For over 50 years now A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a holiday pop culture mainstay, which is why most people would find it surprising that it was doomed for failure and almost never even aired in the first place. Originally airing on CBS in 1965, the special is currently secured by ABC and still runs it at least twice a year in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The plot, of course, follows a dismayed Charlie Brown who doesn’t understand why he’s so depressed despite all of the Christmas presents, cards, and decorations. His mood is worsened when he consults with his peers, who are all self-indulgently wrapped up in the holidays. Later, at the rehearsal of a Christmas play he’s directing, Charlie Brown decides to go get a Christmas tree to give the play the proper mood.
Lucy demands that he get a big, shiny aluminum tree, but of course Charlie Brown ends up picking what is now ubiquitously known as the “Charlie Brown tree,” which earns him the ridicule of his friends before the pivotal “come to Jesus” moment (no pun intended) when they all remember the true meaning of Christmas.
The special, which was the first animated Peanuts special, was commissioned by Coca-Cola and intended to be a vehicle to showcase the jazz music of composer Vince Guaraldi, who producer Lee Mendelson had previously worked with in a televised Charles Schultz documentary. The two men, along with animator Bill Melendez had a very clear idea of what direction they wanted to go with the special, but unfortunately CBS basically hated every single thing about it and Coca-Cola nearly bailed before it got off the ground.
In an interview from a few years back, Mendelson recalls a visit from a McCann-Erickson ad executive who was decidedly unimpressed with the rough pencil drawings and animation tests before music was added.
“He said: ‘This isn’t very good. I don’t know what I’m going to tell the agency. If I tell them what I think, they’re going to cancel the show,’ ” Mendelson says. “I said, ‘Well, wait, whoa, this is all very rudimentary. If you believe in Charles Schulz and his characters, you’re just going to have to trust us that this is going to be great.'”
In addition to not loving the the jazz music for an animated kids holiday special, CBS abhorred the idea of using regular kids’ voices (who went uncredited) as opposed to child actors. Not to mention, the pretty on-the-nose messaging about commercialism and materialism, which — aside from being rather mature subject matter for children — didn’t exactly sit well with advertisers.
Even Melendez tried to talk Charles Schultz out of the more religious aspects of the special, particularity when Linus directly recites scripture from Luke 2:10, but Schultz wasn’t having it.
“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson says. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Mr. Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ “
On top of everything else, CBS was also nervous about airing an animated children’s special without a laugh track, which was unheard of at the time. As a fail-safe they even insisted on producing a version with a laugh track, although they never ended up airing it due to the immediate success of the broadcast version.
Yet somehow, despite the initial skepticism, anti-commercialism messaging, regular kid voices, absence of a laugh track, and biblical references — Mendelson, Melendez, and Schultz were able to make the special they wanted. And even after all that, Melendez and Mendelson predicted the special was going to flop after viewing the rough cut, which obviously turned out not to be the case.
“We thought that it was maybe just too slow and we had failed poor Charlie Brown,” Mendelson says. “I remember one of the animators, Ed Levitt, stood up in the back and said, ‘You guys are crazy, this is going to run a hundred years.’ And, of course, we thought he was crazy.”
And the rest, shall we say, is history.
Another interesting lesser-known fact about A Charlie Brown Christmas is that the popularity of the special — which was viewed by an estimated 36 million people in 45 percent of households watching television the night it premiered — resulted in effectively killing the aluminum Christmas tree. Aluminum trees had been all the rage and had hit peak sales from 1958, right up until the airing in 1965, which can be directly attributed to the kitschy holiday decorations going out of vogue.
Ironically enough, sales of replicas of the Charlie Brown tree have boomed throughout the years, because who doesn’t want to shell out hard-earned cash for a symbol of anti-commercialism that was probably made in China. Mr. Schultz tried his best, anyway.