And, Lo, the Network Execs Were Sore Afraid

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Dec 06, 2005 9:15 AM

There is no time in my life that I don't remember "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It's always been there, every year. I first watched it sitting on my dad's lap, back when my two brothers and I were small enough to all fit in one La-Z-Boy with him-- one kid in the nook beside each armrest and one kid in the middle.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" turns 40 this year. It airs tonight on ABC. It's been around so long, I've never bothered to think about what made it a classic-- what differentiates it from a thousand other tales of animated giving and golden rules and striped-y stockings with silver bell soundtracks. But in 1965, execs thought the show was "defiantly different."

When CBS bigwigs saw a rough cut of A Charlie Brown Christmas in November 1965, they hated it.

"They said it was slow," executive producer Lee Mendelson remembers with a laugh. There were concerns that the show was almost defiantly different: There was no laugh track, real children provided the voices, and there was a swinging score by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.

Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez fretted about the insistence by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz that his first-ever TV spinoff end with a reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke by a lisping little boy named Linus.

"We told Schulz, 'Look, you can't read from the Bible on network television,' " Mendelson says. "When we finished the show and watched it, Melendez and I looked at each other and I said, 'We've ruined Charlie Brown.' "

Good grief, were they wrong. The first broadcast was watched by almost 50% of the nation's viewers. "When I started reading the reviews, I was absolutely shocked," says Melendez, 89. "They actually liked it!"

Thank goodness Shulz made it in 1965. That baby would be a Veggie Tales straight-to-video these days. With all due respect to Bob the Tomato, I prefer the Gospel of Luke coming from Linus. But it turns out that what scared execs about Charlie's low-key, surprisingly soulful Christmas is exactly what made it beloved:

Parents like Molly Kremidas, 39, who grew up adoring A Charlie Brown Christmas, watch it with their kids. "It's the values in the story," says Kremidas, of Winston-Salem, N.C. She'll watch tonight with daughter Sofia, 6. "Would there be any programs for children on today that could get away with talking about the real meaning of Christmas? I don't think so."
Parents say the combination of humor and bedrock values is what draws them and their children to the show. "It does provide a balance, but it's a balance that we as a society have forgotten about," says Patrick Lemp, 43, of West Hartford, Conn. He'll watch tonight with son Brendan, 13.

"This is one of the last shows that actually comes out and talks about the meaning of Christmas. As a society, we're taking religion out of a lot of the trappings of the holiday. This one is different."

The 'War on Christmas' has been a big buzz phrase this year, and I'm not going to harp on it a lot. But it makes us look rather silly to walk around Christmas shopping, taking Christmas vacations, wrapping Christmas presents for under the Christmas tree and pretending that this winter "holiday" is about nothing when everyone knows what it's about.

Yes, not everyone celebrates Christmas and it doesn't mean the exact same thing to everyone who celebrates it. We should be mindful of that with our friends and family-- that's just plain good manners. But removing the word "Christ" from the holiday is kind of like spelling out cuss words in front of your teenager. You're not fooling anyone and there ain't a whole lot of harm in just saying it.

Linus wasn't offending anyone. He was just being honest when he read, "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 goodwill toward men. And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." (Luke 2: 13-14)

Shulz created a special for a holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus and in that special, he told the story of the birth of Jesus. Makes sense to me.

But these days, it takes the Peanuts kids to act like adults about it. Perhaps Linus has a security blanket he could lend the rest of us.

Judging from the tremendous success of Charlie Brown's honest Christmas story, network execs would be wise to heed another verse from Luke:

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.