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!