The Gospel According to Peanuts

How A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn’t happenby Lee Habeeb

Few headlines about network television make me giddy. Fewer still make me hopeful that all is good in the world. But back in August of 2010, I read the following headline from the media pages with great excitement: “Charlie Brown Is Here to Stay: ABC Picks Up ‘Peanuts’ Specials Through 2015.” The first of these to be made, the famous Christmas special, was an instant classic when it was created by Charles Schulz on a shoestring budget back in 1965, and thanks to some smart television executives, it will be around for at least another five years for all of us to see and enjoy.

What people don’t know is that the Christmas special almost didn’t happen, because some not-so-smart television executives almost didn’t let it air.You see, Charles Schulz had some ideas that challenged the way of thinking of those executives 46 years ago, and one of them had to do with the inclusion in his Christmas cartoon of a reading from the King James Bible’s version of the Gospel of Luke.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a groundbreaking program in so many ways, as we learned watching the great PBS American Masters series on Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as “Sparky.” It was based on the comic strip Peanuts, and was produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.
We learned in that PBS special that the cartoon happened by mere serendipity.

“We got a call from Coca-Cola,” remembered Melendez. “And they said, ‘Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters?’ and I immediately said ‘Yes.’ And it was Wednesday and they said, ‘If you can send us an outline by Monday, we might be interested in it.’ So I called Sparky on the phone and told him I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve got to write tomorrow.’”

We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didn’t make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didn’t.

The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz’s team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.

The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.

Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.

There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBS’s prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands.

“They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special,” explained Melendez. “They basically wrote it off, like, hey, this is just isn’t going to be interesting to anyone, and it’s just going to be like a big tax write-off.”

Melendez himself was somewhat hesitant about the reading from Luke. “I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it. But Sparky just assumed what he had to say was important to somebody.”

Which is why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He knew that the Luke reading by Linus was the heart and soul of the story.

As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, Linus quietly saves the day. He walks to the center of the stage where the Peanuts characters have gathered, and under a narrow spotlight, quotes the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, verses 8 through 14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.

“ . . . And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus concluded.

The scene lasted 51 seconds. When Linus finished up, Charlie Brown realized he did not have to let commercialism ruin his Christmas. With a sense of inspiration and purpose, he picked up his fragile tree and walked out of the auditorium, intending to take it home to decorate and show all who cared to see how it would work in the school play.

When CBS executives saw the final product, they were horrified. They believed the special would be a complete flop. CBS programmers were equally pessimistic, informing the production team, “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”

The half-hour special aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters and following Gilligan’s Island. To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.

Linus’s recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas is equaled only perhaps by the 1966 How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in its popularity among young and old alike. Thank God the Grinch-like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965 despite their misgivings. If it had been left to their gut instincts, we would have had one less national treasure to cherish come Christmas time.

Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter Reagan. This article originally appeared in the National Review Online 11/25/11.

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9 years ago

Every year we watch the show with our kids (even though they are now teens). And every year tears come to my eyes when Linus recites that passage. That IS the true meaning of Christmas and may God forgive those who continue to try to remove the name of Christ from this precious holiday. Without the birth and subsequent death of Christ, there would be no Christmas. God was in control when the “suits” try to keep him out of the Charlie Brown Christmas story. May Jesus live on in all of our hearts this year.

9 years ago
Reply to  Vito

AMEN, Brother….

Jeannie says--
9 years ago

Thank you so much and very glad to see that this story is still able to be printed in this mixed up world. Hopefully it will touch the hearts of the doubters. Thanks again.

9 years ago

I found it interesting that they immediately followed Charlie Brown with a much more high tech and less religiously inclined animated “Holiday Feature” that is sure to interest today’s kids more. Was this a mere coincidence or to give the children something more interesting and contemporary in look and theme to focus on. I would be surprised that if they don’t succeed in killing “A Charlie Brown Christmas ” off over the next few years.

9 years ago

Thank you so much for this article. In this world of good vs. evil – this reminder of what Christmas is really all about, is a breath of fresh air and brings a peace that we so desperately need right now. Out of the mouths of babes huh? (Linus – quoting the second chapter of Luke.) I for one, want to slow down in all the busyness that diverts me towards commercialism & soak it into my spirit, that Jesus is truly the reason for the Season.
God bless you all and God bless America.

Ruth Bohrer
9 years ago

Christ truly is the reason for the season. After all it is supposed to be about his birthday! Thanks much for sharing this information with us.

Anne M. Price
9 years ago

I am sending this out to many on my e-mail list. It is so timely in this day in this world.

Harry Stevens
9 years ago

I am sorry. The name should have been Charles Schulz instead of David Schultz.

Harry Stevens

8 years ago
Reply to  Harry Stevens

. This Christmas feature is lncikag the overall charm and emotion of the older special, but it has a lot more humor. It is also different from the first Christmas special in that this one is more a series of vignettes (perhaps based on Schulz’s comic strips) than a complete story. There are sequences with Charlie Brown trying to sell Christmas wreaths before Thanksgiving, and of Sally rehearsing for a Christmas play. Sally’s sole line is Hark! , though I think she missed the rest of her lines where the herald angels sing. It is a cute cartoon, but ultimately it does not quite live up to A Charlie Brown Christmas , but it my mind, nothing can live up to that one.

Harry Stevens
9 years ago

I read your article with great interest. About 25 years ago, I met the real Charlie Brown at a Bible Study at St. Therese Church in Deephaven, Minnesota. This was a real person that David Schultz use to create his cartoon character, Charlie Brown.

Thank you for the information in your article.

Harry Stevens
Woodbury, Minnesota

9 years ago

Did you know that the book they sell has deleted the part where Linus tells the biblical story of Christmas? I was ready to buy several as a gift and as I flipped through the pages I noticed that they skipped that part! I put the books down. How many grandparents buy this thinking the original story is there but it’s not!
Bonnie T.

9 years ago

Thank you for remembering the REAL purpose of Christmas through the words of Charles Schulz, a.k.a. Linus. May we all be reminded of the one who “became flesh and dwelt with us” then gave all our our behalf. It’s a fearful thing when a nation officially turns it’s back on God which we seem to have done, e.g. Supreme Court decisions through the last 50 years, May those of us who still believe in our founder’s principles stand strong.

Kristin Thomson
9 years ago

Thank you! What a wonderful way to start an otherwise challenging Saturday morning. Thank goodness for those who don’t give up in the face of pressure. And thank you, Charlie Brown!

9 years ago

i agree! great morning in december read. i have shared this many times over. thank you amac

Joseph M Farrell
9 years ago

What an absolutely wonderful read for the morning. Bob Bennett wrote a new song called “It May Not Have Been December”, where he describes the conditions from Luke not being a Winter’s setting. Your article confirms a need to celebrate His birth, just as the angels did. Merry Christmas, y’all!

9 years ago

The Charlie Brown characters have more respect and reverence for the holy scriptures than the ACLU lawyers. They may succeed in removing the manger from town square, but they will never succeed in removing the story of Jesus on the 25th of December.

John W. Oberlin
9 years ago

Thank you, Lee Habeeb for the Gospel according to Peanuts! Our Country was founded on Christian Principles! If the Founding Fathers were here now they would be shocked at the rewriting of History that is going on!

9 years ago

No matter who recites it, or when I read it…I always hear Linus when I here the story of Christmas from the Gospel of Luke.

9 years ago

Interesting background on one of my christmas favorites… and a wonderful reminder of the reason for the season.

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