When the animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS in 1965, both the television network and the show’s own producers expected it to be a disaster.
A simplistic plot and animation style that betrayed the project’s shoestring budget. No laugh track. Actual children providing the voices, almost all amateurs who had never acted before. Piano music — Vince Guaraldi’s jazz with a dash of Beethoven — dominating the soundtrack.
And then there was that part where Linus read a Bible verse. A Bible verse — in a Christmas special! The horror!
Fortunately for generations of children who have grown up loving Charlie Brown’s heartfelt quest for the true meaning of Christmas, the network management had little choice but to go ahead and allow the show to air. It had been finished a mere ten days before the broadcast date, and they had promised sponsor Coca-Cola a Christmas special featuring Charlie Brown.
When the special first aired on December 9, 1965, it was viewed by over 15 million homes, 45% of the total American television audience at the time. Critical response was overwhelmingly, effusively, glowingly positive, and it was no surprise when the show won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was an instant classic, securing an annual place on the December television schedule, paving the way for future Charlie Brown films and specials, and lighting a creative spark in the hearts of countless aspiring artists and musicians.
All inspired by the story of a boy who wouldn’t give up on finding the true meaning of Christmas.
In this famous scene, our hero Charlie Brown has been tasked with getting a Christmas tree to use in the Christmas pageant he is trying to organize with his friends. Repelled by the commercialism of the flashy aluminum trees, Charlie selects the sole remaining real tree on the lot, a frail sapling that seems in danger of losing all its needles.
When Charlie returns to the theater with his little tree, the other children mock him as a hopeless failure. Even Snoopy — his own dog! — laughs mercilessly at him.
In despair, Charlie cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
His faithful friend Linus is there with the answer, and it comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14, which he delivers in a poignant soliloquy from center stage:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
Linus walks back over to Charlie and gently tells him, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
— PEANUTS (@Snoopy) December 22, 2017
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was a man of deep faith, and was unwavering in his insistence that the Christmas special featuring his beloved characters also feature the reason for the holiday itself: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Schulz ingeniously developed the script so that Linus’ soliloquy about angels telling the shepherds the good news about the Savior’s birth is central to the plot. There is no way to edit out the Bible verse and still have the story make sense. Tweaks have been made to the special over the years — minor edits to color and sound effects, references to sponsor Coca-Cola removed after the original broadcast — but Jesus always remained.
And so we have this wonderful annual reminder of the true meaning of Christmas, delivered by a child’s voice in an animated cartoon.
Christopher Shea was only 7 years old when he provided the voice for Linus. In an interview with USA Today for the special’s 40th anniversary back in 2005, he shared his view of how those few lines of Bible verse provide the foundation for the special’s enduring legacy:
Shea, who now lives in Eureka, Calif., with two daughters, 11 and 16, answers quickly when asked why the special has proved so enduring. “It’s the words,” he says.
Shea says that for years, in his teens and 20s, he didn’t quite understand his soliloquy’s impact.
“People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Every time I watch that, I cry,’ ” he says. “But as I got older, I understood the words more, and I understood the power of what was going on. Now I cry, too.”
Loyal Linus comes to the rescue one more time, after Charlie’s attempt to decorate the tree falters. Bracing the tree by wrapping his security blanket around it, Linus smiles and remarks, “Maybe it just needs a little love.”
As you celebrate this Christmas season, may the true meaning of Christmas bring you hope and joy, and may love find a way to ease whatever may be troubling you. Merry Christmas to you all.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.