On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas first appeared on television screens. The special, a collaboration between Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and director Bill Melendez, with a score by Vince Guaraldi, was loved from the start. Over the past 50 years, watching the special has become a holiday tradition for many people. Here's a look at six factors that helped make this show a timeless and treasured classic:
A True Christmas Message
At one point in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charles Schulz's script had the character of Linus explain the meaning of Christmas by reciting a passage from the Gospel of Luke. Yet pretty much the only person who was sure that this recitation needed to take place was Schulz himself.
While the cartoonist was determined to use the religious text, both executive producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez wondered if an animated special was the right vehicle for such content. According to The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials, Melendez told Schulz (whose nickname was Sparky), "Sparky, this is religion. It just doesn't go in a cartoon." But Schulz had a simple response: "Bill, if we don't do it, who will? We can do it."
The passage stayed in — and the multitude of viewers who treasure this moment are doubtless glad it did.
A Tree's Inspiration
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the commercialization of the holiday: his dog Snoopy wants to win a holiday decorating contest, his sister Sally is anxious about receiving her "fair share" of presents, and his friend Lucy yearns for the gift of real estate. Attempting to get in touch with the real spirit of Christmas, Charlie Brown picks out a small, struggling tree instead of a shiny aluminum one, but he and his tree are only laughed at.
Besides being one of the most memorable parts of the special, this humble tree boasts a prestigious literary background. In 1964, Mendelson read the Hans Christian Andersen story The Fir Tree — about a tree desperate to grow to match its taller brethren — to his children. When work started on A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson mentioned the Andersen tale to Schulz, which prompted the cartoonist to dream up Charlie Brown's tree.
And though it was mocked, things turned out okay for that tree in the end — the kids transform it into a holiday standout. As Linus says, "I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love."
Another thing that marks A Charlie Brown Christmas as different from other animated fare is its score. Jazz musician and composer Vince Guaraldi wrote the original music for the show, which was the first animated network special to feature jazz.
The score includes "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as the Peanuts theme. Guaraldi also wrote the music for "Christmas Time Is Here" (the song's lyrics were penned on the back of an envelope by Mendelson in just 15 minutes). In the years since it was first heard, the song has become a Christmas standard.
Surprisingly, it turns out that one important person involved in the production didn't care for jazz: Schulz. Fortunately, the man behind Peanuts didn't let this dislike stand in the way of an iconic score.
Real Kids' Voices
In 1965, it was standard practice in TV animation to have children's roles performed by adults. But Schulz and his partners wanted the Peanuts gang to sound natural and truly childlike, which meant the special needed actual kids to act out the roles of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy et al.
The production was able to find the right children to voice all of the characters. However, using children did pose some problems — a few were so young they couldn't read or understand the script. To record their dialogue, director Melendez had to coach the kids along, feeding them words as necessary. In the book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, it's revealed that Melendez, who'd emigrated from Mexico, joked with Schulz that the kids could end up saying their lines with a Spanish accent.
Snoopy Is Heard
As director of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Melendez not only helped children perform their roles, he figured out a way to give Snoopy — perhaps the most popular Peanuts character — a voice of his own.
Schulz was adamant that Snoopy not speak regular lines of dialogue, so Melendez tried another approach: he taped himself speaking, then sped up the recording until the sounds and squawks bore no resemblance to a person talking. Schulz okayed this technique.
Melendez expected that a professional actor would use his method in order to portray Snoopy, but the production was running short of time. The director therefore ended up providing the unique sound of Charlie Brown's dog himself (and after succeeding in this special, Melendez would continue in the role for many years to come).
Lucky to Be Broadcast
Over the past five decades, millions of people have seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. However, executives at CBS — the network that first aired the special — didn't think the show would be a hit; in fact, they were ready for it to fail.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was definitely out of the ordinary for the time: In addition to its jazz music, children's performances and contemplative message, Schulz had insisted there be no laugh track. After a screening, TV executives were unimpressed — as Mendelson later told the Washington Post, "They didn't get the voices. They didn't get the music. They didn't get the pacing."
The expectation was that A Charlie Brown Christmas would make its debut, then disappear forever — and if there had been a programming alternative for CBS, the special might not have made it on the air at all. Fortunately, it was shown — and about half the country chose to watch Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang celebrate Christmas. Now, 50 years later, it remains as popular and beloved as ever.