November 24, 2020

The Peanuts Christmas Countdown Panels: A (long-awaited!) complete history

[Authors’ note: 5CP posts generally are informal — and much shorter! — like newspaper press releases. But because of the way this particular saga unfolded, a first-person approach seemed best. As a result, Derrick is stepping out from behind the curtain.]


I spent almost two decades wondering about this.


Very little in the way of Peanuts and Charles M. Schulz lore remains untapped, at this late stage. Thanks to the Schulz Museum’s debut in August 2002 — along with Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts book series, David Michaelis’ biography of Schulz, and all manner of other books, articles and essays from numerous quarters — we’ve been blessed with detailed revelations about almost every possible aspect of Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.




I first learned about the annual Peanuts Christmas countdown panels in late 1997, after signing on as a desk editor at my hometown newspaper. At that time, they were distributed on slick pages, multiple panels to a page, as shown at left:


The panels themselves were lifted from existing Peanuts newspaper strips, but the word balloons were amended with a holiday-themed sentiment; alternatively, “silent” panels were assigned holiday-themed “titles” above the artwork. (My understanding is that selecting and captioning each year’s panels was something of a contest among various United Feature Syndicate staffers; they were not done by Schulz.)


By the 21st century, the panels also were available digitally — in both monochrome and full color — via various Internet delivery systems. The panels were sent, at no additional charge, to all client newspapers that published the daily Peanuts strip. The idea was to add a bit of holiday cheer to the season, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving, and concluding on Christmas Day.


But our local paper didn’t use them, and — for that matter — I don’t recall ever having seen them in any of the newspapers that commonly came to my attention. They weren’t in the Los Angeles Times, or the San Francisco Chronicle; even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat declined to run them (which seems odd, given that Schulz lived in Santa Rosa for so many years).


So I simply took the folder home each year, ran off large copies of each panel on letter-size paper, and posted them in our living room; I sneakily changed them early each morning, before my wife got up. She worked at a bank, so I made a second set; she posted them near her desk, and similarly swapped them every morning.


United Feature continued the program through 2011, then stopped. The final few years coincided with the early years of this blog, which gave us an appropriate outlet for sharing the panels with the entire world. They clearly became quite popular with some followers, who were quick to send email queries when we were a bit late in posting the next one.


Starting in 2012 — not wanting to stop what had become an enjoyable tradition — we began to dip into the past, resurrecting previous sets from matching calendar years (when, for example, Thanksgiving fell on November 23, as opposed to November 24, and so forth). But we only had a 15-year supply, and — as the years have passed — it became obvious that we’d soon exhaust them. Repeating a given set again, in so short a period of time, didn’t appeal to us.


And it merely amplified a question that had percolated, ever since 1997.


When did this annual Peanuts feature begin? And did anybody have a list of where the panels were published?


This will surprise you: Nobody knew.


I asked numerous folks at United Features, and at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, and (when it opened) at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. People came and went over time; I asked their replacements.


Nobody knew.


Over time — when I had nothing better to do, on a given afternoon — I hauled out spools of microfilmed archive newspapers for every publication stored by our local university library. No luck.


A few 5CP correspondents hinted at having seen them in newspapers in the early 1990s, but their memories — more than two decades removed — were vague and unhelpful.


The quest hit the back burner several times: first from 2009 to ’11, while researching and writing what became my biography of Vince Guaraldi; and more recently during a five-year stretch when I was absorbed by a new project (details here). The latter wound down this past March; that, combined with the “shelter in place” requirements then in effect, suddenly gave me unaccustomed free time.


The first order of business was catching up with fresh data about Guaraldi. Considerable information was gleaned, during my book’s initial research phase, from the aggregate site, a subscription service that has archived every single issue of thousands of newspapers, large and small, from across the United States (along with a smattering of international publications). Although a treasure trove of vintage data, a decade back I had been frustrated by the absence of the two newspapers most integral to Guaraldi’s career: the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Although both were present in microfilm drawers at our aforementioned university library, you can’t do keyword searches on a spool of celluloid. I knew that a lot of data had been overlooked during the brute-force, page-by-page approach I took, in the time available. added numerous publications during the intervening decade; I was delighted to discover that the San Francisco Examiner was among them. (But not the Chronicle, which — as these words are typed — still lacks any sort of online archive, aside from a site that offers “selected articles” from 1985 to present. Which is aggravating to me personally, and puzzling in general: a newspaper of that size and importance, not yet residing in the 21st century? That’s daft!)




I took a fresh dive into, and emerged with roughly 200 bits of new material about Guaraldi. (You can download PDFs of full pages.) Then, as I was about to sign out for the final time, the ancient question bubbled back to the surface, and I wondered:


Might it be possible to find Peanuts countdown panels via this site?


Tantalizing. Very tantalizing.


A 1982 countdown panel, the debut year

But how should such a search be organized? An alphabetical examination of the site’s 16,600-plus newspapers would be madness. I finally settled on a key phrase, “shopping days until Christmas,” and began the search in December 1990. Lo and behold, the results field — which shows a portion of each relevant hit — sparkled with Peanuts countdown panels.


(Not every hit was a panel; hundreds were from articles and advertisements that contained the phrase. You’d expect as much, during December.)


I immediately tried Decembers on both sides of 1990, with successful but limited results. The panels all came from Florida’s Fort Myers News Press, but only from three years: 1989, ’90 and ’91. Nothing earlier, nothing later. 1989 was intact, but — maddeningly — two days were missing in 1990 (November 25 and December 23), and five days were absent in 1991 (December 2, 4, 7, 14 and 18). I assume the newspaper didn’t have room on those days, or perhaps somebody simply forgot.


Even so, this was quite a rush: evidence that the feature dated back to at least 1989. I spent the next few hours making PDF copies of the 80-plus panels.


And yet … and yet …


Only one newspaper, out of more than 16,600? Seriously?


Something was wrong.


I slept on it.


The following morning, I did a fresh search, this time on the shorter phrase “shopping days,” again in December 1990.


Oh, wow.


Even though the phrase “shopping days” was a lot more popular in hundreds (thousands?) of articles and advertisements, scrolling through the results also revealed dozens of different newspapers with the panels that I recognized from the Fort Myers News Press. And I quickly realized my earlier error:


The correct phrase was “shopping days to Christmas.” (Apparently the Fort Myers New Press was just weird.)


Moving forward, I nonetheless held the search to just “shopping days.” Search engines are quirky, and it’s also a function of how the metadata is handled. Narrowing each search to a specific date — say, December 14, 1990 — usually produced between 200 and 300 hits, of which perhaps 25 to 35 were useful.


Oddly enough, the shorter “shopping days” did not return many of the earlier Fort Myers News Press hits, which proved the search engine idiosyncracies. And (of course) I had to amend it to “shopping day” in order to find December 24 panels.


Almost all of the hits came from small regional newspapers: the Hawaii Tribune Herald; the Standard-Speaker, in Hazeltown, Pennsylvania; the Oshkosh Northwestern, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; the Victoria Advocate, in Victoria, Texas; the Billings Gazette, in Billings, Montana; the Greenville News, in Greenville, South Carolina; and many others. That explained why I’d been unsuccessful with the microfilm searches; all of these papers were much too small to have been archived anywhere outside their respective communities. The one exception was the New York Daily News, which carried the feature for several years in the 1990s.




You’d think that finding one or two “reliable” newspapers, and then concentrating on them, would be sufficient. Nice in theory, but no: not that simple. Many small newspapers only published five or six days per week. Others — as was the case with the Fort Myers News Press — weren’t sufficiently dedicated, and skipped days here and there. Additionally, many of the PDF scans were of inferior quality: too dark (gray, rather than white), blurry, too “dirty” (dark spots and lines everywhere), canted at an odd angle, or “wavy.”


Another problem surfaced: Many newspaper editors — or perhaps their interns — didn’t know how to count. The panels weren’t identified by date until 1993, as with the 1997 example at right; prior to that, they only said (for example) “12 shopping days to Christmas.” Now, we must make allowances for evening papers, as opposed to morning papers; the former would run the following day’s panel, because that day’s “shopping day” was essentially over. So it made sense to see two different panels on a given day.


But I was seeing four. Or five or six. Some that were two, three, even four days wrong. (Makes you question the accuracy of the rest of the paper, doesn’t it?)


On top of which, some folks who did know the math, “amended” panels by assigning a given “shopping days” entry to a different one, much the way countless Peanuts fans — back in the day — used to swap the little metal “captions” on Aviva trophies (which turned cataloguing those into a nightmare). I understood messing with the trophies; it was fun to match a desired caption with an image appropriate to a given person or occasion. But why run the panels in a different order?


All things considered, the process was completely bonkers.


But — laugh if you will — I was stubborn (obsessed?) enough to see it through.


The result:


The Peanuts countdown panels debuted in 1982, but only to an extremely limited degree. Dennis the Menace (owned by a different cartoon syndicate) had the “fancy” countdown that year, as the example at left demonstrates. The Peanuts panels, in great contrast, appear to have been an afterthought: small squares with a tiny word balloon, and a blank space where the appropriate number could be inserted. With only a handful of panels from which to choose — I found only four in 1982 — it became necessary to change the number every day. Needless to say, that led to even more math-challenged results.


At least 18 Peanuts panels were offered in 1983: still not enough to cover the entire period between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Once again, though, it was left to individual newspaper staffs to modify the countdown number, as needed. (I admit to the possibility of more than 18, but — because of repeated panels and incorrect counting days — combing through thousands upon thousands of newspapers proved impractical.)


A 1983 countdown panel

Starting in 1984, the panels assumed their more “formal” appearance. Even so, it appears as though individual newspapers still had to enter the appropriate number of “shopping days to Christmas.” I base that theory on the variety of type fonts used to convey that message; once again, that meant that the same panel would pop up in different papers, with a different countdown number. The feature also appears to have started late; although Thanksgiving was on November 22 that year, the first panels didn’t appear until November 28. That should have produced a total of 27 panels, through December 24 … but — maddeningly — I found only 26.


(The feature concluded on December 24 until 1993; an additional Christmas Day panel didn’t begin until 1994.)


Starting in 1985, the feature was fully standardized; with rare exception, the same panel ran in all newspapers on the same day. But occasional counting errors continued to crop up; as mentioned above, not until 1993 was the actual date added to each panel, to guide newspaper staffers into using the proper one, on the proper day.


Another 1982 countdown panel

The best news? Through diligence and determination, I found every panel from 1985 forward. When we kick off this year’s countdown, on November 27, we’ll resurrect the 1987 run, which also began November 27 … and has been unseen for more than three decades.


Moving forward, we have another 11 years’ worth of complete runs. That should keep everybody happy for a long time.


I must mention, however, that image quality is all over the map. Sometimes I simply couldn’t find a truly nice one (sharp, properly aligned, etc.), and went with the best available. But it’s better than nothing, right?

And this also gives us the final answer to a hitherto unsolved bit of Peanuts lore: The countdown panels ran from 1982 through 2011, inclusive. The first two years were modest and quite haphazard; 1984 also was a bit random. But the rest — 1985 through 2011 — represent just north of a quarter-century of day-by-day holiday Peanuts cheer. 



Anonymous said...

Derrick - Wonderful to read and thank you for compiling this article!
Bless your heart for doing another of your wonderful countdowns this year

Gerry said...

Hi Derrick,

I love that you do this every year. I look forward to it with great excitment.
I Wonder which ones will be this year's choice. I wish there was a book with all the years panels in it that can be brought out at Thanksgiving and looked at every day. Thank you for doing this for everyone.