The 50-year-old Christmas TV tradition endures because Chuck knows the reason for the season.
Dec. 20, 2015 4:11 p.m. ET
Every year millions tune in to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a 50-year-old TV special that shows its age. The animation looks rudimentary by Pixar standards. The voice acting, performed by real children, isn’t exactly a Shakespearean triumph. So what makes this “Peanuts” television special, in a word, special? It’s that Charlie Brown knows what Christmas is all about.
The creator of “Peanuts,” Charles Schulz, was surprised by the opportunity to make a TV special at all. In 1963 San Francisco producer Lee Mendelson made a documentary about Schulz’s cartooning, but it failed to sell. Two years later, however, advertising giant McCann Erickson called Mr. Mendelson, inquiring about the possibility of an animated Christmas program for its client, Coca-Cola.
In a mere handful of months, Schulz, Mr. Mendelson and director Bill Melendez pulled the show together. To elevate it to fit the paradoxical sophistication of “Peanuts,” they scrapped the traditional laugh track and opted for a jazz score. To maintain the strip’s ethos of authenticity, they had children voice the characters and brought in a choir from a local church. Schulz insisted that they include a passage of scripture—Linus’s recitation of the Gospel of Luke. When his creative partners voiced concern that broaching religion might be risky, Schulz responded simply: “If we don’t do it, who will?”
The trio showed their completed reel to CBS network executives just shy of the scheduled airdate. The execs hated it. “The Bible thing scares us,” they said, as Mr. Mendelson later recalled. They complained about the music and plodding animation. Lucky for Chuck, it was too late to change the programming schedule.
The show was met with wild adoration. More than 15 million viewers tuned in, and it won an Emmy for children’s programming in 1966, beating out Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color.” Many of those who sent letters to Schulz and Coca-Cola said that the Biblical content, rare on television even then, resonated. “I am encouraged,” one read, “to see a national company willing to sponsor not only an excellent production but also a Christian one.”
Re-aired every year since—more than any Christmas special save “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which debuted a year earlier—the show pushed Schulz’s strip to fresh heights. CBS ordered more specials, including a Halloween tale that also still runs. The shows became an entry point as the changing newspaper industry strove to bring new readers to its funny pages. They drove the “Peanuts” licensing operation, now owned 80% by New York-based Iconix and 20% by the Schulz family.
Half a century later, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is far more than a quaint historical artifact. The slow and yet sublime story proves that purposeful characters and a simple aesthetic can beat fancy computer algorithms. The annual spiritual validation on mainstream television is a breath of fresh air. Free from gross humor or double-entendres, the show is a reminder that Hollywood need not reach to the lowest common denominator. A lonely kid who hears deep truths and is comforted by flawed but well-meaning friends is enough.
In the first of this year’s two broadcasts, seven million viewers tuned in to see old Chuck struggle with the meaning of the season. It is a struggle, at once simple and complex, that the studios thought would result in failure. The viewers continue to say otherwise.
Mr. Lind is the author of “A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz” (University Press of Mississippi, 2015).