December 9, 2014

Celebrating A Charlie Brown Christmas, 49 years ago tonight

It was 49 years ago tonight that A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS.  As I suggested in Saturday's TV Guide review, there was a sense that this was a big deal, although almost everyone involved with the special, including the network, was filled with apprehension.

Lee Habeeb has a nice appreciation of the cartoon here (the details of which you might already be familiar with), which not only summarizes the doubts held by the network suits, but nicely puts the program into its cultural context:

As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.

Yes, it was that long ago, and yet not so long; halfway through the tumultuous '60s, it was the end of one era overlapping with the beginning of another.  A few years prior, Linus' reading from the Bible might have raised nary an eye; a handful of years later, Theodore Geisel would insist that there be no religious overtones associated with his cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  I don't know that Schulz could have pulled it off today, nor am I sure he would have wanted to.  He did back then though, and for that I'm grateful, along with his insistence on using the voices of real children for the characters, and the wonderful jazz score by the great Vince Guaraldi.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which CBS airs tonight, but while there will always be nostalgia associated with Rudolph*, it is likely A Charlie Brown Christmas which was the more culturally profound, and contains the most meaning today.

*It certainly can't be the story, as I pointed out here.  And while we're at it, why in the name of all that is good and holy did CBS ever give up the rights to the Peanuts cartoons?  Was anyone at the network thinking?  Wait, don't answer that.

In her book Merry Christmas!, Karal Ann Marling points out that the popular celebration of Christmas has always had a secular overtone to it, one that preceded not only the "War on Christmas," but Charlie Brown as well, so I don't mean to put too fine a point on all this.  But there's no reason why we can't celebrate both the secular and sacred aspects of Christmas, after all.  That's what shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas are all about, and that's why we're all entitled to enjoy Christmas like kids at least once a year.  Watch it, watch Rudolph, watch them all!


  1. Why it's good to look things up:

    In 1971, the first book about the TV business I ever read was Television: The Business Behind The Box by Les Brown, Variety's TV editor at that time.
    One chapter was devoted to how the Coca-Cola company backed up a Raquel Welch variety special on CBS, while at the same time trying to spike an NBC news special about workers that made the company look bad.
    The Raquel half of the chapter focused on John Allen of the McCann-Erickson ad agency, who represented Coke in the production, and was the guy who sold the show to CBS.
    Les Brown presented Allen as a supersalesman, who essentially sold the Charlie Brown show (for Coke) and the National Geographic Specials ( for the Encyclopedia Britannica) to CBS - which didn't really want either show at the start.
    How Allen did it - well, that's in the book, along with a ton of other stories about 1970's TV.
    The Brown book is long out of print; frankly, I'm surprised that Les Brown never published an updated edition. Still, It's a worthwhile read, even all these years afterward.
    As to how CBS lost Charlie Brown to ABC -
    Best guess, the contracts ran out, and ABC won the bidding war.
    Sometimes, it's just that simple - dollars and cents.

    1. That sounds like a great book, Mike. I'm going to have to look at that next time we do the used book sweep. Thanks!

  2. Lovely post and fantastic writing idea.I know that Christmastime is here. Joy and cheer. What's more for Peanuts fans all over, it simply wouldn't be Christmas without this fantastic occasion delight. Christmas lights may be twinkling red and green, however Charlie Brown has the Yuletide soul. To get in the occasion soul, he takes Lucy's advice and controls the Christmas play. Furthermore what's a Christmas play without a Christmas tree? Anyway everybody makes fun of the short, spindly never green Charlie Brown brings back - until the genuine significance of Christmas works its magic by and by.
    Merry X-Mass!


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