Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
by John Murdock
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown’s quest to escape a melancholy brought on by the materialism and artificiality climaxes with Linus’ powerful recitation of St. Luke’s nativity. Remembered now as a classic, the success of the special was by no means assured.
Linus’ famous minute in the spotlight did not spring from some halcyon days of yore when religious content was openly embraced by Hollywood. As David Michaelis summarizes in his masterful 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts:
Network broadcasting in the three-channel world of the early 1960s was driven by a single, impossible mission: to please everyone and offend no one. . . . So far as the world of national entertainment was concerned, religion—or, more exactly, religious differences—did not exist.
Michaelis researches and tells the story well, and what follows is largely drawn from his work.
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Schulz insisted on the scriptural content in the face of nervous creative partners and queasy network executives. “The Bible thing scares us,” said one CBS vice-president after an early screening. Yet, Frank Stanton, then the president of the network, was supportive, though he would recall that some of his skeptical colleagues “thought I had really flipped.”
The story was a simple one, delivered in an understated way. Charlie Brown is down. His friends’ quest for presents and the best decorated house (or doghouse) seems to miss the point, but he’s not sure what the point is anymore. Exasperated, he exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus then poignantly reminds everyone that the day is about the birth of a “savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Overcoming a final setback, Charlie Brown returns to a welcoming throng singing “glory to the newborn king.”
The show ran on December 9, 1965. The next day, as Michaelis quotes a New York adman, “all heaven broke loose.” The ratings were great and the critics effusive in their praise for the look, the message, and the score of Vince “Dr. Funk” Guaraldi, whose subtle jazz piano soundtrack would be hailed as ground-breaking…