Charlie Brown’s War on Christmas

Mark Benjamin
Guest Commentary

‘Tis the season once again for FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly to froth and foam about the so-called “War on Christmas.” He needn’t bother. Charlie Brown does it better each and every year. The war was launched at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 1965 when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired on CBS, sponsored by Coca Cola.

In June 1965, Coca Cola called Bill Melendez, a cartoon animator, asking if he wanted to create a Peanuts Christmas special. Melendez agreed; then called Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and told him that he had just sold “our” Christmas show. “What Christmas show?” asked Schulz. “The one we’re going to write tomorrow,” explained Melendez.

Melendez gathered a team of 50 animation artists to create more than 10,000 hand-painted cels – a task that would normally take the better part of a year. They had six months. The director, Lee Mendelson, found seven kids, ages six to nine, with no professional experience to do the voices, some of whom could not yet read a script.

Schulz said he would write the screenplay. He had never written one before. Then he declared that there would be no laugh track, something unheard of in the day. Next, he had Linus read from the Gospel of Luke. Melendez argued against it. “You can’t have the Bible on television!” Schulz countered, “If we don’t do it, who will?” And so they did.

Predictably, the show fell behind schedule as the animators labored feverishly to complete it. CBS had been heavily plugging the special without quite knowing what they would be showing. When they finally got a private screening, they were horrified.

The special opened with Charlie Brown moaning, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I don’t feel happy.” A child says this? It got worse. No laugh track. Jazz music. Wobbly children’s voices. Linus quoting from the Bible and then proclaiming, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Worst of all, Charlie Brown constantly inveighed against the crass commercialism of the Christmas season. What would the sponsors think?

The CBS execs didn’t laugh once. They declared it a flop; that they would air the film once and then consign it to a can, never to see the light of day again. They were so very wrong.

One week later almost half of the nation’s television viewers tuned in. The next day a New York adman claimed that “all heaven broke loose.” Letters poured into CBS, thanking Charles Schulz for “keeping Christ in Christmas.” A New York art critic wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.” A chagrined CBS promptly ordered four more Peanuts specials. Several months later, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” won the Peabody and Emmy awards.

Charles Schulz never doubted the power of Charlie Brown’s brooding but persistent search for the true meaning of Christmas, even as he was beset by the baubles, gewgaws and clamor of the commercialized holiday. Forty-six years later, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” continues to thrive as a favorite of holiday television programming. It is a testament to what television programming can be: contemplative, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence and innocence of its audience.

So Mr. O’Reilly, if there really is a “War on Christmas,” what Christmas are you supposedly defending? The Christmas Charlie Brown rejects, or the one he joyously discovers? Why not invite Linus onto your show sometime? I would love to hear him read the Gospel of Luke, then look up and say, “That’s what Christmas is all about Bill O’Reilly.”

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