If you’re a kid of the 1970s, like my parents, you might’ve caught some of the best stop motion Christmas specials as they broadcasted for the first time, or on reruns, on the silver screen- Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (1964), A Year without a Santa Claus (1970), Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1974), and Frosty the Snowman1 (1969). (Check out Nostalgia Showcase’s article on Rankin/Bass Animation here!) In 1965, Charles Schultz would enter the scene of syndicated animated shorts with his Peanuts Gang cast of characters, popularized in newspaper comic strips in the 1950s and 1960s, and with a shoestring budget and a tight deadline, helped create one of the best Christmas specials of all time- A Charlie Brown Christmas. As far back as I can remember, my family has always had a tradition of watching these specials while wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, inevitably ending on this short. Schultz’s first film adaptation of his ragtag set of characters stands out from the Rankin/Bass specials and other Christmas full-feature films of that period- it was inherently and blatantly anti-commercialism Christmas. But, let’s rewind and find out how exactly this special came to be…

Charles M. Schultz (1922-2000) is the man responsible for Peanuts, the long running comic strip that has smoothly transcended from newspapers in 1950 to full feature films, musicals, theme park mascots, and video games. Staying relevant with a ever-evolving world was never an issue for this timeless grouping of suburban cartoon kids, their loveable dog, and the realistic adventures they get up to. As a fellow cartoonist and illustrator, I am always impressed by Schultz’s original Peanuts comics- initially called Li’l Folks, including some early, unnamed Peanuts Gang character designs- and how much they stood out compared to other newspaper comic strips published around the same era. Li’l Folks was special, it had the ability from the start to appeal to a wider audience; other popular comics from the 1940s appealed to teens and adults; stylistically with harsh edges, impactful shading, and more realistic artwork, and centering around superheroes, detective comics, and high school dramas. The only outlier would be Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a funny animal2 comic strip set in the Okefenokee Swamps of Southeastern America, but comics overall were written and drawn for an adult audience. Peanuts was also stylistically different, with simple, stylized caricatures of kids, soft shading, and rounded, organic line art. Peanuts comic strips changed the landscape of comics forever.

Li’l Folks would not last long- not with that title. In 1950, Schultz would leave the initial distributers of his strips, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and sell the Li’l Folks comic strips to United Features Syndicate3. It was under this new, nationwide distributer, that the comic strips could finally get the attention they deserved; appearing in seven newspapers as the freshly renamed Peanuts comic strips in 1950. By the end of the decade, Peanuts, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy became household names, with the strips appearing weekly in over a hundred newspapers across the nation.

Meanwhile, animated shows were starting to hit television, with Hanna Barbara’s The Flintstones (1960) being a mainstay prime-time cartoon, appealing to both children and adults, but often partnering with more adult-focused products like cigarettes. But cartoons specifically made for children was a gamble, and studios couldn’t justify the costs to produce a short film if it couldn’t bring in a profit. With the successes of Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, more television studios could be convinced to invest in animated shorts, especially ones themed around the holiday season, pulling in viewership numbers like never seen before. With Peanuts becoming more and more popular across America, an animated adaptation of Schultz’s iconic characters to the silver screen was inevitable, but who would produce it, what would it be about, and most of all- could they really pull it off?

Let’s set the scene. It’s February 1965. Lee Mendelson is trying to sell a documentary he made on Charles Schulz with animated segments including the Peanuts cast animated by Bill Melendez to different broadcasting networks, and no one wanted it. Then, in April, TIME Magazine featured the main Peanuts cast on the cover; prompting Coca-Cola’s ad agency, McCann Erickson, to contact Lee Mendelson for a Peanuts holiday special. Things really started to snowball when Mendelson lied to the ad agency, telling them that he and Schulz had discussed a similar project and- without consulting Schulz- sold the improvised A Charlie Brown Christmas to Coca-Cola. Later that day, Mendelson called up Schulz with the news. They had six months to come up with an original script, animation, voice acting, and original soundtrack/score. There could be no mistakes, no set-backs, no issues.

The main bumps in the road would be caused by a general misunderstanding of the animation progress- and Schultz’s works- by the studio heads. Producers at McCann Erickson didn’t understand the process and vision of the animation timeline. Halfway through production of the animation, when the line art was finalized, producers complained that the timing was off- the story was too slow paced and there wasn’t enough going on. One solution? Add a laugh track- something Schultz was so against, he walked out of the meeting in protest. The short would not be made unless Charles Schultz himself was on board with everything that was put into it; and when studio heads protested Linus’ direct quotation from the book of Luke from the Bible, Schultz fought for its addition. Studio heads were also against the upbeat jazz soundtrack for the film, composed by Vince Guaraldi, opting for more traditional or popular Christmas music. Lastly, the studio heads wanted trained, adult voice actors to play the main cast of characters, Schultz and his team fought for children actors to read lines, giving the short an added detail of innocence. Ultimately, Schultz’ team won all the arguments. It took two months just to work out any and all preproduction work, and four months to work on everything else.

So, let’s swing back to what really makes this Peanuts Christmas short unique- Schultz’s demands for the inclusion of the “True Meaning of Christmas”. Charlie Brown is disenchanted and depressed about Christmas, he’s just not feeling it this year. Christmas has become far too corporate, filled with artificial and colorful trees, sending lengthy letters to Santa, asking for an over abundance of presents, and Christmas light displays. While everyone else seems to be enjoying the season, the kids participating in the neighborhood Christmas pageant and Snoopy’s decorated dog house receiving awards, Charlie Brown can’t seem to shake off the feeling that something is wrong. When he’s prompted to retrieve an artificial tree for the Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown and Linus stumble across a lonely little real tree, with a few straggling branches and falling needles. It’s the perfect tree to Charlie Brown- humble, small, rejected- and he takes it back to the recital. The tree is not received well by the rest of the cast, which disappoints Charlie Brown even more, so he asks if anyone knows what the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ is, prompting Linus to recite the annunciation to the shepherds on the stage, ending with; “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” It’s after this grandiose performance that Charlie Brown realizes that he won’t allow commercialism ruin his mood any longer, and plans to decorate the tree, to attempt to show the other kids that it is special enough to belong in the pageant. Only, when he adds one ornament to the tree, it gets so weighed down that all the remaining needles fall off. He leaves, disheartened, and while he’s gone, the other kids admit that they were too hard on Charlie Brown and the tree, add all of Snoopy’s ornaments and decorations to it, making it look beautiful. At the end, all of the kids join in a song, having learned the lesson.

Without the inclusion of Linus’ speech, the second half of the film wouldn’t make sense. Sure, there could have been more nuanced ways to incorporate the Story of the Nativity, or the overarching message- that Christmas doesn’t need to be consumed by commercialism to be Christmas. Maybe the religious inclusion, and the anti-commercialism message, is the reason why Coca-Cola stripped all marketing and advertising with later releases of the special – including a very obviously placed empty billboard in the first scene. It’s one of the few times a Christmas special has snuck in a piece of religious and social commentary into the plot so effectively, in a way only the Peanuts comics can. Schultz’s involvement in the production. Despite all the odds, A Charlie Brown Christmas was an instant classic and remains to be on numerous lists of must-watch Christmas specials. And the best part? Since the special is only thirty minutes long, it’s just long enough for a quick break, in between all the chaos- and commercialism- the holiday season brings.

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate!

Sources

Black and White Peanuts comic strips featured in this article were archived by Peanuts Wiki

Christmas Peanuts Specials Available at WPPL

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003)

Footnotes:

  1. Frosty the Snowman was traditionally animated. ↩︎
  2. Funny Animals refer to any anthropomorphic animal focused media, written for newspapers, graphic novels, or independent zines, usually in the format of comics. These works are usually- but not always- written for a more mature audience in mind, and may include more complex plots or social issues written through the lens of anthropomorphic animals. ↩︎
  3. United Features Syndicate is an American editorial column and newspaper comic strip syndication company, founded in 1919, still syndicating comics to this day. They’re responsible for syndicating Jim Davis’ Garfield, Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, Brad Anderson’s Marmaduke, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts; all of which have continued, republishing pre-existing comic strips or hiring ghost authors to produce new strips, in modern newspapers. ↩︎

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the WPPL team since 2022, and writes the "Cat's Picks" and "Nostalgic Showcase Presents" series; she enjoys researching defunct and not-so-defunct studios and reading graphic novels in her spare time.