“Christmas time is here. Happiness and cheer.” Those are the opening words to the song that stars the most beloved animated Christmas special in American history, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sure, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer has its fans and will also air again this year, but Charlie Brown’s ability to connect with both children and adults have made it a staple of the holiday season.
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without the image of Charlie Brown sulking behind a wall, or Linus standing on a stage and explaining the true meaning of Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on December 9, 1965 and has aired every year since.
Thursday, December 1 at 8 p.m. ET marks the first time the special will air during the 2016 holiday season. It will air one more time before Christmas on ABC.
Here’s a look at some fun facts about the special and how it was made.
1. Although ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ Is Critical of the Over-Commercialization of the Holiday, It Wouldn’t Have Been Made Without Coca-Cola
While we think of A Charlie Brown Christmas as a special meant to teach children and all viewers that the real meaning of Christmas isn’t getting presents or having a big Christmas Tree, the special wouldn’t have happened at all if it wasn’t for commercialism.
The story of A Charlie Brown Christmas really began back in 1963, when producer Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez made a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz called A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Amazingly, even though the Peanuts strip was already popular by this point, no network wanted to back – or even air – a Charlie Brown special, so A Boy Named never aired.
In April 1965 though, a New York ad executive saw Peanuts on the cover of Time Magazine. The executive called up Mendelson and proposed that they make a half-hour Christmas special with the Peanuts characters as part of Coca-Cola’s ad campaign for the holiday season. Mendelson agreed.
“I don’t know what possessed me. I didn’t ask the animator (Bill Melendez). I didn’t ask Schulz,” Mendelson told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000. Schulz had to come up with a script idea the next day so it could be presented to Coke executives in Atlanta. A few week later, Mendelson and Schulz were given the OK to make the special, but they only had six months to make it!
2. Schulz Really Didn’t Want a Laugh Track, but Producer Lee Mendelson Thought It Needed Laughter
After the finished film was screened for CBS executives, Mendelson and the other executives didn’t think much of it.
“We just thought it was a little slow, and it was certainly not a traditional Christmas show,” Mendelson told the LA Times in 2015. “When you’re too close to something, you get a little worried.”
Mendelson recalled one of the studio executives telling him, “Well, you gave it a good try.”
David Micheaelis wrote in Schulz and Peanuts (2007) that Mendelson thought a laugh track would liven it up, especially since they were so common for animated shows in the 1960s. But Schulz didn’t like that idea and refused.
It was also Schulz who insisted that religion be a part of the special. Today, we can’t imagine A Charlie Brown Christmas without Linus’ reading of Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. Without it, the special couldn’t possibly succeed in showing the true meaning of the holiday.
“We can’t avoid it,” Schulz insisted.
3. The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Jazz Score Has Sold Over 3.4 Million Copies Since 1991
In 2014, Billboard reported that the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s unique jazz score for A Charlie Brown Christmas is the 10th best-selling Christmas album of all time. It has sole over 3.4 million copies since 1991, when Nielsen began tracking music sales.
Guaraldi also worked on A Boy Named Charlie Brown, writing his famous “Linus And Lucy” theme for that documentary. The theme was used in A Charlie Brown Christmas and is inseparable from the <i.Peanuts gang.
“Next to Schulz’s writing, I thought the music was the key to the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The jazz made it so contemporary. The music has really become as famous as the show,” Mendelson said in 2000.
The score is such an important part of American pop culture that it was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry Listing in 2011.
4. 45 Percent of All American TVs Were Tuned to CBS for ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ When it First Aired
CBS and everyone involved with A Charlie Brown Christmas were stunned by the show’s success. Nielsen says that it was wanted in 15 million U.S. households, with 45 percent of all televisions used that night on CBS.
“We value these Peanuts specials as much as anything on our network,” ABC Senior Vice President Robert Mills told the LA Times last year.
5. ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ Won a Primetime Emmy & a Prestigious Peabody Award
A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn’t just a hit with audiences, but critics and the Hollywood industry loved it. In 1966, it won the Outstanding Children’s Program Primetime Emmy Award. Schulz was nominated for Special Classification of Individual Achievements. The score was nominated for the Best Recording for children Grammy in 1978.
Perhaps what really solidified the special’s status as an instant classic was a Peabody Award. These awards are given to media outlets and programs that provide a public service. Here’s the full citation for the show:
Gentleness is a quality that is seldom understood by television’s writers or directors. A notable exception was telecast during the holiday season of 1965. It was a little gem of a show that faithfully and sensitively introduced to television the Peanuts collection of newspaper characters created by Charles Schulz. A Charlie Brown Christmas was a delight for the whole family.
Without A Charlie Brown Christmas, we wouldn’t have a long line of great Peanuts specials that continue to entertain audiences every year. In the 2000s, the Melendez/Mendelson team returned to Christmas with I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown (2004) and Charlie Brown’s Christmas tales (2002), but the original is the only one airing on ABC year after year.
To find out when A Charlie Brown Christmas airs, click here: