On December 9, 1965, when A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on television for the first time, pre-empting an episode of The Munsters, network executives were pretty sure that the animated TV special would never air again. Lee Mendelson, the producer, had been told about a week earlier something to the effect that the 30-minute cartoon was a good try and no hard feelings, but CBS wouldn’t be ordering any more Peanuts TV specials.
Maybe in an alternative universe CBS never ordered any more specials, but we all know how things turned out.
Viewers in 1965 loved A Charlie Brown Christmas -- and they have ever since. Almost immediately, CBS executives asked Mendelson for more Peanuts specials, which is why (in our non-alternative universe, anyway), we also have TV holiday classics like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
Of course, so much has been said about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you might wonder what the heck The TV Professor can say about the cartoon that hasn’t been said already. The TV Professor was wondering that, too, but then I started thinking (yeah, let's switch to the first-person tense) that it might be interesting to take a look at where A Charlie Brown Christmas fits into the Christmas history timeline.
For instance, Charlie Brown and Linus lament the commercialism at Christmastime – in 1965. That got me to wondering how bad was the commercialism of the holidays in the 1960s. Was Christmas commercialism really that bad back then? And in 1965, was this a new “problem” or an old one?
So with that introduction, we’ll take a look at some of the events that occurred in A Charlie Brown Christmas and take a look at where they land on the historical Christmas timeline.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
Charlie Brown, Christmas and Commercialism
Throughout A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown expresses the opinion that the holiday has become too commercialized. He is also kind of bummed by the lack of Christmas cards showing up in his mail box.
"Rats," Charlie Brown says early on in the animated special. "Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"
Charlie Brown later admits that he enjoys Christmas gifts and decorations, but he is nonetheless feeling wistful and as if the world has forgotten the true meaning of the holiday. Lucy Van Pelt makes it clear that she doesn't disagree: "Look, Charlie, let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know."
Charlie Brown might have felt better, however, if he had realized that his concerns were part of an age-old tradition of being wistful for how Christmas used to be celebrated.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was conceived by producer Lee Mendelson, director Bill Melendez (a former Disney animator) and, of course, Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist who created the legendary, hilarious and heartfelt newspaper comic strip, Peanuts. When the first animated cartoon to feature Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the whole gang came out in 1965, people had actually been griping for years about the commercialization of Christmas; possibly, in fact, the complaints set in as soon as people began exchanging presents with each other. Christmas is a religious holiday, after all. Some critics felt that all of the gifts was taking away from that.
For instance, a newspaper columnist, Neil Harle, wrote in the newspaper, "The Chronicle," the paper of record for Port Neches, Texas, had a column that ran on December 9, 1948, in which he wrote, "The Christmas season is a great time for children, but among adults, some of us seems to have forgotten what the real meaning of Christmas is all about." Later, he literally writes, "Perhaps the idea of Christmas become too commercialized."
Going back further, in LaFollette’s Weekly Magazine, a December 30, 1911, issue, the publication argued, "Having thoroughly commercialized Christmas and made it a burden rather than time of joy and peace and goodwill, we have now upon us the task of un-commercializing it."
The magazine then reminded readers to do their Christmas shopping early, to make things easier for clerks and delivery men working up to the last minute on Christmas Eve. Some things apparently never change.
You can even go back to December 19, 1898, where The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel published a small item that remarked, "The spirit of commercialism is quite noticeable among even the Christmas shoppers." The paper wasn't making a statement that commercialism was a good or bad thing for the holiday, but it confirms that the sentiment that Christmas being commercialized existed even back then.
Closer to when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, an essay that ran on a newswire, from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, ran in papers in 1961, started off the op-ed with, "It has become a common complaint that Christmas has become too commercialized, that it doesn't have the meaning it once had.”
It continued: “Perhaps we do begin the season too soon, wearing ourselves out during the weeks of shopping, party going and elaborate decorating. Perhaps we do try to make such a big production out of Christmas that we spend too much money and not always where it will give the most pleasure."
But the editorial went onto defend how people celebrated the holiday and concluded that "the charge that Christmas doesn't have the same meaning it once had just isn't so."
Anyway, whatever side you came down on, that Christmas was too commercialized or "what's the harm?", the world that Charlie Brown lived in, in 1965, was one in which the religious holiday was also a big, booming industry. There’s plenty of irony in the cartoon's plot line and sentiment, however. The very reason we have A Charlie Brown Christmas is that advertising executive John Allen, who worked for McCann-Erickson, knew that Coca-Cola wanted to sponsor a family-friendly Christmas special. Allen then asked Mendelson if he could create a family special around the Peanuts comic strip. Fortunately, Mendelson readily agreed.
Still, we wouldn’t have Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt lamenting about the commercialization of Christmas if it hadn’t been for Coca-Cola commercializing Christmas with its Peanuts cartoon.
Charlie Brown, the Peanuts gang and Christmas pageants
OK, maybe it’s kind of silly to go into the history of Christmas pageants since it won't be news to anyone that those have been going on for awhile. Apparently, the first nativity play that resembles what you would find today was produced by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223.
But in America, putting on Christmas plays appear to have become popular in the last half of the 1800s.
In a January 15, 1885 issue of "The Congregationalist," which was published in Boston, a New York writer mentions a Catholic church in the city that, for the last 10 years, has had a nativity play with boys and girls playing parts, and a chorus of girls from six to 12 years old singing Christmas carols.
That suggests that Christmas pageants weren’t hugely popular in the United States during much of the nineteenth century until probably around 1875, when they were just starting to become a thing. In any case, by the 1890s, newspapers were reporting on quite a few nativity plays and Christmas pageants being performed by school children around the ages of the Peanuts gang.
By the time 1965 rolled around, it's safe to say that Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Schroeder and the rest of the kids were all performing in the footsteps of their animated parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, who probably all engaged in similar productions when they were younger. (Of course, the parents, grandparents and other adults were never seen in the early Peanuts specials, only heard, with their, "Wah-wah-wah" sound.)
Charlie Brown, Christmas and artificial Christmas trees
So anybody who has seen A Charlie Brown Christmas remembers the scene where Charlie Brown and Linus visit a Christmas tree lot, and they are sort of stunned by all the modern-looking artificial trees everywhere. That got me to wondering how long artificial Christmas trees have been around. As it turns out, far longer than I had imagined.
Combing through online newspaper archives, I found one 1890s article that mentions the artificial Christmas tree first being displayed in the 1850s (!) – in Germany. An 1892 article in the Wilmington Evening Journal, Wilmington, Delaware’s paper, refers to the artificial Christmas tree being of "Parisian origin." According to the article, these trees had a small gas tube running through each branch and tiny glass lamps concealed behind the fake leaves. "When lighted up, the tree is much prettier than the genuine article," the anonymous author concluded.
By 1903, Christmas trees were becoming a little less elaborate and likely more affordable for the middle class. An item that year in The Hopkinsville Kentuckian informed readers, “An artificial Christmas tree, with limbs fitting into holes in the truck so that it can be taken apart and packed in a box, is one of the new things this season. It is a close imitation of the real tree."
But that said, these trees didn’t really look like our current artificial trees. These trees, were made of goose feathers and sometimes turkey feathers that were dyed green. By 1930, a British company came up with the idea to make a Christmas tree from the same animal-hair bristles that you could find in toilet brushes, only they were dyed green.
Today, most artificial Christmas trees are made of PVC plastic and manufactured in China.
When Lucy tells Charlie Brown to get an aluminum tree
Before Charlie Brown and Linus get to the Christmas tree lot, Lucy says, “Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown, maybe painted pink.”
So that begs the question – could you really find pink aluminum Christmas trees in 1965?
Well, I don’t know about pink aluminum trees, but pink Christmas trees and aluminum Christmas trees, separately, were very much a thing in the mid-1960s. The first aluminum Christmas trees were first produced in Chicago, in 1958. In a newspaper ad that I found in the Clermont Courier, in Clermont County, Ohio, Gray Rexall Drug Stores (which had a slogan, "Where spending is saving") advertised a 6 foot aluminum Christmas tree that could be purchased for $7.49.
In fact, aluminum Christmas trees were really popular right up until about the time of A Charlie Brown Christmas (it’s just a theory, but you have to wonder if the cartoon killed the trend… it’s not like Schulz’s cartoon made it out like aluminum trees were this great idea).
As for pink Christmas trees, they had been around awhile. In 1949, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, the paper wrote a small item -- three paragraphs -- about a couple, the Mittlers, who were displaying a pink Christmas tree. So it was big news then. Throughout the 1940s and especially the 1950s and 1960s, there are references in newspapers, mentioning pink, red and blue Christmas trees. Red Christmas trees were pretty popular, too.
But not with everyone. In 1965, in Kingston, New York, according to the local paper, there was some controversy when the Kingston Plaza Shopping Center displayed a red Christmas tree. Some people saw it as a sign of communism. The good folks at the plaza assured everybody that communism had been the furthest thing from their minds.
Sally writing a letter to Santa Claus. When did that ritual start?
As you probably recall, Sally writes a letter to Santa in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Well, actually, she dictates a letter, and Charlie Brown writes it for her. He is reluctant, though, telling his sister: “Well, I don't have much time. I'm supposed to get down to the school auditorium to direct a Christmas play."
But Sally won’t hear of it, and as usual, Charlie Brown puts somebody else’s needs above his own. He writes the letter.
“Dear Santa Claus, how have you been? Did you have a nice summer?” Sally dictates. “How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.”
“Oh, brother,” Charlie Brown says.
“Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?” Sally says.
“Tens and twenties?” Charlie Brown says, aghast, realizing that Sally has succumbed to the commercialism of Christmas. “Oh, even my baby sister.”
“All I want is what I have coming to me,” Sally says as Charlie Brown walks away in disgust. “All I want is my fair share.”
So when did writing a letter to Santa Claus become a thing? I think we all know writing to Santa had been something going on for generations by the time Sally decided to send some correspondence to the North Pole, but I still thought it would be interesting to take a quick look back at when it all started.
It's a practice that has been going on since at least 1870. In fact, a book came out a few years ago called Dear Santa, which is a collection of letters to Santa Claus from 1870 to 1920.
In raiding newspaper archives, I found a letter from a kid named Dickie Burton that somehow wound up in the hands of the Bangor daily Whig and Courier, in Bangor, Maine. The letter ran in the paper on December 29, 1877, four days after Christmas, alas, and one can only wonder what Dickie’s family made of the attention. But here’s how Dickie Burton’s letter went, which was addressed to Mr. Santa Claus:
“I am a bright-eyed little boy and am trying to be good so that you will remember me on Christmas morning. I would like very much to have a bayonet, a gun, a sword, a sled, a watch, and a chain, a pair of rubber boots, a snow shovel, some books, a slate, some nice warm stockings, a little penknife, a candy cane and a pair of mittens. I hope you will not think I am asking for too many things, for I do not wish to be thought greedy. Mamma sends love, and hopes you will remember her, too."
Almost a hundred years later, when Sally asked Santa Claus for tens and twenties, Charlie Brown may have been disappointed, but he should have been heartened, too. Sally wasn't a bad egg. She was simply participating in a time-honored tradition of kids trying to get their fair share.
Where to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (at the time of this writing): Currently, A Charlie Brown Christmas is only available to stream on Apple TV+, which costs $6.99 a month (but there is a free week-long trial membership). Good grief. Talk about commercialism.
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