I have a confession to make.
One of my childhood heroes — right up there with “Little House” author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Celtic great Bill Russell and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck — was cartoonist Charles M. Schultz. I still cannot believe that Schultz died (February 12, 2000) only hours before his poignant farewell to his readers ran in American newspapers.
I remain an avid reader of the “Classic Peanuts” feature and, to tell you the truth, some of the strips remain so current that it seems like Schultz is still at work, taking the latest fads in pop psychology and weaving them into his dry punchlines.
This brings us, of course, to the annual broadcast of the “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This cartoon classic remains one of the highlights of America’s mass-media holiday blitz, which makes me wonder why glass-tower Grinches at ABC elected to run it on Dec. 7th this year, instead of on the Sunday night before Christmas or, better yet, on Christmas Eve.
If you are interested in the fascinating story behind this classic, by all means check out the Washington Post feature that ran in Michael Cavna’s Comic Riffs weblog. I have been so busy the past few days (it’s exit week at the Washington Journalism Center) that I didn’t notice whether or not this story ran in the dead-tree-pulp Style section. I hope that it did.
Schultz was a Christian believer, but one whose faith evolved quite a bit as he aged. He was raised as a Lutheran and as an adult taught Sunday school (oh to be a fly on that classroom wall) in a United Methodist church. In his final decades, he simply called himself a “secular humanist,” but without actively denying his faith.
As you would expect, there is a religion angle in the Christmas special. It’s impossible to talk about Schultz’s life without mentioning his insistence that the always wise Linus van Pelt be allowed to recite Luke 2:8-14, from the King James Version of the Bible, in the script — forming the emotional peak of the show. Feel free to watch the attached YouTube video, if you have forgotten this scene.
This brings us to producer-director Lee Mendelson, animator Bill Melendez and some commentary by Bay Area novelist Michael Chabon:
Charles Schulz insisted on one core purpose: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had to be about something. Namely, the true meaning of Christmas. Otherwise, Schulz said, “Why bother doing it?”
Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include Biblical text in the special. The cartoonist’s response, Mendelson recalls: “If we don’t do it, who will?”
To Coca-Cola’s credit, Mendelson says, the corporate sponsor never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages. The result — Linus’s reading from the Book of Luke about the meaning of the season — became “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation,” the producer says.
In writing about the “Peanuts” special in “Manhood for Amateurs,” Chabon — a self-described Jewish “liberal agnostic empiricist” — waxed: “I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing progressive commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown’s heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christianity of its power to move me the way any truly great story can.”
The only problem with that passage is that, for some reason, it misses part of the drama. While the sponsor may have embraced the vision of Schultz — and Linus — numerous accounts of the backstage proceedings stress that CBS executives opposed the use of the Bible verses.
But “Sparky” Schultz stood firm and a cultural classic was born — Bible verses and all.
In the end, Cavna notes:
Finally, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was screened for CBS executives — who promptly didn’t get it. “They didn’t get the voices. They didn’t get the music. They didn’t get the pacing,” Mendelson recalls. “They said: ‘This is probably going to be the last ["Peanuts" special]. But we’ve got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.’ ”
On Dec. 9, 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted. The special garnered glowing reviews. And half the United States tuned in.
Alas, it seems that Christmas has been controversial for a long, long time — among some media elites. That is part of this classic, and very dramatic, story.