One of my favorite Christmas tales is the true story of how the Charlie Brown Christmas Special almost never happened. I am of course, referring to the classic CBS television special in which we find Charlie Brown frustrated about the commercialization and loss of the "true meaning" of Christmas.
The special premiered on Thursday night, December 9th, 1965 in lieu of an episode of The Munsters and following Gilligan's Island. That night 50% of all televisions in the United States tuned in to watch the first broadcast. It was an overnight success. It won countless awards and has been beloved for the 55 years since its original airing. No doubt, you may have already watched it once this month.
It came close to not happening at all. Peanuts was already a beloved comic strip and Charles Schulz was well known and esteemed enough to be given total creative control over the project. This was much to the chagrin of the CBS network executives reviewing the project. With just days to go before airtime they were panicking. It was going to be an absolute flop. The cartoon had no canned laugh track the way nearly every show of the day did. How would the audience know when to laugh? The voiceovers were also a problem. Schulz had used real children instead of adults using child-voices. The network executives, experts in their field, were convinced it would sound weird. Then there was the jazz soundtrack from the Vince Guaraldi trio. This was deemed to be inappropriate for a children's program. It needed something more youth-oriented. Schulz refused to budge on any of this. But, more scandalous than anything was the 51-second Linus monologue of Luke 2:8-14:
AND THERE WERE IN THE SAME COUNTRY SHEPHERDS ABIDING IN THE FIELD, KEEPING WATCH OVER THEIR FLOCK BY NIGHT. AND, LO, THE ANGEL OF THE LORD CAME UPON THEM, AND THE GLORY OF THE LORD SHONE ROUND ABOUT THEM: AND THEY WERE SORE AFRAID. AND THE ANGEL SAID UNTO THEM, FEAR NOT: FOR, BEHOLD, I BRING YOU TIDINGS OF GREAT JOY, WHICH SHALL BE TO ALL PEOPLE. 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. AND SUDDENLY THERE WAS WITH THE ANGEL A MULTITUDE OF THE HEAVENLY HOST PRAISING GOD, AND SAYING, GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, AND ON EARTH PEACE AND GOODWILL TOWARDS MEN.
For nearly a minute, Linus would recite by spoken word (no cut scenes or play acting) the King James Bible on prime-time Network television! He would then declare quite simply "That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."
The CBS executives whose job it was to determine content programming for the network were convinced they had a disaster on their hands. But, their hands were tied. They were contractually required to air the special, but they would punish Schulz in the one way they could, telling him: “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”
To their surprise, the special was an instant sensation and has aired at Christmas-time continuously every year for 55 years. It is one of our shared cultural touchstones. How could these men have been so wrong? How could they have been so blind to the special character of this piece of television that touches so many even today? Indeed, it was their job!
But that is the constant story of Christmas isn't it? Even on that first Christmas, everyone was blind to what was happening. Even those whose job it was to know were blind to the birth of a Savior. It fell to lowly shepherds to spread the news. Everyone was too busy or too distracted with the concerns of their own lives to pay any attention to one more child being born. Yet, HE WAS BORN. Despite their (OUR) distractedness and despite their (OUR) blindness, HE WAS BORN to them and to us. And that is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.