How 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Came to Be—and Almost Didn't

America fell in love with the show when it first aired on TV back in 1965, and it's been a part of our lives ever since. But the story of how Charles Schulz's A Charlie Brown Christmas came to be is itself an American classic. So is the story of how it almost didn't come to be.

But first things first. The 30-minute Christmas special wasn't birthed by the creative urge. It was commissioned by a commercial sponsor looking to turn the nation's most beloved newspaper cartoon into an animated TV special. "We got a call from Coca-Cola," Lee Mendelson, who produced the special, recalled. "And they said, 'Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Charlie Brown show?' And I lied, and said, 'Absolutely, we've been thinking about it.' And this was on a Thursday. And they said, 'We have to make a decision on Monday. Can you send us an outline of the show?'

"So I call Mr. Schulz and I tell him, 'I have good news and bad news. The good news is I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas. The bad news is we have to write it tomorrow,'" Mendelson said.

The creatives got to work. Schulz pulled together Mendelson and legendary animator Bill Melendez, put an outline together and quickly locked down the sale. The rest was history. The team worked fast: It had only three months to create a script, record it, make a soundtrack and create 30,000 animation cells from scratch—all before the days of computer-animated design.

When the special was finished, it wasn't a hit with network executives. The first problem was the laugh track, or lack thereof. Back in the 1960s, it was unimaginable to produce TV comedy without one. Schulz thought more highly of viewers: He didn't believe they needed to be cued to laugh at predetermined moments.

Another disagreement involved the voice work. CBS executives wanted to use adult actors who pretended to be kids. Schulz believed that using children gave the characters more authenticity. The CBS executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. The music was too sophisticated for a children's program, they worried. They wanted something...younger. The CBS executives also thought the show was too slow. They didn't think there was enough action in a show dedicated to children with limited attention spans.

CharlesSchulz
Charles Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip, draws in his studio near a stuffed Snoopy toy. Getty Images

Last, the CBS executives worried about the scene where Linus recites the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Luke. It was too long, they believed. And too literal. The CBS executives assumed Americans, especially kids, wouldn't want to sit through a spoken passage from the King James Bible.

"They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special," Melendez said. "They basically wrote it off."

Schulz didn't get pushback just from CBS executives: Members of his team were skeptical too. Melendez himself was hesitant. "I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it," he told reporters.

Luckily for Schulz, he was the beneficiary of a tight production schedule. Moreover, the network, the advertising agency and the show's sponsor, Coca-Cola, had already promoted the show in TV Guide. Schulz had leverage and wasn't about to capitulate on key creative elements—especially the Bible reading. The network executives finally caved and aired the special as Schulz intended.

That's why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He intuitively knew the things Americans cared about. The things that gave their lives meaning. The long-time Sunday school teacher also knew the reading from the Gospel of Luke was the centerpiece of the show. And a centerpiece of American life.

It's a scene we'll always remember. As Charlie Brown sinks into despair while trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, Linus walks stage center and, under a narrow spotlight, quotes Luke 2:8-14:

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 tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, 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 and good will towards men.

After Linus finishes, he walks across the stage and says, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

The reading lasted less than a minute. And with those words from the Bible, Charlie Brown realized he didn't have to let commercialism ruin his Christmas. He picked up his fragile tree and walked out of the auditorium, renewed. Linus had saved the day.

CBS executives were certain the show would be a ratings disaster. Programmers were equally grim, informing the production team, "We will, of course, air it next week, but I'm afraid we won't be ordering more."

On December 9, 1965, the half-hour special aired, preempting The Munsters and following Gilligan's Island. To the surprise of the executives in New York, 50 percent of American television sets were tuned in. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit, winning Emmy and Peabody awards. Linus' recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, "Linus' reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season."

Coca-Cola was inundated with letters from fans of the special. Here's one.

Gentlemen:

I am writing the first fan letter in my 52 years of a rather full life to compliment you on sponsoring the A Charlie Brown Christmas television program. I don't know when any program has delighted as many adults, as well as children, and I am writing to express the hope that you might be able to sponsor additional "Charlie Brown" programs.

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Here's another.

To the makers of Coca-Cola:

We wish to compliment you on the "Peanuts" show you sponsored on TV. Your production stands out as refreshing as your product. Our thanks to you and Mr. Schulz for bringing to the fore, in his wholesome philosophy, the real spirit of Christmas, which is so often obliterated by a false one. It is our hope that "Peanuts" may find a permanent place in the TV realm. May the makers of Coca-Cola be greatly blessed for their part in this worthwhile endeavor.

Sisters of St. Francis
Belle Vernon, Penn.

A Charlie Brown Christmas found that permanent place in the TV realm. And in our hearts. It's equaled only by the 1966 program How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in its popularity among young and old alike. Thank God the Grinch-like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965. If it had been left to their instincts, we'd have one less national treasure to cherish come Christmastime.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas will on air on December 19 at 7:30 ET on PBS and the PBS App. It is also available on Apple TV+.