Debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas

U.S. #5024 pictures a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
U.S. #5024 pictures a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on television.

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had his first cartoon series published at the age of 25.  Entitled Li’l Folks, it featured a character named Charlie Brown. When the syndicate opted not to renew the strip, Schulz developed a new one, named Peanuts, which debuted on October 2, 1950 in seven newspapers.

U.S. #5021-30c was issued for the 50th anniversary of the special.
U.S. #5021-30c was issued for the 50th anniversary of the special.

Schulz’ comic strip Peanuts had become a worldwide phenomenon by the mid-60s.  After the Peanuts gang was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine, Coca-Cola commissioned a Christmas special starring the characters.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was written and animated in just six months.  The script was simple, sparse, and heavily influenced by Schulz’ background.  Deeply religious, he wanted to focus on what he believed the “true meaning of Christmas” to be.  Schulz then added secular themes taken from his Minnesota childhood, including a school play, falling snow, and ice-skating.

U.S. #5021-30 FDC – Set of 10 A Charlie Brown Christmas First Day Covers.
U.S. #5021-30 FDC – Set of 10 A Charlie Brown Christmas First Day Covers.

Professional child actors were only used for the voices of Charlie Brown and Linus.  Schulz convinced the producers to use regular children for the remaining characters.  Studio employees took tape recorders home and had their children audition for the part.  Gibberish was recorded for Snoopy and sped up to make his unique sound.  Schulz also resisted the use of a laugh track, which was widely used during the ‘60s.

Television producer Lee Mendelson was the driving force behind A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Composer and conductor Vince Guaraldi provided jazzy original songs, resulting in a fresh, up-tempo holiday sound unlike any before it.

Mendelson was a 32-year-old documentary maker whose first work was about Willie Mays.  Seeing a Peanuts comic strip about Charlie Brown’s baseball team, he decided he had “done the world’s greatest baseball player, now he should do the world’s worst…” Charles Schulz agreed, beginning a 30-year collaboration that resulted in over 40 animated Peanuts specials.

As he began production on A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson approached Guaraldi to arrange the soundtrack.  Guaraldi wrote “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here” for the special.  A choir of children, some chosen because they were slightly off-key, was selected to record the songs.  Sessions ran late into the night and ended with rewards of ice cream.

Item #M8103 – 2001 Peanuts Christmas stamps.
Item #M8103 – 2001 Peanuts Christmas stamps.

The soundtrack, described as being filled with “small, observant miracles,” is a piano-based jazz score which was unheard of in programming for children.  Combining an upbeat tempo with the loveable Peanuts characters introduced jazz music to an entire generation. Its charm has made it the tenth best-selling holiday album in history.

Work on A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed just 10 days before its scheduled premiere. Executives previewing the special thought it was terrible, one claiming, “My golly, we’ve killed it.”  But one animator deemed it “the best special… this show is going to run for a hundred years.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on December 9, 1965, at 7:30 p.m. It was watched by some 45 percent of the viewing audience that night – an estimated 15,490,000 homes. It was the number two show in the ratings that night, after Bonanza. In spite of the executives fears, it was very well received by viewers and critics alike. It was described as “delightfully novel and amusing” and “fascinating and haunting.” Another critic accurately predicted that “the Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future.”

U.S. #3507 pictures Snoopy as a WWI ace fighting the Red Baron.
U.S. #3507 pictures Snoopy as a WWI ace fighting the Red Baron.

Fresh and innovative, A Charlie Brown Christmas featured a number of entertainment “firsts.”  Together with its creator, the animated musical special also influenced the television industry, ushering in a host of changes.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first to use children to voice animated characters.  It also established the half-hour animated special as a holiday tradition, inspiring other classics like Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

U.S. #3507 FDC – 2001 Peanuts First Day Cover.
U.S. #3507 FDC – 2001 Peanuts First Day Cover.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was also ground- breaking in its biblical references.  When executives tried to talk Schulz out of them, he replied, “If we don’t do it, who will?”  As it turned out, Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke is considered one of the most powerful moments in the film.

A Charlie Brown Christmas went on to earn an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has become a holiday tradition for millions of Americans.

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  1. My favorite Christmas show ever since I first saw it 1965! Unfortunately, if this program were to be produced in our current ‘politically correct’ environment, it would likely end up in the circular file. I’m sure many viewers have been positively impacted because Charles Schultz stood his ground. Excellent article!

  2. I hope the expression ,”American Treasure”, has not yet been replaced by whatever is next yet, because if there ever was one it is “Peanuts”, the cast of characters, and of course the creator Charles Schulz.. For a moment when Lee Mendelson was mentioned in reference to baseball I was expecting to hear the name Joe Schlabotnik,(anybody remember him) who was Charlie Brown’s baseball hero. I spent my working years in sales and management but for the past 19 years I have been a karaoke DJ. For the next month my sound check songs are Vince Guaraldi songs only. Nothing is more seasonally appropriate. I am somehow overcome with Christmas spirit all of a sudden. Thank you Mystic.

  3. A delightful and wonderful nostalgic treatment of a treasure deserving of the term American classic.
    Linus, Charlie and Snoopy and all the other characters all bring sweet memories of bygone days. Yet, my grandchildren all love them as well .There is no better treatment or deserving way when the generations are crossed in such a positive and meaningful approach to make something last as has been the case with Peanuts.

  4. Not mentioned in this otherwise excellent article was that the executives at CBS questioned Linus’ recitation of the true Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke in the Bible. Felt it made the show “too religious”. To their credit both Schultz and Mendelson insisted that it stay in the show.

    1. “Belay My Last!” which is Navy lingo for “forget about what I just told you!” A more careful second reading of the article showed me that this point was made in it. I do think that Schultz and Memdelson captured the essence of the Peanuts strip in this cartoon feature.

  5. Love Peanuts! I was stationed in Northern California, not too far far from where Charles Schultz was living at the time. Maybe we should all take Schultz lead and stand our ground regarding Christmas. Christmas is about Him, not us! Thank you, Mystic!

  6. Classic that never gets old no matter how many times you watch it. We have now have 3 generations watching it. And Linus reciting the Christmas story from the KJV is what Christmas is all about. It will live forever.

  7. Guaraldi wrote the music but David Benoit plays the piano to make it come alive. Beautiful music! David typically plays during Christmas—-well worth the price of admission. No one can sit still in therir seat when he pounds out the songs.

  8. Unfortunately Christmas 1965 I was in Vietnam and missed it. Missed it in 1966
    because I was in the Philippines. First saw it Christmas 1967 and have watched it
    every year since with children and now Grand children. It is still loved by all.

  9. Charles Schultz predicted the ‘Peanuts’ strip would outlast him.
    It did- the last original ‘Peanuts’ strip was published the day after his death.

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