Boomers Watched (and Re-Watched) “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

On December 9, 1965, CBS aired the animated holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, for the first time. Based on characters from Peanuts, the comic strip by Charles Schultz, which gained in popularity throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s. This popularity prompted Coca-Cola to sponsor an animated feature. It was the first Peanuts animated feature, and its success foretold additional Peanuts animated features in the coming years.

The comic strip’s distribution exposure meant that TV viewers would be aware of the main characters and their personality traits, so no additional introductions would be necessary. Consequently, it was decided that this would be a half-hour special.

In true 1960s fashion, one of the main plots of the animated feature is Charlie Brown’s dissatisfaction with the commercialization of the holidays. However, the feature embraces the religious sentiment of the holiday with Charlie Brown agreeing to direct the school Christmas play. From the start, Charles Schultz intended there to be a focus on the religious origin of the holiday, and that it would have a jazz score. Neither was common on television at the time, and many wondered if it would be accepted because of that.

The music for the feature was a mix of jazz and traditional Christmas music. Vince Guaraldi was chosen to score the special, and he added two new songs to the mix. All the singing was recorded by children and children’s choirs, and the characters were voiced by children actors. The music was as stripped down as the animation, consisting mainly of just acoustic piano, drums and bass, a fairly common set up for jazz bands.

CBS owned the rights to the special from 1965 to 2000, and aired it each holiday season. ABC acquired the rights and ran it from 2001 to 2019. In 2020, Apple acquired exclusive rights for its streaming service, Apple+, choosing to keep the special off broadcast TV entirely for the first time since 1965. After fielding much criticism from nostalgic consumers, Apple agreed to sponsor an airing on PBS. This year, PBS will air the animated half-hour feature on December 19 at 7:30 pm, sponsored by Apple.

Mister Boomer may be an outlier on this one. He was never a fan of schmaltz and sappiness, in any form. This special falls completely in that category for him. Mister B does not recall the first time he saw A Charlie Brown Christmas, but in subsequent years, he avoided it any chance he could. Raised on the superb animation of Disney films and the contemporary modernism of Chuck Jones’ artwork for cartoons like the Road Runner, the animation in this feature left him unimpressed. Even the bare-bones animation of Rocky and Bullwinkle was light years ahead of this one.

Like many boomers, Mister B found his introduction to jazz from TV. He recalls the jazz songs introduced by a lion puppet character on Soupy Sales, and of course, the adoption of Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five for the Today Show’s theme song in the late 1950s. Such sophisticated beats that were being played on TV in that era ran circles around the insipid soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. One wonders if the producers of A Charlie Brown Christmas couldn’t afford a musician who would add some pizzazz to the project. Can you imagine if Miles Davis or Duke Ellington had been hired for the job?

As Mister Boomer has stated, he acknowledges that this special, and its soundtrack, are much beloved by boomers and beyond. He is just not among them. Somewhere in the early 2000s, a co-worker gave Mister Boomer a CD of the soundtrack, not knowing how he felt on the subject. After warehousing it for a couple of years, Mister B regifted it.

How about you, boomers? Is it thumbs up or thumbs down on A Charlie Brown Christmas? Did you endure the soundtrack, or like it enough to add it to your holiday music collection?

Boomers Participated in Holiday Trends and Traditions

Once Thanksgiving was in the rearview mirror, it was time for boomers to ramp up Christmas decorating around the house. In Mister Boomer’s household, the Christmas tree was not purchased until mid-December (it was always a live tree in his house); but there were still decorating jobs inside the house that began the weekend after Thanksgiving, starting with Mister B and his brother wiping the dust off the family advent wreath. This wreath marked the days until Christmas with a candle for each of the preceding four weeks. The one Mister B’s family had was a rectangular black metal base with holders for four candles on the corners; between the red candles were intertwined scrub-brush-fake pine branches and pine cones that were painted with “snow.” It served mainly as a decorative centerpiece on the dining room table. Candles were only lit on each successive Sunday with an accompanying prayer, before the family meal. Space was at a premium, so the candles were extinguished and the unit moved off the table once the meal was served.

Another sure sign that Christmas was on the way was the annual covering of the inside of the front door with either aluminum foil or wrapping paper. For more than a decade this was the designated spot where Christmas cards would be Scotch taped. In the years when Mister B’s mom was in a decorating mood, wide red ribbon was added to make it look like a giant gift package before any cards were put on it. Inevitably, there were certain relatives and family friends who made sure their Christmas card greeting arrived a day or two after Thanksgiving.

Much more fun for Mister B and his siblings was applying Glass Wax stencils to the living room window. This decoration trend lasted for a few years. While the exact timeframe of when this was done escapes Mister B, online sources put its popularity in the 1950s. As current YouTube videos can attest, Mister B, Brother Boomer and his sister each added to the window by dabbing the wax onto a selected stencil with a sponge dipped in the wax. Mister B remembers Santa stencils, reindeer, ornaments, Christmas trees, wreaths and candles. Mister B’s mom watched over the process, stopping the kids from filling the window with stencils. She was directing her vision of an overall design that would be visible from the street.

At one point in his family history, Mister Boomer’s mother took to making some do-it-yourself Christmas decorations. The most successful of these was a wreath fashioned from dry cleaner bags, which were cut into strips and tied around a coat hanger that had been bent into a circular shape. The addition of a red bow completed this mid-century modern design. Mister B does not remember if she found the instructions in a Good Housekeeping article or got the idea from a neighborhood friend.

As the days passed and Christmas approached, Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer were assigned the tasks of getting the boxes of Christmas ornaments out from the basement storage area, and most importantly, untangling the strands of Christmas lights and testing them. It was a bulb-by-bulb search for burn outs, since the lights in the 1950s and early ’60s did not light if one bulb was loose or burned out.

Other house decorations appeared in some years, usually in the form of gold or silver garland festooned along the top molding on the wood panel wall where the sunburst clock resided.

In mid-December, when the Christmas tree was purchased, Mister B’s father untied it from the roof of the car and brought it to the backyard. There, he sawed off a bit of the base of the tree trunk, then hauled it down the stairs to the basement and placed it in a bucket of water. It would remain there for at least twenty-four hours so it could get acclimated to the indoor temperature, which was cooler in the basement, and not immediately drop its needles. Usually on the next day, Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer would help move the furniture, then lay down the tree skirt base and the tree stand in the corner of the room by the front window. Once Mister B’s father got the tree up the stairs and into place in the stand, it was usually up to Mister B to crawl under the tree to secure the stand screws into the trunk base and fill the stand with water. Full decorating could commence after Mister Boomer’s father ran the lights around the tree.

How about you, boomers? What holiday trends of the 1950s and ’60s did your family embrace? When did your interior holiday decorating begin?