I was almost four years old when the CBS network debuted A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965. From the living room of a house that my parents rented on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, I most likely watched its premiere. My dad was a second-year seminary student at the time, and, like many of his classmates, a big fan of Charles Schulz and his Peanuts comic strip. As my dad completed his education and began his career as a pastor and chaplain – prompting a family move to Portland, Oregon, a return to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then a permanent relocation to the Chicago area – Christmas seasons for our family consistently centered upon snow, lights, a tree, presents, church, and plenty of anticipation. Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, a show that incorporated all of these themes, was a high point of each Christmas celebration in my childhood home as our family grew to include my younger brothers and sister.
A generation later, my wife, Denise, and I lived in Houston with our three young children where I worked as a pastor. A cherished copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas was prominent in our VCR tape collection alongside copies of Disney classics that the kids watched over and again. As Christmas 1992 approached, it occurred to me that I needed more than the VCR copy of the Peanuts’ gang Christmas. I had to get a copy of the soundtrack. Those wondrous bits of jazz piano, bass and drums that undergirded the animated TV special beckoned me. I had heard its notes sway and its chords swing from my earliest days. There had to be a recording of these songs where the musicians stretched out.
These were pre-Amazon days. The CD era was cresting, but even so, it wasn’t until I went to a fourth or fifth “record store” (that’s what we called them back then) that I found a cooperative store manager who promised to order me (from an inventory catalog pulled down from a shelf) a CD of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Bingo – Guaraldi and his bandmates stretched out magnificently, matching my expectations.
The next few Christmas seasons, I purchased additional copies of the CD and gifted them to family and friends. Then, in 1995, it was my turn to preach the Christmas Eve sermon at the church, Holy Cross Lutheran, I served in Houston. There was no question as to what I’d do for the message that year: a recapitulation of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a bit of a risk – telling a child’s tale for one of the largest worshipping crowds of the year. But I had the blessing of my pastoral colleague Gene Fogt and – even though the animation has no adult characters – I knew Charlie Brown’s story wasn’t just for kids.
The opening scene of the special features Charlie Brown confiding to his buddy Linus van Pelt: “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents . . . but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Writer Charles Schulz wonderfully develops a twenty-two minute animated homily from this starting confession to convey his own sense of Christmas’s true meaning: not the glitz and glitter of over-commercialization – which ultimately doesn’t deliver on its promise – but human and divine solidarity through the birth of a child. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger,” Linus tells Charlie Brown, quoting Luke 2.
A recently retired USAF colonel, Rolf Smith, was visiting the congregation that Christmas Eve with his family. He loved the sermon (as he told me later) and returned to Sunday worship services in the new year. As we got to know each other, I learned that Rolf had spearheaded the launch of “innovation” as a corporate strategy for the air force. To him, recasting A Charlie Brown Christmas for a sermon was “highly innovative.” That spring, he and his spouse, Julie, joined the church.
Another congregant, however, expressed her disdain to me about the sermon. She deemed a rendering of “a cartoon” as inappropriate for Christmas Eve worship. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered that a family member of hers struggled mightily with depression. The message was too close to home. For Christmas Eve worship, I surmised, she had not wanted any mention of depression and its effects.
Charles Schulz, from his Sebastopol, California studio, collaborated with producer Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez after Coca-Cola agreed to underwrite the special in the summer of 1965. Adhering to a fast-tracked schedule, Schulz and Melendez drew out 13,000 stills for the animation. Mendelson, having met and worked with the Grammy award-winning Guaraldi the previous year, commissioned the jazz pianist to record the soundtrack. A children’s choir from an Episcopal church sang for two of the tracks. Mendelson himself wrote the lyrics to Guaraldi’s tune Christmas Time is Here, now covered by hundreds of musicians the world over.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is now playing its 55th Christmas season, and still going strong even for new generations.
When my son, Mitch, who was born in 1991, comes home to see us at Christmas, one of his first requests after hugging his mother is to hear some Christmas music – “the Snoopy and Charlie Brown disc.” I always oblige – he’s heard it every Christmas since he can remember. Lucky guy.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”