During the 1960s, a phenomenon called “Peanuts” was born. The comic strip began popping up in newspapers across America. It was destination reading. The cartoon’s childlike characters and modest storylines had become the perfect placebo for millions looking for a dose of innocence.
None of it was lost on Madison Avenue.
CBS first approached Charles Schultz, creator and writer of “Peanuts,” with an idea of an animated television Christmas Special, featuring Charlie, Lucy, Linus and the whole gang. Schultz agreed, work began, and CBS was quick to review the script.
Schultz titled the special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” CBS approved.
The opening scene placed Charlie on his tiptoes peeking into his snow-covered mailbox hoping to find a Christmas card, but to no avail…again. Feeling dejected, he stopped by Lucy’s psychiatric booth to mourn the commercialism of Christmas. Lucy concurred, adding her own lament: “Christmas is nothing but a lot of stupid toys. What I really want is real estate!”
CBS loved it.
In the next scene, Charlie became further disillusioned as Snoopy was busy decorating his doghouse with an endless string of lights and gaudy decorations in hope of winning a neighborhood contest. “Good grief!” says Charlie.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it!” thought CBS.
Sally, Charlie’s baby sister, was caught up in the trappings. She recruited him to take dictation for a letter to Santa. “Dear Santa. Just send money, preferably $10s and $20s.”
More laughter from the CBS heads.
As the story progressed, Lucy sent Charlie to pick out a Christmas tree for their neighborhood pageant: “A big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink.” However, Charlie couldn’t do it. Instead, he brought back a real, albeit small, pathetic, lifeless tree…and the kids hated it. “You blockhead, Charlie Brown!”
In frustration, Charlie screamed, “What is Christmas about, anyway?!”
“This is good, really good!” CBS drooled.
Then Linus stepped into the spotlight and answered Charlie’s question.
“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 good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, 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, good will toward all men.'”
“Hold everything!!!” demanded CBS. “You can’t recite Bible verses on national television—especially the King James Version! You’ll alienate our viewers and chase away our advertisers. The tree can stay, but the Bible has to go.”
Schultz stood firm. “If I can’t tell the Christmas story, you can’t have the ‘Peanuts’ cast. If the Christmas reading goes, so do they!”
CBS looked at the fast-approaching deadline—and gulped. “OK, it stays; but we’re going to pay a terrible price for this.”
Sure enough, on the night of the Christmas Special, the CBS switchboard was flooded with calls from around the country, all asking the same question, “When can we have more ‘Peanuts’ Christmas specials?”
“Soon,” CBS promised, “very, very soon.” Thus, a TV tradition was born: 50 percent of America tuned into the show that night. It won an Emmy and a Peabody. TV Guide claimed Linus’ biblical recitation was one of the top 35 moments in television history, and this became the longest-running Christmas Special on CBS.
The Christmas story never can be told too much. Christ’s coming never was meant to be secretive. After all, God “emptied Himself” and “became a man.” He stepped out of eternity and into time, and “we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father.”
Now it’s our turn to step into the spotlight and tell the old, old story that’s ever new.