Opinion Photo

It’s happened again, and it’s not too far-fetched to call it a “Christmas miracle.”

For the 56th consecutive year, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” appeared on national television. In 2021, just as in 2020, the Public Broadcasting Service telecast the celebrated animated special without commercial interruption.

A major commercial disruption of this holiday tradition appeared imminent in October of last year. Apple TV+ acquired the exclusive rights to all media related to “Peanuts,” the comic strip that introduced Charlie Brown and company to America. Despite a pledge by Apple TV+ to make “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and two other animated specials available “free” for viewers on the platform over a three-day period, a clamor arose in the Heartland.

Well over a quarter million people signed an online petition protesting Apple’s decision, claiming that it left “us devoted fans who have grown up with Charlie Brown and the ‘Peanuts’ gang in the dark, unable to watch.”

The criticism prompted Apple — beware the mixed fruit metaphor — to take lemons and make lemonade. That’s when the tech giant struck the deal with PBS to air the show over traditional “free TV.” 

Questions and varying degrees of controversy have surrounded “A Charlie Brown Christmas” since it was literally on the drawing board. “Peanuts” creator Charles M.  Schulz teamed with producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez to take his characters from the newspaper comics section into prime-time TV. By the production standards for animation in the mid-1960s, this presentation was… well, different.

Not only did it look different, with limited animated movement among the characters; it sounded different. No laugh track. A soundtrack that primarily featured the jazz piano of Vince Guaraldi, with a little Beethoven and a couple of Christmas Carols added for good measure. And the voices of the characters weren’t adults trying to sound like kids; they were children.

But the biggest difference was found in the story that Schulz devised. It did not revolve around Santa or Frosty or Rudolph; this was a Christmas story that dealt with the “reason for the season.” Charlie Brown bemoans the commercialization of the holiday; depressed and exasperated, he shouts the question, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus answers him, effectively and movingly, by reciting from the Gospel of Luke: “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” he concludes.

A historical observer might conclude that this all came together seamlessly in the year 1965, that the tenor of the times was favorably disposed toward religious expression, and that the creative team was of one accord.

That wasn’t the case.

As Schulz outlined the story, Bill Melendez objected.

“You can’t put the Bible on television,” the director exclaimed.

Producer Lee Mendelson recalled the response of Charles Schulz: “If we don’t do it, who will?”

Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, explained her husband’s sense of purpose in an interview last year with Yahoo Entertainment: “He just loved the Bible and thought there were just marvelous things in the Bible that were true.”

Believers and nonbelievers alike can recognize this truth in the resolve of Charles M. Schulz: his insistence on incorporating scripture in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” makes that first “Peanuts” special truly special.

The vagaries of television and the legal wrangling of powerful corporations may conspire to keep this Christmas tradition off of “free TV” next year. Whatever its fate, the message will endure. 

Though he left this earthly realm two decades ago, Schulz no doubt understood these words from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

That’s the real “Christmas Miracle.”