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A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn't get aired

Charles Shulz/WarnerBros

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"Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess." -- Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas

On December 12, 1965, a little boy with a round head walked onto more than 15 million American television screens, and became an instant success. But A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn't air.

Charlie Brown and the gang from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" had already been animated for TV commercials and titles, but this Christmas show established a pattern for "Peanuts" specials over the next four decades: intelligent stories, stylized animation, real children's voices and a stylish jazz score.  Yet A Charlie Brown Christmas had been made quickly and on a minimal budget. Director Bill Melendez feared he'd ended Charlie Brown's TV career before it really began. CBS executives more accustomed to the madcap pace and slapstick humor of Hollywood theatrical cartoons dismissed it as "flat" and "slow." They only aired it because it was already scheduled and they had nothing to show in its place.

But A Charlie Brown Christmas beat Gomer Pyle, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Beverly Hillbillies in the ratings, won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, and made the half-hour animated special a staple of network television. Chuck Jones' adaptation of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas followed in 1966, and Rankin-Bass' Frosty the Snowman aired in 1969.

As an animation critic, I've sat through dozens of holiday jollifications over the years. The Chipmunks, the Flintstones, the Smurfs, Yogi Bear, He-Man and Fat Albert have all celebrated Christmas. Countless little animals and kids have "saved" Christmas and kept Santa from forgetting one kid or one town. Elves have reconnoitered houses for Santa's arrival, and reindeer noses have shown through snowy nights. Most holiday specials have been as saccharine and empty as a Twinkie. Only A Charlie Brown Christmas talks about what the holiday actually celebrates.

Bill Melendez told me that when he first read in the script that Linus would recite the Gospel according to St. Luke, he told Charles Schulz, "This is religion. It just doesn't go in a cartoon." Schulz looked at him very coldly and said, "Bill, if we don't do it, who will? We can do it."

And they could. Ironically, Linus' recitation -- one of the most memorable speeches in television history -- gives A Charlie Brown Christmas an honesty that appeals to people of all faiths - and no faith. Almost 50 years after its debut, it's a special that is actually special.

Charles Solomon is author of the newly published The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials.