In December 1965, the nation was at war in Vietnam. Young Americans were being conscripted into the military. The hippie movement was taking hold, political assassinations and the fight for civil rights were de rigueur. We were grappling for some sort of sanity in our chastened democracy.
Along came Peanuts, by then a wildly successful cartoon strip already 13 years old. Producer Lee Mendelson asked cartoonist Charles Schulz to come up with a Christmas television special which Coca-Cola wanted to sponsor. Mendelson then hired Bill Melendez as animator and the three were off to the races. The outline for the story took one half day to complete, the producing took six months, the actual recording of it, one day! Upon completion, CBS executives were very unhappy with it. But it was too late to get another program done. Reluctantly, they showed it to the critics for preview and an influential critic for Time magazine loved it. So it was a go. But, the executives were already planning to scrap it for next year.
One of the major problems was the ending of the story. Linus tells the group that the real meaning of Christmas happened in Bethlehem thousands of years ago at the birth of Christ and that is why we celebrate this feast. He recites the narrative of the Nativity found in Luke’s Gospel. The executives straightened up in their chairs. This cannot be allowed. There is to be no preaching of religion on television. Never before had a section of the gospel, or Torah, or Koran ever been allowed to be read on TV! Schulz was told to scrap that part. They would substitute the show with another one from their archives. Schulz still refused. He was a fervent reader of the New Testament having been raised in a Midwestern city, in a practicing Methodist family. He didn’t care what he would lose. He would not change the ending. CBS then decided to grit their teeth and go on with the show. The night it aired, more than one half the nation watched it and 92% gave a resounding approval!
CBS later sold the rights to the show to ABC who held it until 2018 when they sold it to Apple TV+. The story went from free access television for millions, especially children, to Apple’s streaming venues which require paid subscriptions. No wonder a deluge of protests came from all over the country speaking for people who cannot afford Apple TV+. Fortunately, PBS stepped in and a deal was made with Apple TV+ for this year. On December 13, we can all enjoy free access to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on PBS. But you have to wonder if Apple TV+ isn’t using the classic for its own profit. It will run in that venue from December 7th through the 13th. I ask if the meaning of Christmas is that a poor family settled in an animal shelter to welcome the Savior of the human race into this world. Why is not the telling of that story less about money and more about sharing? Why would executives in all of these networks once again, choose to misread the fact that all children deserve the right to enjoy a story made for them about hope and love? Many, many children do not have access to cable and streaming. They cannot enjoy and learn from the story of the Nativity if it is presented in specialized venues their families cannot afford. I am grateful for PBS stepping up and taking it on.
A Charlie Brown Christmas won an Emmy and a Peabody and spawned 40 more television specials during Schulz’s lifetime. It is the most watched cartoon story in the history of television. Maybe there is an underlying lesson here for all of us this advent.
Could it be that you and I need to practice patience in something while taking a stand for its just conclusion like Mary and Joseph did as they prepared for Bethlehem?
Or like Charles Schulz did as he argued for the Nativity story in his show?
What is demanding my patience and courage this advent?