When the creative team of Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez presented a pre-showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas to a group of animators in 1965, the now-beloved episode was met with displeasure and uncertainty. It just wasn’t working. The show’s own creators doubted the final product–a rushed effort to convert a popular comic strip into a living, breathing animation. One animator, seated in the back of the room, stood up and voiced his dissent, however: “You guys are nuts–this is going to run for years and years.”
And he was exactly right.
It seems I’m on a bit of a traditions kick on the blog these days; my recent articles on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Centre College’s C6H0 relic point to a similar theme. There’s value in questioning the historical significance of why we do the things we do, especially in tradition-laden affairs like holidays. How do traditions come about? What makes for a successful tradition? Why are they important?
The classic Peanut’s Charlie Brown Christmas—a show that first aired as a television special on CBS in 1965—is a perfect case study into holiday tradition, one that grandparents passed to parents passed to children over the past fifty-three years. It is a tradition that none of the three primary powers behind its creation—creator Charles Schulz, executive producer Lee Mendelson, and Bill Melendez—believed possible. In fact, Melendez told Mendelson during the NBC pre-screening that “I think we’ve ruined Charlie Brown.”
The whole project was a heap of what Mendelson openly refers to as serendipity (Mendelson discovered Guiraldi, the creative genius behind the now-iconic soundtrack, when he happened to hear his jazz on the radio in San Francisco, for example). A flopped idea to turn Schulz’s iconic comic strip into a documentary in 1963 led to a call from Coca-Cola, a brand caught up in a marketing war of sorts with Pepsi. They offered to sponsor an idea for a Charlie Brown Christmas special (not to purchase the documentary, as Mendelson may have hoped or expected). In only a few days, the now-iconic collaboration of Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez hand-crafted and pitched an idea. With an offer from Coca-Cola on lock, they brought the entire production together in only six months—and they didn’t feel great about the result.
Nor were the only ones that didn’t feel great about it. When they presented the thirty-minute production to a group of animators (as aforementioned) and then CBS, the reception was one of what a CBS programming executive described as “disappointment”— they just all around didn’t “get it,” as Mendelson described. According to this article, CBS only aired the show because it had already been scheduled and it was too late to take it off the list.
Their efforts to convert the nationally-beloved Peanuts comic strip into an animated show had, for all intents and purposes, flopped. In an effort to speed up the opening, Mendelson crafted lyrics to the opening song in only ten minute’s time—lyrics to the now-beloved “Christmastime is Here.” (Undoubtedly, that’s a decision he doesn’t regret now!)
In spite of all of the doubt, the show was a hit with the “over fifteen million viewers” that tuned in. It won an Emmy and Peabody award, amassed a following and—if you can imagine—CBS decided to air it the next Christmas. And the Christmas after that. And on and on. The rest is history. In the wake of the smashing success, other now-famous Christmas cartoons broke onto the national television stage: Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.
How, then, did this initially-supposed Peanuts flop become such a hit? Mendelson points to a few different qualities (including a bit of luck, perhaps!): the “simplicity,” the “fun,” the integrality of “the true meaning of Christmas.” Charles Schulz’s wife, Jean Schulz, describes the power of the show in terms of the memories surrounding it: “the impact that ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ had on the viewer when he or she first saw it.”
Perhaps, then, the qualities that caused uncertainty for the creators or the businesspeople behind it—the “slow” start, the use of children’s voice actors, Linus’s reading from the Bible (a feature Schulz believed very important but that Mendelson and Melendez doubted)—were just the qualities that made the show so resonant with Americans, then and now. Linus’s reading from Luke resonated with those eager to reclaim the un-commercialized spiritual truth behind the holiday. The quirky animation, perhaps, struck and strikes viewers as fun and endearing (does anyone else notice and find humor in the way each character dances in one specified, back-and-forth motion?). The music, which Mendelson describes as an unprecedented combination of “Beethoven, jazz and traditional,” brings a little something for everyone.
As the holidays commence and Charlie Brown Christmas references and streaming spring up in earnest, there is great value in considering the way the ways in which we celebrate holidays reflect mixtures of external influences as well as the internal values and qualities that we find most relevant. Schulz’s Peanuts Christmas production plays into both of those realms for millions of Americans, creating something unprecedented even to those who ought to have believed in it the most.
If you’d like to learn more about the history behind this Christmas classic (and I highly recommend you do), these articles are must-reads:
From The Washington Post
An excellent interview with Mendelson from coca-cola.company.com