Making Christmas Specials: A Charlie Brown Christmas

St. Andrew’s Stars Episode:




Hespeler, 13 December, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Psalm 107:1-16, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, John 17:13-19
A
lmost exactly fifty years ago today (think about that for a moment!) On Thursday, December 9, 1965, viewers who were just settling in to watch their favourite television show on CBS, the Munsters, were in for a surprise. The show had been pre-empted, replaced with a brand new television special: A Charlie Brown Christmas. For the very first time the popular comic strip was brought to life through the magic of animation.
        And the executives down at CBS were huddled in fear. They were bracing for what they were sure would be an embarrassing failure. And they had some very good reasons for that fear. The special had been made on a shoestring budget and had definitely suffered for it. The animation was very poor quality. It was jerky and repetitive. The sound was hardly better. The film was poorly edited as well and the action cut from one thing to another in strange and unexplained ways.
      Part of the problem was the pure bullheadedness of the writer: Charles Shultz. He had insisted on a number of ridiculous things. He’d insisted on using child actors for the voices – children who had no experience at all. Some of them couldn’t even read! The producers had to read the lines to the kids and have them repeat them back and then they had to splice the dialogue together. (Which is actually how we tape our St. Andrews Stars episodes.) The result, in the pre-digital age, was dialogue that was choppy and didn’t sound good.
      Shultz also wanted the soundtrack to be played by a jazz trio which everyone considered to be quite inappropriate for a children’s show. Even worse, he absolutely refused to add a la
ugh track. The executives tried and tried to make him see how foolish this was. They even made up an alternate version with the laugh track, hoping that he would change his mind at the last minute but Shultz would not budge.
      But the worst thing of all – the thing that they were sure would lead to a total disaster – Shultz had included in his script a reading from the Gospel of Luke. And the executives were certain that when Linus stepped forward and began to quote from the King James Version of the Bible, people everywhere would turn off their televisions in disgust. Perhaps they would never tune into CBS ever again. Oh, it was awful!
      Well, as we all know now, those television experts in their high towers were all wrong and the lowly cartoonist was completely right. The special was a smash hit both with the general audience and with the critics. It won an Emmy and a Peabody award the next year. It became an instant classic and still remains one to this very day. For many people, Christmas would not be Christmas if they didn’t get to see it. And, what’s more, the very things that the executives were worried about – the things that Shultz had insisted on – were the best things about it. The amateur child actors lent a sense of sincerity to the whole thing. People just loved Vince Guaraldi’s music. When the cd came out several years ago, it was the top seller of the season. And Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke was hailed as “quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”[1]
      “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” That is what the Apostle Paul wrote to his friends in the church at Corinth centuries ago. Perhaps if Paul had written it in 1965 he would have said, “But God chose the cartoonists of the world to shame the high-powered executives.” It is a wonderful gospel principle. And it is so true. God has this uncanny way of using the very people that everyone else looks down on and despises to accomplish his greatest works. Who but God would think of creating a nation out of two people who had no children and were already so old that they had one foot in the grave? Who but God would chose a ragged band of shepherds to spread the news that the Messiah had been born? Who but Jesus would think of starting a new religious movement by choosing some fishermen and a few tax-collectors and troublemakers?
      And this eternal principle was put on display yet again when Charles Shultz created his beloved television special. What’s more, the very same principle was on display in the plot of the special. I’m sure that we all know the story. Charlie Brown is upset as Christmas approaches. He is afraid that he has lost the true meaning of Christmas in the midst of all the glitz and glamour and especially the commercialism of the season. The special tells the story of his struggles.
      It is amazing when you think of it but somehow the story has remained very current for over fifty years. Charlie Brown’s struggles with the Christmas season are still the very same struggles that people have to this day. Take this exchange between Charlie Brown and his little sister, Sally. Sally has asked her brother to write a letter to Santa for her. And this is what she dictates: “Dear Santa Claus, How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.” “Oh brother,” says Charlie Brown. “Please note the size and color of each item,” says Sally, “and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”
      “Tens and twenties?” cries Charlie Brown, “Oh, even my baby sister!” “All I want is what I have coming to me,” replies Sally. “All I want is my fair share.”
      That exchange could just as easily be written today as it was fifty years ago. But if anything it has all gotten worse since the 1960’s. For so many people today, Christmas is all about making sure that they get what’s coming to them. And it’s not just the kids; it has spread to every area of our society. The culture of Christmas seems to have become ever more a culture of everyone getting what’s coming to them.
      In the Christmas special, the symbol of the commercialism and greed of the season is the artificial aluminum Christmas tree. The fake trees are beautiful and awe inspiring and the little natural tree that Charlie Brown chooses instead of them is, by contrast, so plain and disappointing. But the message of the special is that the simple, plain and seemingly unimpressive things have a power and a meaning that goes a lot further than the glitz and glamour of the commercial products.
      That’s why, at the end, the Peanuts gang learns to respect and even love Charlie Brown’s little tree. In the same way, Linus’ simple recitation of the plain old simple Gospel story of a plain old simple birth has the power to touch everyone’s heart. The message of the special, when you get right down to it is that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
      Friends, that is the message, not only of a fifty year-old television special, it is and has always been the message of Christianity and especially of Christmas. Now, I know that the big money-making juggernaut that is Christmas can be pretty overwhelming at times. Those who are out to get whatever is coming to them seem to be in charge no matter what we may have to say about it.
      If we fail to go along with that prevailing wisdom, people might laugh at us and call us foolish. Politicians demand positive economic indicators and economists look for growth in the Gross Domestic Product, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to politicians and foolishness to economists.
      But somehow I believe that once all of that economic wisdom has passed away and been sent to the recycler like so many gaudy aluminum Christmas trees, our simple and lowly little natural tree of faith will still be standing and still be inspiring hope and life. For “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

    
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[1]
Harriet Van Horne in the New York World-Telegram.
        

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