|Anno Domini: Charlie Brown’s Christmas Miracle|
|December 24, 2015 Jerry Purvis|
Christmas is a season for miracles. Even before the western world settled on a date for Christmas, which may or may not be entirely accurate, it’s been that kind of season.
Of course it started with the ONE big miracle so long ago – the one my theologian friends refer to as the Incarnation. It was one of those miracles which became the subject of extensive studies by at least two church fathers – Saints Athanasius and Anselm of Canterbury.
Miracles large and small happen every day, woven throughout the fabric of history, but especially at Christmas. They’re the events giving us a special sense of awe and wonder during this joyous season.
One of those small miracles occurred 50 years ago, and I was witness to it. I suppose the real part of the miracle was how the public was able to see it too. It happened on Dec. 9, 1965, as CBS aired a program the network suits almost axed. It was called “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It followed the popular show “Gilligan’s Island” and preempted “The Munsters” that night.
The Peanuts comic strip was already 15-years old when creator Charles Schulz was contacted by the network about producing an animated Christmas special. However, the sponsor needed an outline by the following week. So, Schulz, along with producer Lee Mendelson and chief animator Bill Melendez hammered out an idea over the weekend, although all were in the dark about creating a half-hour animated special.
The show envisioned by Schulz broke all the rules of animated cartoons at the time. He wanted real kids, not adults, to provide the voices of the characters. He didn’t want to include a laugh track, knowing viewers could figure out for themselves when to laugh. And he ditched the ubiquitous kiddie music with a swinging jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi.
But Mendelson and Melendez had a problem with one of the scenes. It ended up lasting only about 50 seconds. In the scene, Linus read from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (in Elizabethan King James English, no less), answering Charlie Brown’s question if anyone knew what Christmas was all about.
Both Schulz’s colleagues said you couldn’t read from the Bible on network television. Schulz was insistent, asking if they didn’t do it, who would?
After watching the finished product, Mendelson and Melendez thought “We’ve ruined Charlie Brown.” But Ed Levitt, one of the other animators, thought differently, saying “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would still be watched 100 years into the future. This year, we’re halfway there.
The special also made a couple of well-deserved snarky remarks about the commercialization which can take over a holy season. Lucy said she was depressed about Christmas because she never got what she really wanted.
When Charlie Brown asked what it was, she said “real estate.”
Charlie’s sister Sally even got in on the act. As she dictated a long Christmas list to Charlie, she told Santa he could make it easy on himself by just sending money – preferably tens and twenties. As Charlie ran off in disgust, she explained, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
Another of my favorite characters had no dialogue at all. It was a sad, forlorn Christmas tree that was laughed at for its ugliness. Charlie also got ridiculed for choosing such a loser of a tree.
But Linus, our frightened philosopher, saw through the superficiality.
He said all the tree needed was some love (and some decoration), probably perceived as one in the same. That’s how it became beautiful.
At the Christmas pageant, a day of frustration caught up with Charlie Brown, and asked the famous question whether anyone knew what Christmas was all about. Linus took center stage, called for lights, and recited what became the centerpiece of the show.
Something I didn’t catch until much later, but when Linus got to the proclamation of the angel, “Fear not,” he dropped his security blanket. Just something for your consideration.
By the time the special was completed and shown to the network suits, the Dec. 9 air date was approaching. The network had advertised it in the trades and sponsors lined up. There was no way they could back out. But they sure wanted to.
There was too little action, the network suits complained. It moved too slowly and there was no laugh track. The big gripe came up again – you can’t read from the Bible on network television. They said they all liked Peanuts, but maybe it was better suited to the comic page rather than an animated feature.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” would air, despite the suits’ “better judgment.” On that night 50 years ago, their conventional wisdom was turned on its head. The special drew in 15.4 million viewers, second only to NBC’s popular “Bonanza.” Even back then, a 45 share was a big winner.
A few months later, Schulz and Mendelson were onstage accepting an Emmy for the Best Network Animated Special. The special also won a Peabody Broadcasting Award for the Outstanding Children’s and Youth’s Program.
Throughout the world of Peanuts, I really sympathize with Charlie Brown. Sometimes I refer to him as the “silent sufferer” who utters the occasional “Good grief!” along with a deep sigh, while he is pummeled almost daily by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Still, he believes tomorrow will be a better day.
In “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” our title character is in despair about the true meaning of Christmas. He’s appalled by the crass commercialism which casts a pall over the season. He’s been beaten down by people who get some kind of warped pleasure in making him feel worthless. And I’ve been there with him.
The answer to all his questions, all his sorrow, lies within that short recitation by Linus: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David …”
Fifty years ago, Charles Schulz (God be good to him) touched upon that universal theme of good news of a great joy which shall be to all people.
So during the Christmas season every year, I know what I’ll be watching. This year especially. I’ll also be thinking about the kid who was watching back in 1965. I’ll try to let some of Charlie Brown’s eternal optimism rub off on me. I’ll be right alongside him to celebrate this most joyous of events.
Thank you for reading, and have a most blessed Christmas season.