A True Christmas Message
It starts unassumingly enough, with snowflakes lightly falling backed by the twinkling keys of what is one of the most celebrated jazz soundtracks of all time, and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is here.”
Christmastime is here.
Happiness and cheer.
Fun for all, that children call,
Their favorite time of year.
For this writer, it’s one of a few Christmas specials I can’t miss, along with It’s a Wonderful Life and, more recently, The Bishop’s Wife and even The Family Stone.
But A Charlie Brown Christmas holds a particularly special place in my heart and soul. It was the first Christmas special I remember watching (it aired the Christmas before I was born), and it’s the first Christmas special that comes to mind and whose jingles I want hear after the Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing are nestled firmly in my belly.
So much has been written about A Charlie Brown Christmas – especially in the past half-dozen or so years – that true to StoryBoard, we thought we’d bring back a couple of our favorite commentaries and remind readers of the miracle, hope and spiritual joy of these 25 and a half minutes of television history.
From writer Sara Kettler
We can no longer find Sara Kettler’s 2017 article for Biography.com, but somewhere in our archives we had a copy. And Sara had this to say about A Charlie Brown Christmas:
On December 9, 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first appeared on television screens. The special, a collaboration between Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and director Bill Melendez, with a score by Vince Guaraldi, was loved from the start. Now in its [57th] year, watching the special has become a holiday tradition for millions of people.
Over the past five decades, millions of people have seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. However, executives at CBS — the network that first aired the special — didn’t think the show would be a hit; in fact, they were ready for it to fail.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was definitely out of the ordinary for the time: In addition to its jazz music, children’s performances and contemplative message, Schulz had insisted there be no laugh track. After a screening, TV executives were unimpressed — as Mendelson later told the Washington Post, “They didn’t get the voices. They didn’t get the music. They didn’t get the pacing.”
The expectation was that A Charlie Brown Christmas would make its debut, then disappear forever — and if there had been a programming alternative for CBS, the special might not have made it on the air at all. Fortunately, it was shown — and about half the country chose to watch Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang celebrate Christmas. Now,  years later, it remains as popular and beloved as ever.
If we don’t do it, who will?
At one point in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charles Schulz’s script had the character of Linus explain the meaning of Christmas by reciting a passage from the Gospel of Luke. Yet pretty much the only person who was sure that this recitation needed to take place was Schulz himself.
While the cartoonist was determined to use the religious text, both executive producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez wondered if an animated special was the right vehicle for such content. According to The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials, Melendez told Schulz (whose nickname was Sparky), “Sparky, this is religion. It just doesn’t go in a cartoon.” But Schulz had a simple response: “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will? We can do it.”
The passage stayed in — and the multitude of viewers who treasure this moment are doubtless glad it did.
A Tree’s Inspiration
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the commercialization of the holiday: his dog Snoopy wants to win a holiday decorating contest, his sister Sally is anxious about receiving her “fair share” of presents, and his friend Lucy yearns for the gift of real estate. Attempting to get in touch with the real spirit of Christmas, Charlie Brown picks out a small, struggling tree instead of a shiny aluminum one, but he and his tree are only laughed at.
Besides being one of the most memorable parts of the special, this humble tree boasts a prestigious literary background. In 1964, Mendelson read the Hans Christian Andersen story The Fir Tree — about a tree desperate to grow to match its taller brethren — to his children. When work started on A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson mentioned the Andersen tale to Schulz, which prompted the cartoonist to dream up Charlie Brown’s tree.
And though it was mocked, things turned out okay for that tree in the end — the kids transform it into a holiday standout. As Linus says, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
And then there’s that unforgettable score, which to this day marks A Charlie Brown Christmas as different from any other animated fare. Jazz musician and composer Vince Guaraldi wrote the original music for the show, which was the first animated network special to feature jazz.
The score includes “Linus and Lucy,” otherwise known as the Peanuts theme. Guaraldi also wrote the music for “Christmas Time Is Here” (the song’s lyrics were penned on the back of an envelope by Mendelson in just 15 minutes). In the years since it was first heard, the song has become a Christmas standard.
Surprisingly, it turns out that one important person involved in the production didn’t care for jazz: Schulz. Fortunately, the man behind Peanuts didn’t let this dislike stand in the way of an iconic score.
Real Kids’ Voices
In 1965, it was standard practice in TV animation to have children’s roles performed by adults. But Schulz and his partners wanted the Peanuts gang to sound natural and truly childlike, which meant the special needed actual kids to act out the roles of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy et al.
The production was able to find the right children to voice all of the characters. However, using children did pose some problems — a few were so young they couldn’t read or understand the script. To record their dialogue, director Melendez had to coach the kids along, feeding them words as necessary. In the book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, it’s revealed that Melendez, who’d emigrated from Mexico, joked with Schulz that the kids could end up saying their lines with a Spanish accent.
Snoopy Is Heard
As director of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Melendez not only helped children perform their roles, he figured out a way to give Snoopy — perhaps the most popular Peanuts character — a voice of his own.
Schulz was adamant that Snoopy not speak regular lines of dialogue, so Melendez tried another approach: he taped himself speaking, then sped up the recording until the sounds and squawks bore no resemblance to a person talking. Schulz okayed this technique.
Melendez expected that a professional actor would use his method in order to portray Snoopy, but the production was running short of time. The director therefore ended up providing the unique sound of Charlie Brown’s dog himself (and after succeeding in this special, Melendez would continue in the role for many years to come).
Above excerpts from Sara Kettler’s 2017 article for Biography.com. Sources now unknown, although the article does appear in Spanish on the site SwashVillage: “A Charlie Brown Christmas Turns 52”
Faith and Hope, from writer Rob Young
In a 2015 article for Cinelinx/Movie Buffs website, writer Rob Young reminds us of the show’s essence as personified by its title character. “The main thing about Charlie Brown,” Rob writes, “that makes him such a perfect character to represent the Christmas season is because he has always represented optimism and hope. He is a metaphor for never giving up and the belief that things will get better if you keep trying.”
Even with the little tree that he saves from the Christmas tree lot – “I think it needs me” – Charlie maintains his belief in hope. And it takes no scholar to see the obvious: that the tree represents Charlie himself, a reminder that the misfits in all of us play not only important roles, but can have impacts greater than the sum of our physical stature and place in society.
“…through it all,” Rob Young continues, “Charlie Brown never gives up. Sure he may get depressed for a while but by the end of the show, he’s ready to face the world again. Other people in his place might be taking anti-depressants but Charlie Brown is an eternal optimist who believes that good things are right around the corner if he just perseveres. He is convinced that one day he’ll win a baseball game and that one day he’ll kick that football. No matter how many times he fails he never stops trying. He’s the epitome of hope and faith. Christmas is about faith. As we head into the New Year, we all hope for a better future, which is the mantra Charlie Brown embraces.”