On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS, preempting The Munsters and following the Gilligan’s Island episode “Don’t Bug the Mosquitos.” It became one of the network’s most successful specials, airing more times than even The Wizard of Oz, and has been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award.
The musical soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi, has become as well known as the story itself. In particular, the instrumental “Linus and Lucy” (which has become the signature musical theme of the Peanuts specials) and “Christmas Time is Here” helping the soundtrack CD for the special to remain a perennial best-seller. As an aside, while the soundtrack contains some music that doesn’t appear in the TV special, it also fails to include two musical themes which appear in the special. Both of those missing themes are, however, available on another album by the Vince Guaraldi Trio entitled Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits.
The story touches on the over-commercialization of Christmas, with poor Charlie Brown bereft over his lack of feeling for the holiday. After a visit to Lucy in her pychiatric booth, he gets involved in directing a school play about the Nativity and is ultimately transformed as little Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas.
Bringing the Peanuts characters to television wasn’t an easy task after the strip’s creators, with funding from sponsor Coca-Cola, presented the CBS network with an idea for a Christmas special starring Charles Schulz’s characters.
The production was done on a shoestring budget, resulting in a choppy animation style and, from a technical standpoint, poorly mixed sound. With the exception of the actors who voiced Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) and Lucy (Tracy Stratford), none of the children had any experience doing voice work. This was especially rough for Kathy Steinberg, who voiced Sally: she was too young to read and needed to be cued line by line during the soundtrack recording.
Network executives were not happy with several aspects of the show, forcing Schulz to wage some serious battles to preserve his vision. The executives didn’t want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke; the network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Version of the Bible. But Schulz was adamant about keeping this scene in, remarking that “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”
To the surprise of the executives, it was both a critical and commercial hit. None of the special’s technical problems detracted from the show’s appeal; in fact, these so-called quirks are what lent the show such an innovative, authentic and sincere feeling. And Linus’ recitation was hailed by critics such as Harriet Van Horne who said, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”