On December 9, 1965, millions of Americans learned what Christmas is all about. That evening, A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first animated special featuring characters from Charles Schulz’s beloved comic strip Peanuts, aired on CBS. Over the years, watching the beautifully understated ode to the holiday season has become an annual tradition. The program now airs every year on ABC.
You can pre-order A Charlie Brown Christmas 50th anniversary stamp at the USPS website. The issue date is October 1, 2015.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed just ten days shy of its national broadcast premiere. All involved believed the special would be an unmitigated disaster. Melendez first saw the completed animation at a showing in a theater in the days before its premiere, turning to his crew of animators and remarking, “My golly, we’ve killed it.” Melendez was embarrassed, but one of the animators, Ed Levitt, was more positive regarding the special, telling him it was “the best special [he’ll] ever make […] This show is going to run for a hundred years.” Mendelson was similar in his assumptions of the show’s quality, and when he showed the film to network executives in New York, their opinions were also negative. Their complaints included the show’s slow pace, the music not fitting, and the animation too simple. “I really believed, if it hadn’t been scheduled for the following week, there’s no way they were gonna broadcast that show,” Mendelson later said. Executives had invited television critic Richard Burgheim of Time to view the special, and debated as to whether showing it to him would be a good idea. His review, printed the following week, was positive, praising the special as unpretentious and writing that “A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children’s special this season that bears repeating.”
The program premiered on CBS on December 9, 1965 at 7:30PM ET (pre-empting The Munsters), and was viewed by 45% of those watching television that evening, with the number of homes watching the special an estimated 15,490,000, placing it at number two in the ratings, behind Bonanza on NBC. The special received unanimous critical acclaim: The Hollywood Reporter deemed the show “delightfully novel and amusing,” while the Weekly Variety dubbed it “fascinating and haunting.” Bob Williams of the New York Post praised the “very neat transition from comic page to screen,” while Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post declared that “natural-born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night.” Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram hailed the scene in which Linus recites scripture, commenting, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.” Harry Harris of The Philadelphia Inquirer called the program “a yule classic […] generated quiet warmth and amusement,” and Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Charlie Brown was a gem of a television show.” Ben Gross of the New York Daily News praised the special’s “charm and good taste,” while Rick DuBrow of United Press International predicted, “the Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future.”