The special begins on a frozen pond, put to use as an ice rink by the Peanuts cast, who skate together as the song "Christmas Time Is Here" is heard over the opening credits.
It's Christmas season, and Charlie Brown is depressed. He tells Linus about his unhappiness, citing his dismay with the over-commercialization of Christmas and his inability to grasp what Christmas is all about. Linus dismisses Charlie Brown's feelings as one of Charlie Brown's common moods. Charlie Brown's depression is only exacerbated by the goings-on in the Peanuts neighborhood. After the discussion, while the Peanuts cast skate, Snoopy appears. He grabs the cast and skates with them in a line, then slides on the ice before Charlie Brown and Linus come out skating. Snoopy grabs Linus's blanket and picks up Charlie Brown. Snoopy spins the blanket around, releasing Charlie Brown in the process. Charlie Brown hits a tree and snow falls on him before "A Charlie Brown Christmas" appears on the screen.
A short time later, Charlie Brown finds his mailbox empty of Christmas cards and sarcastically thanks Violet for the card she never sent him, but Violet just uses the opportunity to put Charlie Brown down again. Feeling dejected, Charlie Brown visits Lucy in her psychiatric booth. Lucy, after attempting to label him with various phobias and admitting she wants real estate as a Christmas gift, determines that Charlie Brown needs more involvement to combat his depression. She recommends that he direct a Christmas play. Charlie Brown is excited at the chance to direct, and Lucy promises to help him. On his way to the auditorium, Charlie Brown finds Snoopy decorating his doghouse for a neighborhood lights and display contest, and laments that even his dog is focusing on the commercial aspects of Christmas. Continuing onward, he runs into his sister Sally, who asks him to write her letter to Santa Claus. When she hints at having an extremely long and specific list of requests, and says she will accept money as a substitute ("tens and twenties," a massive amount for a child of Sally's age in the 1960s), Charlie Brown becomes even more dismayed.
Charlie Brown arrives at the rehearsal, but he is unable to control the situation as the uncooperative Peanuts kids are more interested in modernizing the play with dancing and lively music, mainly Schroeder's rendition of "Linus and Lucy."
Lucy, angling to be the Christmas Queen, is also the Script Girl, handing out scripts. She and Snoopy would get into a fight after the latter mocked her. He slurps her and she, as was often the case when Snoopy kissed or licked her, ran off screaming that she had gotten dog germs, demanding hot water, disinfectant and iodine. She would also argue with Linus about his blanket and demands that he give it up. He uses it as a costume, which infuriates Lucy yet again.
Thinking the play requires "the proper mood," Charlie Brown decides they need a Christmas tree. Lucy takes over direction of the play and dispatches Charlie Brown to get a "big, shiny aluminum tree." With Linus in tow, Charlie Brown sets off on his quest, as an "O Tannenbaum" instrumental plays in the background. When they get to the tree market, filled with numerous trees fitting Lucy's description, Charlie Brown zeroes in on the only real tree on the lot – a tiny sapling. Linus is unsure about Charlie Brown's choice, but Charlie Brown is convinced that after decorating it, it will be just right for the play – "and besides," he says, "I think it needs me." They return to the auditorium with the tree, at which point the children (particularly the girls and Snoopy) ridicule Charlie Brown for selecting such a small and shabby Christmas tree. Every member of the Peanuts gang except Linus laughs at Charlie Brown. At his wit's end, Charlie Brown loudly asks if anybody really knows what Christmas is all about. Linus, standing alone on the stage, says he can tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is about, and recites the annunciation to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14, as translated by the Authorized King James Version:
"8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men."
"...That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
Charlie Brown smiles, quietly picks up the little tree, and walks out of the auditorium. After reflecting on what Linus had said, he decides to take the tree home to decorate, to show the others it will work in the play. When he arrives, he stops at Snoopy's decorated doghouse, which now sports a first prize blue ribbon for winning the display contest. He puts an ornamental ball from the doghouse on the top of his tree. The branch, with the ball still on it, promptly flops over to one side instead of remaining upright, prompting Charlie Brown to declare "I've killed it" and run off in disgust at his perpetual failure. Linus and the rest of the Peanuts gang (who have all become guilty for laughing at Charlie Brown) arrive outside Snoopy's doghouse. Linus gently props the drooping branch back in its upright position by wrapping his blanket around the tree. The group add the remaining decorations from Snoopy's doghouse to the tree, and Lucy admits that the tree does look nice. They start humming "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". Charlie Brown returns, surprised at the humming and the redecorated tree, as his peers greet him with a joyous "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" The entire group begins to sing the first verse of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and Charlie Brown joins them as the special ends.Peter Robbins: Charlie Brown
Chris Shea: Linus van Pelt
Tracy Stratford: Lucille "Lucy" van Pelt
Kathy Steinberg: Sally Brown
Bill Melendez: Snoopy
Chris Doran: Schroeder and Shermy
Karen Mendelson: Patty
Geoffrey Orstein: Pig-Pen
Sally Dryer: Violet Gray
Anne Altieri: Frieda
Children's vocals for the songs "Christmas Time is Here", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and when the kids all shout "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown" were performed by members of the choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Several months before the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas this choir was featured on the Vince Guaraldi recording "Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral."
The characters named "5", "3", and "4" have cameo appearances but are silent.
By the early 1960s, Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts had become a sensation worldwide. Television producer Lee Mendelson acknowledged the strip's cultural impression and had an idea for a documentary on its success, phoning Schulz to propose the idea. Schulz, an avid baseball fan, recognized Mendelson from his documentary on ballplayer Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays, and invited him to his home in Sebastopol, California to discuss the project. Their meeting was cordial, with the plan to produce a half-hour documentary set. Mendelson wanted to feature roughly "one or two" minutes of animation, and Schulz suggested animator Bill Melendez, with whom he collaborated some years before on a spot for the Ford Motor Company.
Despite the popularity of the strip and acclaim from advertisers, networks were not interested in the special. By April 1965, Time featured the Peanuts gang on its magazine cover, perhaps prompting a call from John Allen of the New York-based McCann Erickson Agency. Mendelson imagined he would sell his documentary, and blindly agreed to Allen's proposal: an animated half-hour Peanuts Christmas special. The Coca-Cola Company was looking for a special for advertising during the holiday season. "The bad news is that today is Wednesday and they'll need an outline in Atlanta by Monday," Allen remarked to Mendelson. He quickly contacted Schulz, and the duo got to work with plans for a Peanuts Christmas special. The duo prepared an outline for the Coca-Cola executives in less than one day, and Mendelson would later recall that the bulk of ideas came from Schulz, whose "ideas flowed nonstop." According to Mendelson, their pitch to Coca-Cola consisted of "winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music." The outline did not change over the course of its production.
As Allen was in Europe, the duo received no feedback on their pitch for several days. When Allen got in touch with them, he informed them that Coca-Cola wanted to buy the special, but also wanted it for an early December broadcast, giving the duo just six months to scramble together a team to produce the special. Mendelson assured him – without complete confidence in his statements – that this would be no problem. Following this, A Charlie Brown Christmas entered production.
Schulz's main goal for a Peanuts-based Christmas special was to focus on the true meaning of Christmas. He desired to juxtapose this theme with interspersed shots of snow and ice-skating, perhaps inspired by his own childhood growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also created the idea for the school play, and mixing jazz with traditional Christmas carols. Schulz was adamant about Linus' reading of the Bible, despite Mendelson and Melendez's concerns that religion was a controversial topic, especially on television. Melendez recalled Schulz turned to him and remarked "If we don't do it, who will?". Schulz's estimation proved accurate, and in the 1960s, less than 9 percent of television Christmas episodes contained a substantive reference to religion, according to university researcher Stephen Lind. It could also be worth noting that the Linus's recitation of Scripture was incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.
Schulz's faith in the Bible stemmed from his Midwest background and religious and historical studies; as such, aspects of religion would be a topic of study throughout his life. According to a 2015 "spiritual biography", Schulz's religion was personal and complex, and would be integrated in a number of his programs.
The program's script has been described as "barebones", and was completed in only a few weeks. In the days following the special's sell to Coca-Cola, Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez met with Schulz in his home to expand upon the ideas promised in the pitch. Mendelson noted that on the previous Christmas Day he and his spouse had read Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir-Tree" to their children. Schulz countered with the idea that there be a tree with the spirit of lead character Charlie Brown. Mendelson suggested they employ a laugh track, a staple of television animation, but Schulz rejected this idea immediately. He felt strongly that the audience should not be informed on when to laugh. They spoke at length about creating an official theme that was neither jazz nor traditional to open the program. Schulz wanted a part of the special to feature the character of Schroeder performing Beethoven, and Mendelson combined this with the inclusion of Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy" number. Schulz penned the script for A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Melendez plotting out the animation via a storyboard. His storyboard contained six panels for each shot, spanning a combined eighty or-so pages.
In casting the silent comic strip characters of Peanuts, the trio pulled from their personalities. Lead character Charlie Brown's voice was decided to be downbeat and nondescript ("blah," as Mendelson noted), while Lucy be bold and forthright. Linus' voice, it was decided, would combine both sophistication with childlike innocence. Mendelson recognized that the character of Snoopy was the strip's most popular character who seemed to seize "the best jokes," but realized they could not cast a voice for the cartoon dog. "In the process, we gained a veritable 'canine Harpo Marx,'" Mendelson later wrote. Melendez suggested he provide gibberish for Snoopy's mutterings, and simply speed up the tape to prevent viewers from knowing. There are no adult characters in the strip or in this special. Later specials would introduce an offscreen teacher; her lines are eschewed for the sound of a trombone as the team behind the specials found it humorous.
With this in mind, the trio set out to cast the characters, which proved to be a daunting process. Casting for Charlie Brown proved most difficult, as it required both good acting skills but also the ability to appear nonchalant. The producers picked eight-year-old Peter Robbins, already known for his roles spanning television, film, and advertisements. His godmother, famous Hollywood agent Hazel McMillen, discovered Christopher Shea, who would become Linus in the special. His slight lisp, according to Mendelson, gave him a "youthful sweetness," while his emotional script reading "gave him power and authority as well." Tracy Stratford played the role of Lucy, with the creators being impressed by her attitude and professionalism. Kathy Steinberg was the youngest of the performers, just six years old at the time of recording. Too young to read, the producers had to give her one line at a time to recite. Robbins remembered Melendez did this for him as well, joking that he also mistakenly copied his Latino accent. Mendelson desired to have non-actors (not "Hollywood kids") perform on the special, and he sent tape recorders home with his employees for their children to audition.
Much of the background cast came from Mendelson's home neighborhood in northern California. According to Robbins, the children viewed the script's sophisticated dialogue as "edgy," finding several words and phrases, among them "eastern syndicate", difficult to pronounce. He recalled the recording sessions as chaotic, with excited children running rampant. Nevertheless, the recording of A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed in one day. Jefferson Airplane was recording next door and came over to get the children's autographs. Following the special's broadcast, the children became wildly popular in their respective elementary schools; Robbins recalled groups approaching him asking him to recite lines of dialogue.
Animation for A Charlie Brown Christmas was created by Bill Melendez Productions. Mendelson had no idea whether or not completing a half-hour's worth of animation would be possible given the production's six-month schedule, but Melendez confirmed its feasibility. In actuality, animation was only completed in the final four months of production. CBS initially wanted an hour's worth of animation, but Melendez talked them down to a half-hour special, believing an hour of television animation was too much. Having never worked on a half-hour special before, Melendez phoned Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera for advice, who declined to give any. CBS gave a budget of $76,000 to produce the show, and it went over budget, costing $96,000. The first step in creating the animation was to make a pencil drawing, afterwards inking and painting the drawing onto a cel. The cel was then placed onto a painted background. There are 13,000 drawings in the special, with 12 frames per second to create the illusion of movement.
Melendez had previously worked for Warner Bros. and Disney, and working on Peanuts-related material gave him a chance to animate a truly flat, cartoon design. The movement of Schulz's characters, particularly the Peanuts gang, was very limited. The character of Snoopy, however, proved the exception to the rule. "He can do anything – move and dance – and he's very easy to animate," said Melendez.
The soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is an unorthodox mix of traditional Christmas music and jazz. The jazz portions were created by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Producer Lee Mendelson, a fan of jazz, heard Guaraldi's crossover hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the radio not long after completion of his documentary Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, and contacted the musician to produce music for the special. Guaraldi composed the music for the project, creating an entire piece, "Linus and Lucy," to serve as the theme. When Coca-Cola commissioned A Charlie Brown Christmas in spring 1965, Guaraldi returned to write the music. The first instrumentals for the special were recorded by Guaraldi at Glendale, California's Whitney Studio with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. Recycling "Linus and Lucy" from the earlier special, Guaraldi completed two new originals for the special, "Skating", and "Christmas Time Is Here". In the weeks preceding the premiere, Mendelson encountered trouble finding a lyricist for Guaraldi's instrumental intro, and penned "Christmas Time is Here" in "about 15 minutes" on the backside of an envelope.
The special opens and closes with a choir of children, culled from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, performing "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". One of the singers, Candace Hackett Shively, went on to become an elementary school teacher, and sent a letter of gratitude to Schulz after he announced his retirement in 2000. In the letter, she recalls recording the choir at Fantasy Studios and going out for ice cream afterwards, while also noting that she tells the story to her grade-schoolers each holiday season. The recording sessions were conducted in late autumn 1965, and were cut in three separate sessions over two weeks. They often ran late into the night, resulting in angry parents, some who forbade their children from returning; consequently, numerous new children were present at each session. The children were directed by Barry Mineah, who demanded perfection from the choir. Mendelson and Guaraldi disagreed, desiring the "kids to sound like kids"; they used a slightly off-key version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in the final cut. Children were paid five dollars for their participation. In addition, the children recorded dialogue for the special's final scene, in which the crowd of kids shout "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"
The soundtrack for the special was recorded during these sessions, with decisions regarding timing and phrasing determined quickly. Guaraldi brought in bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli to record the music, and spent time later re-recording earlier tracks, including covers of "The Christmas Song" and "Greensleeves." The eventual LP release credited Guaraldi solely, neglecting to mention the other musicians; Guaraldi was notorious for never keeping records of his session players. Nearly three decades later, in an effort to correct the matter, Fantasy surmised that the recordings with Budwig and Bailey were employed in the special, while Marshall and Granelli recorded the album. Despite this, other individuals have come forward claiming to have recorded the special's music: bassists Eugene Firth and Al Obidinksi, and drummers Paul Distel and Benny Barth. Firth and Distil are noted as performers on a studio-session report Guaraldi filed for the American Federation of Musicians.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, and added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" American sound recordings in 2012.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed just ten days shy of its national broadcast premiere. All involved believed the special would be an unmitigated disaster. Melendez first saw the completed animation at a showing in a theater in the days before its premiere, turning to his crew of animators and remarking, "My golly, we've killed it." Melendez was embarrassed, but one of the animators, Ed Levitt, was more positive regarding the special, telling him it was "the best special [he'll] ever make [...] This show is going to run for a hundred years." Mendelson was similar in his assumptions of the show's quality, and when he showed the film to network executives in New York, their opinions were also negative. Their complaints included the show's slow pace, the music not fitting, and the animation too simple. "I really believed, if it hadn't been scheduled for the following week, there's no way they were gonna broadcast that show," Mendelson later said. Executives had invited television critic Richard Burgheim of Time to view the special, and debated as to whether showing it to him would be a good idea. His review, printed the following week, was positive, praising the special as unpretentious and writing that "A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children's special this season that bears repeating."
The program premiered on CBS on December 9, 1965 at 7:30 pm ET (pre-empting The Munsters), and was viewed by 45% of those watching television that evening, with the number of homes watching the special an estimated 15,490,000, placing it at number two in the ratings, behind Bonanza on NBC. The special received unanimous critical acclaim: The Hollywood Reporter deemed the show "delightfully novel and amusing," while the Weekly Variety dubbed it "fascinating and haunting." Bob Williams of the New York Post praised the "very neat transition from comic page to screen," while Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post declared that "natural-born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night." Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram hailed the scene in which Linus recites scripture, commenting, "Linus' reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season." Harry Harris of The Philadelphia Inquirer called the program "a yule classic [...] generated quiet warmth and amusement," and Terrence O'Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Charlie Brown was a gem of a television show." Ben Gross of the New York Daily News praised the special's "charm and good taste," while Rick DuBrow of United Press International predicted, "the Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future."
The show's glowing reviews were highlighted with an ad in trade magazines; one thanked Coca-Cola, CBS, United Features Syndicate, and the show's viewers. Fantasy released the special's soundtrack the first week of December 1965, coinciding with the special's airdate. United Feature Syndicate pushed hard to promote the special, while Word Publishing issued a hardcover adaption of the special. CBS promptly ordered four additional Peanuts specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas was awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program in 1966. "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you," Schulz joked.
Although originally broadcast on the CBS network from 1965 until December 25, 2000, in January 2000, the broadcast rights were acquired by ABC, which is where the special currently airs, usually twice, in December.
The original broadcasts included references to the sponsor, Coca-Cola. Subsequent broadcasts and home media releases have excised all references to Coca-Cola products. Later subsequent broadcasts of the special also had some scenes, animation, including sound effects being redone for correction. Snoopy's dog bowl was given a new color, Charlie Brown no longer looked off-model in Lucy's psychiatric booth, new animation was placed in scenes where Charlie Brown was giving directions at the auditorium, the hearts when Sally gets enamored in Linus were redone, and Snoopy no longer sings like a human in the final carol.
On December 6, 2001, a half-hour documentary on the special titled The Making of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' (hosted by Whoopi Goldberg) aired on ABC. This documentary has been released as a special feature on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the special.
The show's 40th anniversary broadcast on Tuesday, December 6, 2005, had the highest ratings in its time slot.
The 50th anniversary broadcast aired on November 30, 2015, and it featured a full two-hour time slot that was padded by a special, It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, which was hosted by Kristen Bell, and featured musical performances by Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Pentatonix, David Benoit, and the All-American Boys Chorus. It also included documentary features.
In 1992, the special was released for a limited time on VHS through Shell Oil for sale at their gas stations.
In September 1994 the special was released by Paramount on VHS. A laser disc was released by Paramount (distributed by Pioneer) in 1996; Side 2 contained the 1979 special You're the Greatest, Charlie Brown. In September 2000 it was released on DVD. Bonus features included the 1992 special It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown. On September 23, 2008, Warner Home Video (to which the rights to the Peanuts specials reverted earlier in the year, due to Melendez's connections to WB) released a "remastered" DVD. Bonus features include a restored version of Christmastime Again and a new documentary titled "A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas".
It is also available in a 4-disc box set with It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, also including an audio CD of Charlie Brown holiday music. It is also available on high definition Blu-ray Disc from Warner in remastered Dolby 5.1 surround sound. This disc also contains It's Christmastime Again, A Christmas Miracle, a DVD of the special, and a Digital Copy.
Since off-network rights to this special have been transferred to Warner Bros., it has become available as a download on the iTunes Store, PlayStation Network, Amazon Instant Video, and Google Play, and includes It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown.
In December 2014, a 50th anniversary, 2-DVD set was released. It also features the special It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, and the "making of" documentary from previous editions.
A Charlie Brown Christmas became a Christmas staple in the United States for several decades afterward. Within the scope of future Peanuts specials, it established their style, combining thoughtful themes, jazzy scores, and simple animation. It also, according to author Charles Solomon, established the half-hour animated special as a television tradition, inspiring the creation of numerous others, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) and Frosty the Snowman (1969). (Earlier animated specials such as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ran a full hour.) USA Today summarized the program's appeal upon its 40th anniversary in 2005: "Scholars of pop culture say that shining through the program's skeletal plot is the quirky and sophisticated genius that fueled the phenomenal popularity of Schulz's work." Beyond its references to religion, unheard of on television at the time, the special also marked the first time children voiced animated characters.
The special influenced dozens of young aspiring artists and animators, many of whom went on to work within both the comics and animation industries, among them Eric Goldberg (Pocahontas), Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), Jef Mallett (Frazz), and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts). The show's score made an equally pervasive impact on viewers who would later perform jazz, among them David Benoit and George Winston.
Linus' speech near the end of the special was used in the Sidewalk Prophets Christmas song "What a Glorious Night".
In 2013 Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc. began licensing an official stage version of the television special authorized by the Schulz family and Lee Mendelson. The stage version follows the television special but includes an optional sing-along section of Christmas songs at the end. It includes all of Vince Guaraldi's music from the television special and the television script is adapted for the stage by Eric Schaeffer. It has been performed at hundreds of schools, churches and community theatres.
The popularity of the special practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, when the special portrayed it negatively. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.
The "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" has been used to comedic effect with people familiar with the special and has become synonymous with holiday decoration needing some tender loving care. A model of the tree is offered by various retailers.
Three lesser-known Christmas specials were produced decades after the 1965 original.It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992). This special was 30 minutes in length with commercials and aired on CBS. It was abandoned by CBS shortly thereafter; it was released on DVD as a bonus feature with A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales (2002). This special is a slightly shorter, with a running time of 20 minutes with commercials and debuted on ABC. It has been released on DVD along with I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown
I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003) This special is a full hour long with commercials and debuted on ABC. It is available on DVD.