This Christmas marks the 45th year of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and its shining moment of Linus reciting from the gospel of Luke. The program will air again on ABC this coming Thursday, but today The Washington Post carried a lengthy feature article about the making of this animated classic.
I was fascinated to find out that a documentary filmmaker was at the bottom of it all, producer-director Lee Mendelson. He and "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz worked with animator Bill Melendez to create this television special. According to the Post, "Charles Schulz was long viewed as a man plagued by anxiety, self-doubt and fear of rejection. Yet when it came to the production of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' Mendelson says, Schulz was the epitome of confidence and assured cool." He was also the one to hold the line about the show's focus, according to the newspaper.
Schulz insisted on one core purpose: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had to be about something. Namely, the true meaning of Christmas. Otherwise, Schulz said, "Why bother doing it?"
Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include biblical text in the special. The cartoonist's response, Mendelson recalls: "If we don't do it, who will?"
To Coca-Cola's credit, Mendelson says, the corporate sponsor never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages. The result -- Linus's reading from the Book of Luke about the meaning of the season -- became "the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation," the producer says.
In writing about the "Peanuts" special in "Manhood for Amateurs," [author Michael] Chabon -- a self-described Jewish "liberal agnostic empiricist" -- waxed: "I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing progressive commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christianity of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."
Mendelson also credits part of the power of the scene to child voice actor Christopher Shea, whose tone of wise innocence, the producer says, fits the moment perfectly.
Below are two clips from the show, including the famous Linus recitation. Note how when he gets to the verse about "fear not," he drops his beloved security blanket. A wonderful example for us all this holiday season!
For additional perspectives on this program, here are two blog posts I've written about in the past: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Lessons from A Charlie Brown Christmas."