When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was produced for television in 1965, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz asked for one thing in particular. That the special be about something. Namely, he insisted, it be about the true spirit of Christmas.
Otherwise, he said, “Why bother?
Of course, the spirit of the holiday is exactly what the special is about. Mostly lighthearted and inspirational, it’s highlighted by a moving scene in which the Linus character, blanket in hand, stands on a spotlighted stage and explains the true meaning of Christmas. It includes a biblical passage from the Book of Luke.
His words, like the special itself, has been charming audiences ever since.
Charming, however, was not the word CBS executives used when they first viewed the completed special. They hated it -– or just didn’t get it. The pacing was off, they thought, and the music was different, classical in parts, jazzy in others. “This is probably going to be the last [Peanuts special],” one executive chirped. “But we got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.”
The producers were deflated. “We thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown,”one exclaimed.
Until then, the only controversy was whether or not to include the use of a biblical verse in an animated special. Schulz again insisted. “If we don’t do it,” he said “who will.” Coca-Cola, the soft drink giant that sponsored the special, gave their blessing.
Linus’s big scene has reached iconic status now, both in popular culture and religious circles.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” Linus recites. “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 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 towards men.
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus’s effective speech is also credited to the child actor who provided the voice. Before the special, Peanuts characters had only been heard in a Ford Commercial. The producer’s wanted them all to be voiced by children. Christopher Shea was only 8 years old at the time. He had the most innocent sounded voice and was tapped for the Linus character. His measured, straightforward reading is considered legendary. “It’s one of the most amazing moments ever in animation, “raved Peter Robbins, the original voice for Charlie Brown. Robbin’s voice was picked for Charlie Brown because it sounded “blah.”
Even though CBS thought it would only run for a year and be forgotten, once it was in the public consciousness, attitudes changed. Instantly, people began talking about it. The next year, the special won a Peabody award and an Emmy for Outstanding Christmas Programming. A lasting tribute to Charles Schulz original vision that it be about something – something with a message.
One scene in particular is still considered, as a producer described it later, as “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”