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?