Charlie Brown’s Christmas miracle
How a little boy on a quest for meaning shared the gospel with an entire nation
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On Dec. 9, 1965, a young boy threw up his hands in despair and shouted, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
“Sure, Charlie Brown,” the boy’s friend, Linus, answered. “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Dragging his trademark security blanket, Linus walked to the center of the school auditorium stage, where friends were rehearsing a Christmas play.
“Lights, please,” Linus said.
A spotlight clicked on. Then Linus delivered one of the most memorable monologues in television history: an account of Christ’s birth, recited word for word from the Gospel of Luke. It lasted a solid minute.
CBS beamed A Charlie Brown Christmas into roughly half the viewing homes in America. Every year since, families across the nation and around the world have adopted the beloved television special into their own Christmas traditions.
It’s hard to imagine networks greenlighting such a Scripture-laden script now. And it wouldn’t have happened then if not for Charles M. Schulz. The Peanuts creator would have turned 100 in November. His unique gifts continue to influence the world more than two decades after his death.
The idea for a holiday show featuring Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang began with a desperate phone call. New York ad man John Allen needed something to pitch to a big client, and he needed it fast. By 1965, Charlie Brown was a household name. The Peanuts gang had just been featured on the cover of Time magazine, and millions of Americans followed their exploits daily in the comics section of local newspapers.
So, Allen picked up the phone and called writer-producer Lee Mendelson, who’d been working on a biography of Schulz.
“Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas special?” Allen asked.
They hadn’t, but Mendelson wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip by. There was only one catch: Allen needed an outline in five days. Could Mendelson deliver?
Without batting an eye, he replied, “Of course!”
The next day, Mendelson, Schulz, and animator Bill Melendez sat down and put pen to paper. The idea came together more quickly than Mendelson could have hoped. By the end of the day, it was done and on its way to Allen’s big client: Coca-Cola.
The company loved it, but CBS network executives balked. Prime-time TV was no place for Scripture, they said, even in a cartoon Christmas show. It was 1965, the midpoint of a decade that vibrated with strife and division—not to mention rapidly spreading secularism.
According to Mendelson, who wrote a book about the Christmas special, Bill Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this, it’s too religious.”
“Bill, if we don’t do it, who else can?” Schulz replied. “We’re the only ones who can do it.”
The Charlie Brown Christmas special may have been the first time a prime-time animated cartoon quoted Scripture at length, but it was not the first time Schulz infused his comic strip with his faith. Published in more than 2,500 newspapers at its peak, the Peanuts gang’s musings on contemporary issues sparked passion and fueled debate among Schulz’s readers—particularly in the areas of religion and faith.
The first Peanuts cartoon premiered in seven newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950. Over the next 50 years, Schulz penned a total of 17,897 published strips.
One memorable strip has Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus lying on their backs looking up at the sky, surveying the clouds. Lucy asks her brother, “What do you think you see, Linus?” Linus proceeds to describe a series of elaborate scenes ending with, “And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen … I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side.”
“Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie,” Charlie Brown says, “but I changed my mind.”
A December 1958 strip premiered Linus in his first Christmas pageant, in which he exclaims, “The star that shone in Bethlehem still shines for us today!”—and then in Schulzian fashion, promptly collapses.
Schulz grew up in a nominally Lutheran family but didn’t come to faith until after serving in World War II. When he came home, he started attending services at a Church of God congregation pastored by a friend of his father. He eventually started attending the weekly Bible study and began to build a community. In 1948 he wrote a letter to a friend sharing the sincerity of his belief: “I am right where I belong, I am a firm believer in Jesus Christ.”
As Schulz’s income grew, so did his dedication to the church. He tithed regularly and decided to write and pay for a series of explanatory articles about the Church of God’s doctrine, which ran in the local newspaper. As his career progressed, he went on to serve on the church board and also led an adult Sunday school class. He would go on to lead studies through the entire Bible. Slowly, Schulz began to include religious references, both subtle and direct, in his work.
Still, while Schulz wrote and spoke on many occasions about his Christian faith, he had no interest in proselytizing, either in person or through his characters. He considered faith very personal to each individual. Peanuts served as an outlet for his own personal expression—and Schulz’s expression was so subtle that he often managed unintentionally to convince people on both sides of an issue that he shared their perspective.
In Charlie Brown’s America, author Blake Scott Ball illustrates Schulz’s ability to elicit opposing responses on a controversial topic.
In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision in Engel v. Vitale, ruling that public school officials could neither mandate nor lead prayer. The next year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the high court found school-sponsored reading of the Bible unconstitutional. In a Peanuts Sunday strip published on Oct. 20, 1963, Sally approaches her brother, Charlie Brown, and says, “Guess what?” She then leads him quietly through the house, peeking around corners and looking out the window for lurking eavesdroppers. Finally, the two crawl behind the couch, and Sally whispers, “We prayed in school today!”
Both sides of the school prayer debate labeled Schulz an ally. Requests poured in from both sides for permission to reprint the strip. United Feature Syndicate rejected them all.
Schulz later revealed his true feelings on school prayer in an unpublished letter to the editor of Vital Christianity, a Church of God publication. He actually agreed with the court’s ruling. He believed the Church didn’t need government-sanctioned or mandated prayer to succeed in its mission. He noted that spiritual lives didn’t depend on government support and concluded by quoting Romans 8:31: “If God be with us, who can be against us?”
Schulz eventually explained in an interview that the joke in the strip was on Sally for believing that not even individuals could pray in school.
In 1970, another Peanuts strip stirred the pot again, touching on an issue that’s still at the center of American debate today.
Linus asks Lucy, “What would happen if there were a beautiful and highly intelligent child up in Heaven waiting to be born and his parents decided the two children they had were enough?” Lucy says, “Your ignorance of theology and medicine is appalling.” The strip ends with Linus saying, “Well, I still think it is a good question.”
As before, praise and criticism cascaded in. In Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art With Charlie Brown and Others, Schulz says he never meant to enter into a discussion about contraception or abortion: “My point was simply that people all too frequently discuss things they know little about.”
Peanuts’ popularity grew exponentially from the 1950s to the 1970s. As Schulz struggled to understand the changing times, he thought out loud through his characters. And Americans saw Peanuts as part of their family. When Schulz moved Linus and Lucy temporarily out of the neighborhood, fans wrote in begging him to move them back. When Lucy turned Linus’ blanket into a kite, people wrote in from across the country with “blanket sightings.” And who could forget the place-kicking gag? For decades Schulz had Lucy tee up a football for Charlie Brown, promising to let him kick it, only to snatch it away at the last second—every time. According to Schulz, this was Ronald Reagan’s favorite Peanuts gag. The football storyline was a metaphor for us all: For our foolish hopes. For our perennial failure in the face of dogged trying. For the rejection we all sometimes feel. People didn’t just love Peanuts, they lived Peanuts.
Interviewers often asked Schulz how much of himself Charlie Brown represented. In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, Schulz put the number at 60 percent. Historians and students of Schulz and his work think each character represents a different aspect of his personality. A 60 Minutes profile described it like this: “Lucy vents his crabbiness, Linus his spiritual side, and Snoopy fulfills his fantasies.”
Schulz’s longtime friend and fellow cartoonist Cathy Guisewite agrees: “I think that there probably was a bit of him in all of the characters like there always is for all cartoonists.” A celebrated artist in her own right, Guisewite drew the Cathy comic strip for 34 years before she retired in 2010. Family, friends, and colleagues like Guisewite knew Schulz by his childhood nickname “Sparky,” short for Sparkplug, a racehorse in the comic strip Barney Google.
Guisewite told me she met Schulz two years into her cartoonist career when she went to speak at an industry event in San Francisco. It was her first time to mingle with other cartoonists. She’d heard rumblings that Schulz, who disliked traveling, might be there. Suddenly, as the crowd parted, she saw a “beautiful shock of gray hair,” and the handsome Schulz made his way toward her. Greeting her warmly, he told her he’d been following her new strip and had come to meet her. Her reaction? “I just about died.”
In the years that followed, Guisewite considered Schulz a close friend and mentor. But she admits all cartoonists who knew him would say the same. Cartoonists share a special camaraderie, she said, despite belonging to an industry where artists are expected to compete for the limited space in newspapers. Cartoonists in Schulz’s era cheered each other on, and the lead cheerleader was none other than Schulz himself. He knew better than anyone how valuable such encouragement could be.
Schulz grew up in Minnesota. His father Carl owned a barbershop in St. Paul, and his mother Dena was a housewife. Both influenced Schulz’s eventual pursuit of a career as a comic-strip artist. Every weekend, Schulz and his father bought all four Sunday newspapers in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Together, they pored over the comics and discussed them. Multiple biographies share the account of his kindergarten teacher who, after observing young Schulz’s drawing of a man shoveling snow juxtaposed next to a palm tree, remarked, “Someday, Charles, you’re going to be an artist.”
He was also an ace student—at least early on. In elementary school, Schulz fared well enough to skip 2½ grades, decorating his school notebooks with characters like Mickey Mouse and Popeye as he went. In high school, his academics floundered, but his interest in art flourished. In his senior year, his art teacher recruited him to draw cartoons for the school annual, but his work didn’t make it into print. It was one of many rejections he would never forget.
Disappointed but undaunted, Schulz signed up for a correspondence art class his mother found in the local paper. His father willingly paid the $170 tuition. Schulz finished the course, but World War II put his drawing career on hold when Uncle Sam drafted him in 1943.
He served as an Army machine gunner, and despite his prestigious decadeslong comics career, his tombstone reflects only his military service: “Charles M. Schulz, Sgt. U.S. Army.” He expressed his sympathy and admiration for soldiers—and his distaste for war—in Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace vignettes. In Peanuts Jubilee, Schulz says that three years in the Army taught him all he needed to know about loneliness, and that experience “is dropped heavily upon Charlie Brown.”
Returning home after the war, Schulz set out to sell his work. He managed to get a job lettering for the Catholic cartoons of a local publisher called Timeless Topix. About a year later, he got a second job correcting lessons at the Art Instruction School, where he’d completed that correspondence course. Eventually, several Art Instruction colleagues became Peanuts characters: The real Charlie Brown had a desk across from Schulz. Linus and Frieda worked there too. Other characters’ names came from all over. His mother suggested “Snoopy” for a second dog. His first dog’s name was Spike, who became Snoopy’s brother in the strip. Peppermint Patty came from staring at a bowl of the chocolate-covered candy.
Perhaps the most famous—or infamous—of Schulz’s characters had no name. She was known only as “the little red-haired girl,” the focus of Charlie Brown’s unrequited love. In real life, her name was Donna Wold. In Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz, author and journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson devotes an entire chapter to Schulz’s failed romance with Wold. They met when she worked in the accounting department of the Art Instruction School. Seven years her senior, Schulz competed with another man for Wold’s affections. He lost—and passed the torch on to Charlie Brown to carry in the comics.
A search for deeper meaning
Part of Schulz’s popularity stemmed from his uncanny ability to take complex and profound subjects and distill them down to a medium consumable by the masses. Cathy Guisewite compared his writing to haiku poetry—simple but rich in meaning.
His characters have provided a seemingly limitless well of illustrations for theologians, psychiatrists, and historians. Robert Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, a nonfiction bestseller in 1965, explored theological concepts through a Peanuts lens. Dr. Abraham Twerski’s When Do the Good Things Start? incorporated Peanuts comic strips in counseling patients.
Blake Scott Ball, author of Charlie Brown’s America, began researching comics as a way to recover accounts of history closer to the way everyday people experienced it. As he continued to dig, he found Peanuts characters and Charles Schulz strips showing up in discussions from the barber shop to the White House. Ball discovered that in 1970, 100 million people—half the U.S. population—read Peanuts. With the fragmentation of media today, Ball said, it’s unimaginable that half the country would read the same content.
Ball told me the point of comic strips was to get people to buy newspapers, and millions bought papers just to see if Charlie Brown would finally get to kick that football. So, when the Christmas special aired in 1965, there was a vast audience of fans ready and waiting, and their response was overwhelming. Schulz and Coca-Cola received hundreds of letters. One after another, viewers expressed intense gratitude for the explicitly Christian message. Schulz had tapped into the heart of America.
Professor and historian Stephen Lind recounts in A Charlie Brown Religion that networks had feared offending viewers by including religious content. But Schulz had “developed a different vantage point surrounding his content, often saying, ‘there will always be a market for innocence.’”
Turns out, he was right. The Christmas special went on to win a Peabody and an Emmy in 1966. And more than half a century later, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains the second-longest-running animated Christmas special on network TV—bested only by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted the year before. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, by American jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, is a staple of classic Christmas playlists.
Fans’ devotion hasn’t waned. In 2020, AppleTV+ purchased all the rights to Schulz’s animated specials and placed them behind a paywall. Outraged Peanuts fans struck back on social media and launched an online petition to move the special back to the networks. Apple quickly reversed course and partnered with PBS to provide free access to the holiday shows. Charlie Brown and the gang would not be denied their rightful place in American families’ Christmas viewing traditions.
Why does America’s fascination with such an overtly Christian show endure? Philip Tallon, a theology professor at Houston Christian University, says it taps into the longing that Charlie Brown himself expressed: a desire to know the true meaning of Christmas. Tallon says the special’s initially acerbic tone in dealing with themes “like being an outcast or loser or even depression” immediately sets it apart from other similar shows of its time.
Thematically, the show feels very modern and “incredibly ahead of its time,” Tallon notes. “Charlie Brown sounds like someone who could be on Twitter right now.” Caught in an existential crisis, Schulz’s lovable loser searches for Christmas’ deeper meaning amid his disillusionment. Others, though—Lucy, for example—peg Christmas as a commercial racket and couldn’t care less about its deeper meaning.
Tallon points out that Schulz took viewers all the way through the cultural Christmas celebration to the emptiness inherent when that’s all there is. Enter Linus. With his recitation from Luke, he seems to break the fourth wall, offering an answer not just to Charlie Brown but to the audience as well.
Perhaps that’s what makes Peanuts so appealing. Its timeless themes—loneliness, rejection, anxiety, unrequited love, failure, the struggle for optimism, and the search for meaning—are all part of the human condition. And ultimately, Linus’ response to his friend’s angst-filled question contains the answer to every other question as well.
Good news of great joy … a Savior born to you … who is Christ the Lord.
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
What is Christmas all about?
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, goodwill toward men.”