This year marks the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. To mark the occasion, here are 50 factoids, tidbits, quotes or observations about the little holiday special that only a blockhead could dislike.
1. Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip began in 1950 and by the early 60s was a full-blown phenomenon. The 1962 book Happiness is a Warm Puppy was a New York Times bestseller, and Time magazine featured Schulz’s characters on its April 9, 1965 cover.
2. In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson started work on a TV documentary about Schulz and Peanuts. The film included brief animated scenes created by Bill Melendez and original music by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. All the networks passed on it.
3. An ad exec who saw the film convinced his client, Coca-Cola, to commission and sponsor a Peanuts Christmas special.
4. After agreeing to the deal, Schulz and Mendelson only had a few days to formulate their ideas for a pitch to Coke.
5. Schulz created the story outline in less than one day. It included virtually all of the now-familiar elements of the special and went largely unchanged throughout production.
6. Animator Bill Melendez cut his teeth at Disney and Warner Brothers before starting his own studio. He first collaborated with Schulz on a 1959 Ford commercial using the Peanuts characters.
7. Melendez kept the animation simple and flat, staying true to the look of the strip. He later told an interviewer, “I didn’t try to Disney-fy it.”
8. Using a laugh track was common for animated shows at the time, but Schulz vetoed the idea, saying he didn’t think people needed to be told when something was funny.
9. Contrary to standard practice, all the characters in the show were voiced by child actors. The subtle comic effect of innocent voices delivering Schulz’s wry, sometimes adult-sounding dialogue was key to the show’s appeal.
10. No adult characters appear in A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Peanuts practice of using a trombone for the voices of unseen grownups was established for later productions.
11. Eight-year-old Peter Robbins, who had several commercials and TV roles under his belt, was chosen to voice the title character. As an adult he has worked in radio and real estate in California.
12. Smaller roles were voiced by kids from Mendelson’s neighborhood in Northern California. Among the youngest was six-year-old Cathy Sternberg as Sally. Since she couldn’t yet read, her lines were fed to her, sometimes a few words or a single word at a time. This explains the odd pacing of some lines in the show.
13. Snoopy was voiced by director Bill Melendez, who sped up recordings of his own gibberish and howling.
14. The special originally included the Coca-Cola logo in a few shots that were later edited out, including at the end of the opening skating sequence when Linus crashed into a Coca-Cola sign.
15. Schulz wanted snow and ice-skating to feature heavily in the story, perhaps reflecting his own upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota.
16. The idea of using a tree came from Mendelson, who had read Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Fir Tree,” to his kids the previous Christmas.
17. “We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate.” Lucy’s line likely went over the heads of most kids, but would have resonated with adults, especially considering Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s early-60s crusade against organized crime.
18. Popular since the late 50s, aluminum Christmas trees pretty much stopped being a thing after Schulz and company turned them into a symbol of crass commercialism in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
19. Technical glitches and continuity errors abound, but somehow they add to the show’s charm. Watch the sign on the front of Lucy’s psychiatry stand if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
20. Speaking of Lucy’s psychiatry stand, pantophobia—the fear of everything—is real. Ailurophasia, defined by Lucy as fear of cats, isn’t. (The correct term would be ailurophobia.)
21. Schroeder’s toy piano can sound like a regular piano, a pipe organ, a whole jazz trio, and even … a toy piano.
22. Who knew Pigpen played upright bass?
23. “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”—Linus
24. Producer Lee Mendelson was in a taxi crossing the Golden Gate bridge when he heard Vince Guaraldi’s tune “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio. He sought out the Bay area jazz pianist to provide music for his Peanuts documentary, and later for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
25. Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”—which would become known as the main Peanuts theme—was written for the documentary and was used again in the Christmas special. Rounding out the soundtrack were a mix of Guaraldi originals and his arrangements of familiar holiday songs.
26. Melendez wrote the lyrics to Guaraldi’s original tune “Christmas Time is Here” in 15 minutes on the back of an envelope. It has since been recorded by the likes of Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, LeAnn Rimes and even rock guitarist Steve Vai.
27. Guaraldi went on to write and perform music for 17 more Peanuts specials before dying suddenly at age 47 in 1976.
28. Children from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, were recruited to sing the songs that opened and closed the show.
29. “Real estate.” What Lucy and every other kid really wants for Christmas.
30. “Graphic blandishment.” This quirky term—used in the closing credits to denote artists and animators—is one I’ve never seen anywhere but Peanuts specials. It’s also not a bad band name.
31. Charlie Brown to Pigpen: “You may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon. Or even Nebuchadnezzar.” (Mind blown.)
32. Linus regarding Charlie Brown’s pitiful tree: “It just needs a little love.” Don’t we all?
33. Producers were initially doubtful about the scene where Linus recites Scripture, since religious content was usually avoided in network Christmas broadcasts. Schulz insisted, saying “If we don’t do it, who will?”
34. The show was produced in six months and was completed just ten days shy of its airdate.
35. When the production team watched the finished product, they felt a sense of unease. “We thought that perhaps we had somehow missed the boat,” Mendelson said. “We thought that we had ruined Charlie Brown.”
36. CBS executives were also disappointed, citing the special’s slow pace, simple animation, and music that “didn’t fit.”
37. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS on Thursday night, December 9, 1965, pre-empting The Munsters.
38. The show was a ratings bonanza. In fact it finished second only to Bonanza for the week, with 45% of TV sets tuned in (an unimaginable number today).
39. Critics were universally positive. Time magazine’s TV writer called it “a special that really is special,” citing the show’s “refreshingly low-key” and “unpretentious” qualities.
40. Sponsor Coca-Cola got thousands of letters of praise from the public, including this from a group of nuns: “Our sincere thanks to you and Mr. Schulz for bringing to the fore, in his wholesome philosophy, the real spirit of Christmas which is so often obliterated … May the makers of Coca-Cola be greatly blessed for their part in this worthwhile endeavor.”
41. The show won a Emmy in 1966 for Outstanding Children’s Program, beating out Captain Kangaroo, Disney and others. In accepting the award, Schulz remarked, “Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you.”
42. The success of A Charlie Brown Christmas inspired the creation of other animated specials. We may never have seen the Grinch on TV if not for good old Charlie Brown.
43. The soundtrack has been certified triple platinum and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007. (It’s currently available in a special “green vinyl” edition at your local HPB.)
44. It’s the second-longest-running Christmas special, behind Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which premiered the previous year.
45. For further reading: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition and The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation, both authored or co-authored by Lee Mendelson, are available new at HPB stores (while supplies last).
46. A Charlie Brown Christmas was adapted as a stage musical in 2013.
47. In 2013 a flash mob recreated the dancing scene in New York City:
48. In October 2015, the U.S. Postal Service issued commemorative stamps in honor of the special.
49. On November 30, ABC—the show’s home since 2001—will mark its 50th anniversary by airing it within a two-hour special hosted by Kristen Bell. The whole thing repeats on Christmas Eve.
50. A Charlie Brown Christmas is timeless because it perfectly captured the special mix of introspection, melancholy and humor that Schulz invented for his pioneering comic strip. After Schulz’s death in 2000, Time magazine wrote: “By fusing adult ideas with a world of small children, Schulz reminded us that although childhood wounds remain fresh, we have the power as adults to heal ourselves with humor. If we can laugh at the daily struggles of a bunch of funny-looking kids and in their worries recognize the adults we’ve become, we can free ourselves.”