As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 16, 2018. Above, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” [AP, File/1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.]
I knew teaching Sunday school the week before Christmas was going to be a challenge. With Santa’s arrival looming, it was unlikely the second graders in my class at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich would stay still. So I threw out the lesson book and cued up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the video player. I didn’t think my diversion from the syllabus was sacrilege; after all, at the heart of the animated classic is a recitation of the Nativity story.
But that memorable scene almost didn’t make it to the screen.
Based on the acclaimed “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offered charming social commentary and a hip jazz soundtrack when it first aired in 1965. The made-for-TV special opens with the forever-beleaguered title character out of sorts again, this time due to the commercialism that pervades the Yuletide season. Even directing a neighborhood Christmas play can’t shake Charlie Brown from his doldrums.
Finally, exasperated during a rehearsal, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” At which point, his friend Linus walks to center stage and, alone in a spotlight, recites the story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of Luke: “… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord …”
The show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, and director, Bill Melendez, both advised against including the New Testament reading. Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.” But the “Peanuts” creator, a practicing Christian, was adamant. “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” he said. The scene was retained, and it is impossible to imagine the story without it.
It wouldn’t be the last time Schulz’s work courted controversy. Three years later, amid exploding racial tensions in cities across the United States, the cartoonist added Franklin, an African-American character, to the “Peanuts” gang. It was the first time a minority character appeared in a mainstream comic strip. When editors complained about certain strips featuring Franklin, Larry Rutman, the president of the company that syndicated “Peanuts,” requested changes. Years later, Schulz recounted his response: “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” The strips ran, unmodified.
Beyond Linus’s biblical reading, there were other concerns with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Mendelson worried that the pacing was too slow and bemoaned the absence of a laugh track, which Schulz had vetoed. Melendez was embarrassed by the simple animation. Network executives said the music and voices were wrong and, in true Charlie Brown fashion, anticipated absolute failure.
But Schulz and the American public proved them wrong. More than 15 million households tuned in, which was nearly half of all people watching TV that Sunday evening. The special elicited glowing reviews, including Lawrence Laurent’s quip in The Washington Post that “Good old Charlie Brown, a natural born loser … finally turned up a winner.”
Years later, the response from my second-grade church school class was equally triumphant. In subsequent Advent seasons, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an annual event for all of the Sunday school classes at St. Luke’s, as well as for some adult “kids.” Everyone would be still when, in the final scene, Linus relinquishes his ever-present blue security blanket to wrap the trunk of Charlie Brown’s sparse, needle-shedding Christmas tree. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” he says. “Maybe it just needs a little love.”
Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, Linus’s words in that final scene speak to a yearning that is fundamental to us all.
As the credits for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” rolled, the kids at St. Luke’s always clapped. I’d like to think that Charles Schulz, once a Sunday school teacher himself, would have been pleased.