Arguably the greatest piece of Christmas television is 45 years old this month. And it’s never been more relevant, even if the meaning has, once again, been lost.
The first time they saw it, the powers-that-be hated A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The 1965 television debut for the comic strip was to be a cautionary tale of how Christmas had become overly commercial while the real meaning was being eroded. But that irony was lost on the bosses at CBS who feared it would be a commercial disaster. To be fair, you could see why they so were concerned. The animation was rushed, jumpy and often out of sync; there was no laughter track, as was popular for cartoons of the day, and the music was written by a jazz musician, Vince Guaraldi.
Adding to the ramshackle charm (or impending financial suicide) the voices were mostly provided by children with no experience. In fact a couple of them were so young they could barely read and would repeat lines fed to them that were later sliced together by a sound editor. The show would, however, be an instant hit and go on to win both the Emmy and Peabody awards.
It’s also ironic that the whole story idea only came about because Coca Cola approached producer, Lee Mendeleson, about the possibility of making an animated episode. In the first few airings there were animated product placements, including a scene where the children are knocking Coke cans off a fence with snowballs. That’s been removed now the Coke deal has expired but the beloved story still gets a battering each year from the money men. To fit more ads in, bits are often cut out (usually the parts rallying against commercialisation) and in some cases, the classic scene at the end when they sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is removed or cut short to fit in more ads. Good grief, indeed.
The show’s popularity means it now contributes to the very thing it was taking a principled stand against. The little Christmas tree that Charlie Brown chooses (rather than the shiny pink aluminium one Lucy wanted) can
be bought in plastic replica form from Urban Outfitters. Before his death in 2000, creator Charles Schulz said: “Today they even sell models of that little tree, which of course misses the point entirely. In the show, they pick that tree to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, and now it’s a marketing gimmick.” As Charlie Brown laments, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
But it seems that this 30-minute animation does know what it’s about, and Christmas miracles are irrepressible. Although the over-commercial treatment mirrors the events in the on-screen story, the message still gets through. And with each year it seems even more remarkably pure, from the voices of the children to part where Linus reads a passage from the Bible.
This is the soul of what Charlie Brown himself was looking for. And here’s a postscript: because of the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, over 40 more animated Peanuts specials followed and the whole Peanuts franchise now makes an estimated $1.2 billion each year.
Meanwhile, Peter Robbins, the nine-year-old boy who provided the voice of Charlie Brown, currently manages an apartment building in California. He is single and owns a dog called Snoopy. His contribution to Christmas, however, is timeless, and as his nine-year-old self teaches new generations every year: some things have a value that just can’t be put into dollars and cents.
Esquire magazine, December 2010