Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Christmas in the 1960s: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Religion, and the Conventions of the Television Genre

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Christmas in the 1960s: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Religion, and the Conventions of the Television Genre

Article excerpt

"If we don't do it, who will?" --Charles M. Schulz

Introduction: Asserting Peanuts' Uniqueness

In 1965, after receiving an unexpected offer from Coca-Cola to buy a Peanuts Christmas animated special, comic strip artist Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and animator Bill Melendez had mere months to produce their first television show. The show, based on the outline that they put together in only a weekend, has persisted for generations as one of the most successful Christmas programs ever on television, re-aired annually amid countless merchandise adaptations and parodies. Many retrospectives on the special enjoy discussing the "show that almost wasn't," referencing the atypical use of jazz music, limited animation, child actors, and biblical quotation as reasons why the show was not expected to work. Yet the work has reaped significant reward (including an Emmy and a Peabody Award), becoming as Nat Gertler describes, "part of the visual language of Christmas" (Gertler 2010, 24). Though the franchise as a whole is typically viewed as a secular property (Lind 2008), nuanced religious references can be found throughout Peanuts' fifty-year history, retrospectively making the religious content in A Charlie Brown Christmas less of an aberration. During the time of its original airing in 1965, however, Linus's recitation of the Luke chapter 2 pronouncement of Christ's birth was perceived as a great departure from mainstream television norms.

Three different groups initially acknowledged the atypical quality of the show's religious content. First, industry figures expressed caution toward the idea. During their short scripting session, Charles "Sparky" Schulz had insisted on spiritual content. "Everything was going along very smoothly," Mendelson remembers, "and Sparky said we're going to have to have Linus read from the Bible. And Bill and I looked at each other and said 'Oh, gee, I don't know if you can animate from the Bible, you know, it's never been done before'" (United Features Syndicate 2008). Sparky's response was simply and poignantly, "If we don't do it, who will?" The CBS executives shared Mendelson's hesitance, according to the producer, admitting that "the Bible thing scares us" after screening the program in their New York headquarters (Mendelson 1971, 156). The two network vice presidents in the room disliked the show for a variety of reasons (slow pacing, lack of laugh tracks, unprofessional sounding child actors, jazz scoring, and crude animation). "The network thought it was awful," says Mendelson (quoted in Townsend 2010); "they didn't try to hide their disappointment" (Mendelson 1971, 153). Their disappointment stemmed from a disjuncture between their view of what would make for successful television and the vision Schulz had for transforming his comic strip to the screen with a level of substantive import relevant to the holiday. Because Coca-Cola had already signed off on the initial outline, and more importantly because CBS did not have enough time to pull the advertised Peanuts special from its turn-around broadcast date, the program was aired despite the network's perspective on television's secularity.

The second indicator that religious content was rare came from Schulz himself. In responding to Melendez and Mendelson with the question, "If we don't do it, who will?" Schulz signals that other properties at that time were not making the choice to include explicit religious reference in their Christmas programming (and perhaps beyond). In a question and answer session at the National Cartoonists Society Convention, Schulz affirms the recollections of Melendez and Mendelson, saying for himself,

It was in the midst of deciding what would happen [in the Christmas story], I said, "Gee, Bill, we can't get around it--if we're going to do a Christmas story, we have to use the famous passage about the baby Jesus." And we did. Linus walked out and said, "Lights, please! …

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