‘Fear not … I bring you tidings of great joy’

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    In his final decades simply called himself a “secular humanist,” but without actively denying his faith.

    I especially find interesting people who are humanists or even atheists who manage to portray religion properly and respectfully in their shows. Clearly Schultz was one. And I’ll note Straczynski as another:

    Even though [J. Michael Straczynski] is a professed atheist, Babylon 5 contains many references to Christian ideas. Several episode titles refer, directly or indirectly, to elements of the Christian faith, notably the season 3 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_5_influences#Christianity and a quote I really like: “When God comes knocking at your door, you won’t need me or anyone else to tell you what that sound is.”

    “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,”…“

    That is truly a classic. I don’t think it’s any different today. Executives at that level are not selected for their ability to understand what the American people are really looking for.

  • Bill P.

    One of the great theologians, philosophers and pastors of the current age is Father James Schall, S.J. of Georgetown University. He is a big fan of Schultz. Many of his texts and essays will abruptly use a Peanuts cartoon to make a very important point. Fr. Schall’s many findings of faith in Peanuts is evidence that Schultz’s faith baptized his work, and so should be part of any story about him.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Christmas was controversial in the 4th Century when St. Gregory the Theologian encouraged Christians to avoid all the parties and decorations and stick to praying and good works.

  • Connie in Colorado

    Two of your favorites are two of mine: Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles M. Schultz. I read ‘Peanuts’ each day and the ‘Little House’ books every year. Especially in these economic times I find the same enduring story of honest hard work and ‘making do’ with very little one that our society still doesn’t quite get. Just as ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is enchanting with its simple, clear message of the true meaning of Christmas,the ‘Christmas’ chapters in the ‘Little House’ books also remind us not only of pioneer times but also an appreciation for simple gifts…and life itself. Thanks for your article and insight.

  • Michel

    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 … has robbed the central miracle of Christianity of its power to move me the way any truly great story can.”

    I don’t want to be difficult, well not too difficult, but Christmas is not “the central miracle of Christianity”. This is a problem and I wonder if that show, as wonderful as it is, didn’t contribute to the problem. In journalism, Christmas is the big moment. That’s not quite as egregious as Hanukkah getting more attention than Yom Kippur but it isn’t good.

  • Hector

    RE: I don’t want to be difficult, well not too difficult, but Christmas is not “the central miracle of Christianity”.

    No, the Incarnation is the central miracle of Christianity, and Christmas celebrates the Incarnation. If you’re talking about the resurrection of Christ, that was simply one aspect of his Incarnation. The Incarnation was the big deal, not merely the resurrection.

    That being said, I’m not particularly fond of that fact- it seems to me that the Annunciation was a bigger deal than Christmas, since the Annunciation was the moment at which ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’. At least if we accept the traditional Christian teaching that life begins at conception- the celebration of Christmas, to some extent, plays into the Big Lie of the pro-choicers, that birth is more important than conception.

  • Michel

    The problem with saying that “the Incarnation is the central miracle of Christianity” is that Jesus’ entire life is the Incarnation including every other miracle recorded in the Gospels. Sorry but singling out Christmas as the moment is a problem and the boomer obsession with “the Gospel according to Peanuts” is contributing to the problem.

  • Dave

    But it’s hard to imagine producing “A Charlie Brown Easter” that would be both true to the text and a sentimental favorite.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    HECTOR, et al:

    The simple historical fact, in doctrine and HISTORY, is that the central miracle of the Christian faith is the Resurrection. Christmas and the Incarnation are, obviously, very important.

    However, I don’t know if journalists correct a DIRECT QUOTE of someone saying that. What think others?

  • Jerry

    However, I don’t know if journalists correct a DIRECT QUOTE of someone saying that. What think others?

    I think a journalist’s duty is to report the truth and not only what people say and do. How someone making an incorrect statement should be challenged or corrected is another question. And if it’s a minor mis-statement, I’d probably be ok with letting it pass. But significant errors need to be challenged/corrected whether by a politician, an entertainer pretending to be a commentator or a religious figure. In other words, if we lived in a world where factcheck.org and politifact.com were not needed, I’d be much happier.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org/ Ivan Wolfe

    Schultz was quite coy about the “secular humanist” label. He seemed to consider himself both a secular humanist AND a Christian. In an interview reprinted in the first volume of Fantagraphics complete Collection of Peanuts, he discusses both his faith (at one point, he says while he’s not Mormon, he’s glad his daughter served a Mormon mission because he could discuss the scriptures with her in more detail), and states that he “thinks” he’s becoming or is a “secular humanist” – but he laughs it off. Later in life, he became more firm about the “secular humanist” label, but he still quoted the Bible and talked like a Christian. It’s an interesting debate about what labels actually mean.

  • Hector

    Re: The problem with saying that “the Incarnation is the central miracle of Christianity” is that Jesus’ entire life is the Incarnation including every other miracle recorded in the Gospels

    Well, yes, but Christmas is the day on which the church celebrates and draws attention to the fact of the Incarnation. That’s why John 1:1-14 is often read in churches around Christmastime. Christmas (or more properly, Epiphany) is the time at which the Incarnation was made manifest to the world.

    As I made clear above, I don’t think the Incarnation ‘happened’ on Christmas Day, I think it happened on the day of the Annunciation, but for better or worse, Annunciation is not as big a church feast as Christmas.

  • Hector

    Re: But it’s hard to imagine producing “A Charlie Brown Easter” that would be both true to the text and a sentimental favorite.

    Or even worse, a Charlie Brown Good Friday.

    Good grief!

  • T. Stanton

    Anytime I see that scene with Linus – the tears roll. Every time….

  • Dave G.

    Ivan Wolfe,

    His actual religious beliefs are still a matter of debate. Seemed to be a person who deflected as much as he admitted. Though nobody disagree that he was much stronger in proclaiming his Christian identity in 1965. As an agnostic, I actually loved the show, and thought this was the perfect high point. Fun fact: Linus drops his blanket when he quotes ‘Fear not…’

  • Passing By

    As it happens, I remember watching the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 (if that’s when it was; I remember the event, not the details 45 years later). The articles get right: the voices, the music, and the pacing were all different and unexpected. People talked about what Charlie Brown would sound like. I don’t remember the scripture passage being controversial, but we lived in Dallas, so it would have raised no eyebrows.

    Thanks for a good memory.

    Honestly, the passage from Luke makes me want to hear Messiah, or better yet, sing it, but Charlie Brown Christmas will do.
    :-)

  • MJBubba

    I agree: A Charlie Brown Christmas is the best Christmas movie ever.
    Also, Professor Mattingly, thumbs up on Dave Brubeck. My favorite Christmas oratorio is La Fiesta de la Posada, which I will listen to this weekend on real honest vinyl.
    Since family-friendly sells so well, and since a large majority of families self-identify as Christians, why do the media types shy away from Christian themes?

  • MJBubba

    Another thing. I am glad that the article mentioned the Vince Guaraldi score; it is a masterpiece. GetReligion music aficionados could look up Guaraldi’s mass, most of which is available on his album “The Concert at Grace Cathedral.”

  • Passing By

    I just learned that this year’s ice exhibit at the Gaylord Texan (Grapevine) is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Thought ya’ll might like to know.
    :-)

  • http://sonfollowers.blogspot.com/ Michael

    “Charlie Brown Christmas” rocks! I love that Luke chapter 2 is read right there in the middle of the show. And my favorite part is that it continues to air every year with the Christmas story intact. It’s part of the tradition now. It’s not judgmental or arrogant. It’s just honest.

    Son Followers Blog


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