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Remembering Charlie Brown’s unlikely classic

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” made its debut at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965. It was viewed by 45 percent of those who were watching television that evening, with an estimated 16 million homes tuned in.

In those days, only Saturday mornings were reserved for children’s shows, thus a cartoon on a prime-time weeknight proved rare indeed.

That December, when I was 13, my parents, four siblings and I were living with my country grandparents, who still had five children residing in their three-bedroom house in Readyville, Tenn. (population 100).

In those days, only Saturday mornings were reserved for children’s shows, thus a cartoon on a prime-time weeknight proved rare indeed.

(My family was in the process of moving from Oklahoma to France, an Air Force transfer that never happened, but that’s another story.)

We slept in every room in the house but for the kitchen and bathroom. My brother and I shared a bunk in the den, while two uncles, one of them about ready to ship out to Vietnam, slept in another bed.

That Thursday December evening, after one of my grandma’s incredible suppers (I cannot remember the main course but can guarantee there would have been heaping plates of hot, homemade biscuits), a dozen or so of us scrunched in the den, and there, on a black-and-white TV set, we enjoyed the inaugural “Peanuts” special, which by the way was commissioned by Coca-Cola.

This was a remarkable, memorable treat.

I don’t believe I’ll spoil anything by sharing this part of the story. When Charlie Brown cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus speaks up. 

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” Linus says. Security blanket in hand, he walks to center stage and quotes Luke 2:8-14 from the King James Version:

When Charlie Brown complains about the materialism he observes during the Christmas season, he needs Linus’ help to learn the true meaning of Christmas. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” streams on Apple TV+

“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 good 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. …”

The story closes as the children harmonize on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

No “Good grief!” at the end, just the silent recognition of good grace, God’s grace, through the gift of his infant son, Christ the Lord, the greatest miracle of them all.

You cannot intentionally create a classic. It must prove itself by the test of time. This 25-minute animation, the first-ever “Peanuts” special, has accomplished that. It ranks as the second-longest-running holiday special on TV, right behind “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which premiered one year earlier.

Astonishingly, this Emmy and Peabody award-winning cartoon, made for a mere $96,000, almost did not make it on the air. “Peanuts” comic-strip creator Charles Schulz and his production crew, guided by producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, believed they had made a dud.

Besides that, CBS network executives hated it, complaining of its slow pace and simple animation. They gave it black marks because it had no adult voices and no laugh tracks.

That was not all.

The bigwigs of the powerful commercial network did not approve of the anti-commercialism message. They also did not like the sound of Vince Guaraldi’s magnificent jazzy score, itself a classic.

But the gripe at the top of their list?

Well, at the heart of the matter was the gospel truth.

They were afraid of Linus quoting Holy Scripture. They reportedly bleated, “You can’t read from the Bible on network television!”   

How mistaken they were.

KEN BECK is a member of College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tenn., and was an entertainment and feature writer with The Tennessean for 31 years. He writes weekly feature stories for Middle Tennessee community papers and has co-written several books about “The Andy Griffith Show.” Contact [email protected].

Filed under: A Charlie Brown Christmas Ken Beck Peanuts Review Reviews

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