Peanuts is a comic strip that was written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz. Sadly, Schulz is no longer with us, having passed away on February 12, 2000, at the age of 77. Today, though, he is still considered to be among the most prominent cartoonists in history.
There’s good reason for that too. You see, Schulz, who was raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, always loved to draw, and he got his nickname, “Sparky,” from the character of Spark Plug in the comic strip Barney Google. In 1937 Schulz even signed a piece of his work as being “drawn by Sparky.”
Then, in 1943, Schulz joined the United States Army. This was, of course, towards the tail end of the Second World War. So even though Schulz was a squad leader in charge of a machine gun, he actually only had one real chance to fire the weapon. Fortunately for the German soldier in his sights, however, Schulz hadn’t even loaded the gun properly.
After returning home, Schulz got a job marking students’ work at Art Instruction, Inc. But it was comics that Schulz was truly interested in, and he worked to make that his permanent career. So his first regularly published cartoon, Li’l Folks, ran in the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 to 1950. These gag strips actually feature the name Charlie Brown as well as a dog reminiscent of Snoopy. Perhaps inevitably, then, Peanuts was born not long after Li’l Folks ended.
In fact, the Peanuts comic strip debuted on October 2, 1950, and ran until February 13, 2000 – one day after Schulz’s death. There were 17,897 strips created in total, and the comic has continued in reruns. And due to the incredible success of the strip, Schulz apparently made more than $1 billion.
For those who don’t know, Peanuts follows the everyday lives and concerns of a group of young children. The most prominent character is Charlie Brown, who is depicted as shy, uncoordinated and anxious about almost everything. He also has a dog named Snoopy, who became famous for his hilarious flights of fancy. Some of the other notable characters include Linus, Lucy and Peppermint Patty.
The 1960s was seemingly the time in which Peanuts was especially popular. During this period, you see, approximately 355 million people in 75 countries had access to the strip. This was because the comic strips had been translated into 21 different languages and appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers.
And although Peanuts is about young people, the strips are actually known for dealing with multifaceted themes. Schulz used satire in his cartoons, for example, and commented on society through the stories of his characters. Schulz’s work was even included in a “Masters of American Comics” exhibition and branded as “psychologically complex” and “perfectly in keeping with the style of its times.”
It’s not just newspapers that the Peanuts characters have appeared in, either. The musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown debuted in 1967, for instance, and has been performed on Broadway as recently as 1999. There have also been many beloved television specials.
These include holiday-themed episodes such as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is also one of the fan-favorite specials. But perhaps the best-loved of them all is A Charlie Brown Christmas.
A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered in 1965. Surprisingly, it was The Coca-Cola Company that initially ordered and sponsored the program. And one of aspects of the show that stood out at the time was the fact that it didn’t have a laugh track. Yet while producers apparently feared that the special would flop, they could hardly have been more wrong.
The Christmas special follows Charlie Brown as he tries to combat his feelings of depression around the holidays. In particular, the character finds that the commercialism associated with Christmas gets him down. He grows annoyed, for instance, when he discovers that Snoopy has entered a decoration contest with a cash prize. It also bothers him when his sister, Sally, tells Santa that she’s willing to accept money instead of presents.
So Lucy encourages Charlie Brown to direct the school’s Christmas play to bolster his spirits. He then decides that the production isn’t quite right, however, and heads out to get a Christmas tree. But while Lucy wants a pink metal creation, Charlie Brown picks the only real tree available instead.
The girls and Snoopy then all laugh at Charlie Brown and his tree and leave. At his wit’s end, the protagonist wonders if anyone can actually explain the true meaning of Christmas. So Linus reads the annunciation to the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14. This is appropriate as Schulz has stated that the character of Linus is an exemplification of Charlie Brown’s own spirituality.
A Charlie Brown Christmas then ends with Charlie’s friends deciding that they’ve been harsh on him. They subsequently decorate his tree with lights and ornaments from Snoopy’s doghouse after he wins the contest. Finally, the gang sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
The episode is actually the first ever Peanuts television special. And despite the reservations from its creators, it was a hit. When it premiered, for instance, nearly 15.5 million homes tuned in – almost half the total viewers across the U.S. that evening.
Critics couldn’t get enough of the special, either. Variety even described it as “fascinating and haunting.” And the New York Post applauded the way that Peanuts had made a “very neat transition from comic page to screen.”
The media also foretold that the Peanuts gang would be on our screens for many years to come. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, hailed the special as “a yule classic.” And the United Press International accurately predicted that “the Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future.”
There have been 45 more specials over the years, but A Charlie Brown Christmas has remained popular in its own right. The program has also influenced many animators in their work. It is even thought to have inspired the creation of other holiday television classics such as Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
A Charlie Brown Christmas also won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966. Upon accepting the trophy, Schulz joked, “Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you.” It additionally won a Peabody Award.
And it’s not just the show that has brought in accolades. The jazz soundtrack to the special has also sold more than four million copies, and in 2007 it entered the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2012 it was also included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”
Other Charlie Brown-focused Christmas specials have aired in the past few decades too. These include It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown from 1992, 2000’s I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales from 2002. But it’s the original that remains the favorite and continues to air in households across the United States each year.
And on the 40th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 2005, the special earned its highest ratings to date. And that same year USA Today explained why it is so beloved. “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,” the publication declared.
The networks behind the show have changed over the years, though. CBS actually aired the program from its first year until 2000 – the year that Schulz died. But after that, ABC bought the rights, and the network still owns them to this day. And although it remains a classic for many, A Charlie Brown Christmas has changed since its first airing too.
When the program first premiered, for instance, there were references to its sponsor during the broadcast. So at the beginning of the original, Snoopy throws Linus into the air – and he lands on a sign promoting Coca-Cola. This has been edited out since, however, and viewers no longer see where Linus gets thrown to.
A credit at the end of the original also mentioned the company. “Merry Christmas from your local bottler of Coca-Cola,” it originally displayed on the screen. And while this kind of advertising is quite blatant, it isn’t unusual for sponsors to be incorporated into programs in such a way.
In fact, in the 1960s Fred Flintstone could be seen smoking Winston cigarettes with Barney Rubble in old commercials for the cigarette company. And there are even lyrics about Kellogg’s cereal in the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. But with regards to the Charlie Brown special, all references to Coca-Cola have now been removed.
Taking out mentions of the sponsor is not the only way that the program has been altered, however. Parts of the show have, for example, been edited to improve the animation or sound effects. And one version does not include a scene which shows the children throwing snowballs at a can.
But in 2011 ABC’s airing of the show actually sparked an online debate. You see, the network had cut down A Charlie Brown Christmas from its runtime of 25 minutes to a shorter 22-minute version. And the decision left some fans furious.
So what motivated ABC’s decision? Well, advertisers naturally pay networks to air commercials during shows. In 2017 Nielsen reported that there are an average of 13 minutes of commercials during each one-hour broadcast. That number also went up to 16 minutes per hour on cable television.
So A Charlie Brown Christmas was cut down in order to accommodate a larger number of commercials. But viewers complained that scenes featuring Schroeder, Shermy and Lucy were edited out. One person even reflected to the Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog that ABC “cut the heck out of it.”
Outraged fans further discussed which moments from the holiday classic had been taken out to make way for commercials. It also turned out that the special had been abridged in a similar manner two years earlier. And people noted the irony of a show offering a comment on commercialism being reduced for the sake of advertising.
“The heartwarming special that sounds a clarion call against the overcommercialization of Christmas had once again fallen prey to too many commercials at Christmas,” Michael Cavna wrote in Comic Riffs. The writer also called it “the unkindest cut of all.” He further added, “Like its trademark scraggly tree, A Charlie Brown Christmas needs to be appreciated for its full greatness.”
Fans also took to Twitter to vent their frustrations. “Funny how ABC edited Charlie Brown Christmas, a special about remembering the true meaning of Christmas, to run more commercials,” one person shared. Another wrote, “Thanks ABC for broadcasting a highly edited Charlie Brown Christmas tonight. Would it kill you [to] show this one uncut just once?”
Others believed that the protestors were overreacting, however. And while ABC confirmed that the airing of the special on December 5, 2011, had indeed been cut down for commercials, it wasn’t the only opportunity for audiences to watch it. An unedited version was in fact shown ten days later.
The network had apparently made this decision in response to complaints from viewers who didn’t want to see an abridged version of the classic. So it puts out the shortened A Charlie Brown Christmas because the special is in a prime slot for advertisers, and the full-length version is for the purists.
And instead of just showing the special in a half-hour time slot, ABC also aired it over the course of an hour alongside Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales. This 2002 companion series features several small stories and runs at 18 minutes. This allows for 17 minutes of total advertising time.
Now, nearly two decades after Schulz’s death, Peanuts remains a hugely popular franchise. A computer-animated film called The Peanuts Movie was released in 2015, for instance, and earned around $246 million at the box office. And A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the longest-running Christmas specials in the U.S., second only to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was first broadcast a year before.
Joe Queenan wrote in The Guardian in 2010 that Peanuts became so popular because it “flew in the face of… pretentiousness.” And he added that it did not matter that fans didn’t know the backstory behind all of the characters and their quirks. “The ideas came from somewhere,” Queenan wrote. “And when they got here, they were more than welcome to pull up a chair and stay a while. Fifty years, in fact.”