What: Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas by reading from verses 8 through 14 of the Gospel of Luke in the 1965 Peanuts cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The entirety of the broadcast can be found on ABC's site.
Why: What was Christmas like on TV in 1965? You could watch The Bob Hope Christmas Show, or, if you wanted a change of pace, you could watch The Bing Crosby Christmas Show. Or if you happened to catch it on December 9, 1965, you could watch the Peanuts gang in their first animated special. A Charlie Brown Christmas was about holiday stress, personified by a depressed Charlie Brown who rails—with sponsorship by commercialization king Coca-Cola—against the commercialization of Christmas. Sadly for Charlie Brown, his friends have completely bought into that commercial spirit. Even his dog Snoopy laughs at him when he buys a dinky Christmas tree. Throwing up his hands, Charlie Brown asks if anyone knows what Christmas is about. One person does, the wise philosopher Linus, who proceeds to quote from the Gospel of Luke on the subject of the Savior's birth. This inspires the gang to support Charlie Brown's woeful sapling with ribbons and ornaments, giving every child a counterbalancing lesson to the materialism around them this time of year.
Impact: CBS executives thought they had a disaster on their hands. They were horrified at Vince Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack ("Kids hate jazz!"), the lack of a laugh track ("Kids hate silence!"), and the child actors ("Kids hate kids!"). Most of all, they blanched at Linus's recitation of the Gospel, figuring kids hated Sunday school most of all. It turned out kids didn't hate those things, as almost half the televisions in the U.S. were tuned to the debut broadcast. It won creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Meléndez an Emmy and a Peabody, and has run every year since, now (despite some totally intolerable cuts) on ABC. This became the first of over 40 Peanuts cartoons, some good and some less so. This remains the greatest. It is now part of the commercial juggernaut of Christmas, making Schulz and his heirs so much money that they didn't quite catch the irony of licensing a plastic version of Charlie Brown's tree.
Personal Connection: This special codified my opinions on Christmas forever. I was raised Jewish, but I've ended up more of a Christian Without Portfolio—that is, except for the admittedly fairly important son-of-God thing, I'm down with much of the Gospels. The Seattle I grew up in wasn't exactly a hotbed of Judaism, so I spent more time with Christmas than the (at best) fourth most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. It has always baffled me, however, that real Christians let Christmas get away from them. The Santa half of Christmas has little connection with religion, taking my wife away every December to man the parapets of retail like a tower-defense game. It is unclear whether the true meaning of Christmas still has much to do with the guy it's named after. Once a year, though, Linus mounts his stage and undertakes a valiant if hopeless attempt to restore the equilibrium the holiday deserves.
Other Contenders: George offers to lasso Mary the moon in It's a Wonderful Life; the Old Man wins a major award in A Christmas Story; Scooter meets his ideal duet partner on A Christmas Together with John Denver and the Muppets, and David Bowie meets his on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas; John McClane gets the perfect gift in Die Hard; Mister Grinch makes a reindeer in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as does Jack in The Nightmare Before Christmas; Frank Constanza looks out for the rest of us on Seinfeld; Garmin gives us its annual rewrite of "Carol of the Bells".