According to producer Lee Mendelson, the two top executives at CBS reacted negatively when they watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in 1965. “It seems a little flat…a little slow,” said one of them. The other said they would still air it since it was finished and paid for, but wouldn’t order any more animated Peanuts specials. He also suggested helpfully that “maybe it’s better suited to the comic page.”
Forty years and an Emmy have proven those nameless executives thoroughly wrong. A Charlie Brown Christmas is the quintessential Christmas show, and easily the best of the Peanuts animated specials. It is infused with the gentle humor and dry sarcasm that characterizes the best Peanuts comic strips, but its also serves as a highly personal statement by Charles Schulz, which also ensures that it didn’t feel like a collection of strips strung together for a half-hour’s worth of entertainment. Its value and meaning have increased over time: its criticisms of over-commercialism and greed have only grown more relevant.
Schulz was greatly aided by producer Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez, who translated Schulz’s style from page to screen nearly perfectly. The animation may not be terribly smooth or technically accomplished—it has the occasional glaringly off-model character or continuity error—but what it lacks in technical polish it more than balances with its clearly hand-made craftsmanship. It’s hard to believe that Schulz himself didn’t animate the entire show. The decision to use actual children in the voice cast was unusual at the time, but the cast’s fundamental guilelessness removes any sense of high-handed moralizing and makes the jokes aimed at the adults even funnier. And Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack is simply a pop art masterpiece. Hum a few bars of “Linus and Lucy” and see if you don’t start smiling. People around you will probably join in. The achievements of the show are all the more remarkable because none of the major players involved had any hands-on experience in animated television to speak of.
Ironically, what truly sets A Charlie Brown Christmas apart from lesser holiday specials is probably also what would guarantee that it would never be made today: its explicit religious content. This is a real shame, since Linus’s recitation from Luke 2:8-14 stands as one of the most beautiful moments in the show and maybe in the history of television. The moment does not intend to be artful or profound, but thus ends up being both. There is much of value to be mined from his words, whether by those who seek to excise all references to a religious holiday in the name of inclusion, or by those who use their religion as a weapon to bludgeon non-believers into faith.
It may be surprising to see that A Charlie Brown Christmas hasn’t gotten a super-deluxe collector’s edition DVD release, but perhaps it’s fitting as well. The perfectly adequate but bare-bones disc currently available places the spotlight firmly where it belongs, on the special itself and the wonderful messages that it carries.
From all of us at Toon Zone News to all of you: Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading.