks out is when Charlie Brown is holding his little tree, the branches grow because of inconsistency in its continuity, likely from two different artists working on it.