I. Christmas time is here/Happiness and cheer
I have no scientific evidence, but the idea of a “blue Christmas” (a holiday spent depressed rather than merry) seems to have more resonance in the culture-at-large this year. Miley Cyrus’s new song about feeling lonely and isolated has received a great deal of attention and acclaim. Her announcement of the song and its backstory has been liked over 50 thousand times:
A sad Christmas song I wrote a few years back right before the holidays. Was feeling like shit cause I couldn’t be with the one I loved. Even with a house full of family and friends I still felt alone…. https://t.co/n1g3f2IsMh
— Miley Ray Cyrus (@MileyCyrus) December 22, 2019
It appears—to me—as though folks are more likely to acknowledge how difficult this time of year is for many, and how the collective joy of the season can paradoxically feel particularly alienating to wide swaths of the population.
Of course, I am by no means an unbiased observer. In the past couple of years, I have found the holiday season rather difficult to deal with, following a great deal of upheaval in my personal life. I have not been able to experience the same unencumbered merriment that I once did during this time of year.
Though, it hasn’t all been bad. I have been able to turn to one consistent source of comfort, which has been a sizeable chunk of my holidays for years now. I speak of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack to the television special of identical name. Top-to-bottom it is, IMHO, the greatest Christmas album ever, including both exquisite covers of Christmas standards, as well as three of the best Christmas originals written this side of 1950—“Christmas is Coming”, “Skating”, and “Christmas Time is Here”.
Of those, “Christmas Time is Here” is the best, and has seen the most popularity in the 54 years since the special’s release. The song effectively straddles the line between melancholy and joy, perfectly exemplifying the conflicting emotions that the season can conjure.
Writing for The Ringer, Rob Harvilla describes “Christmas Time is Here” as:
“forlorn-snowstorm melancholy…a joyous and heartbreaking ballad available as an instrumental (with a loneliness so vivid it feels communal) or a gentle children’s-choir spectacular (they’re not exactly in tune, but that just makes it more exquisite)”
Harvilla’s seemingly contradictory words characterize the song perfectly, and this tension between the joyous and the heartbreaking is, to me, what we mean when we discuss the feeling of emptiness that accompanies so many of us during the holidays. The desire to joyfully embrace the season in the same way as others is there, but we can’t quite tap into it, for reasons varying among different people, all colored different shades of blue come late December.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (the TV special, not Guaraldi’s soundtrack) has always been my favorite piece of Christmas-themed art, though my appreciation for it has changed over the years. I used to think that the highlight of it was Snoopy messing with Lucy during rehearsal for the Christmas play (“I’ve been kissed by a dog! Get hot water! Get some disinfectant! Get some iodine!”). I would laugh to tears, rewind the VCR, watch it again, and laugh some more. Now, I find the funniest part to be Charlie Brown’s “therapy” session with “Dr.” Lucy Van Pelt (who, by the way, is “real in”). Every line is absolutely brilliant, and is so true to life that it feels like they may have ripped lines directly from a bad session of mine.
The fact that there is a therapy scene in what is ostensibly a children’s program speaks to what A Charlie Brown Christmas is really about. In childhood I didn’t totally comprehend that A Charlie Brown Christmas was really about those who feel alone, outcast, and unable to enjoy the merriment of the holiday season. I mean, sure, on some level I knew that—in the same way that I could hear one of Aesop’s fables and give you a one-sentence descriptor of what I was to have learned from the thing. I could have told you (in the slightly sarcastic sing-songy voice of a child annoyed that they have to answer a question) that “we should be nice to people and include them so that they don’t feel alone and sad.” But I didn’t know what feeling lonely, depressed, and melancholic during the holidays really was. Christmas was a time of unbridled joy every year; a time of anticipation, excitement, exceptionally satisfying gratification, and overall contentment.
I miss those days.
II. Fun for all that children call/Their favorite time of the year
As with all children, my brother and I had trouble staying asleep through the night of Christmas Eve, often getting up at what I now recognize as an ungodly early hour.
In our defense, we didn’t have a clock in our room, and thus—this being the era immediately preceding smartphones—were unaware of the exact extent of our nuisance. However, one year in particular, our crepuscular shenanigans were indefensible.
Our parents had given us an exact time that we could come in and wake them, in order to go downstairs and open presents. But, again, being that we didn’t have a clock in our room, when we awoke in the middle of the night, we needed some way to see precisely how close we were to the sweet release of tearing open gifts.
There was something wrong with the door to our parents’ room—somehow the door was ever so slightly out of alignment with the door frame. You could still open it of course, but the door would rub directly up against the frame, and the friction it created would be…well…loud.
We must have gone in and out of there four times in the span of two hours (from 4-6 AM). I don’t know how in the world my parents didn’t snap and cancel Christmas. They would have been well within their rights to. They must have slept like two hours each that night. To make matters worse, my brother and I were SO over-the-moon excited, that we needed to get our energy out somehow. We decided to sprint back-and-forth in the upstairs hallway. The bulls in Pamplona probably make less noise than we did that morning, all while we should have been asleep.
Oh, that we could feel the unparalleled excitement of childhood again. Also, sorry Mom and Dad.
III. Snowflakes in the air/Carols everywhere
Guaraldi’s piano on A Charlie Brown Christmas is most often evocative of snow, in large part thanks to the television special to which it is inextricably linked. “Skating” is a prime example, with the piano mimicking snowfall as the notes quickly descend down the keyboard. During the special, this plays while the kids are catching snowflakes on their tongue, and that indelible image always appears when I hear the song.
While Guaraldi’s piano is undoubtedly the star, credit also must be given to drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall, especially for their work on “Christmas Time is Here”. Granelli’s percussion has a roominess to it which is integral to the song—the cymbals are stroked ever-so-lightly, each strike sounding as though it rolls into the next. It feels like you’re hearing the air in the studio when it was recorded; it provides a warmth that is desperately needed to temper the melancholic key of the work.
On “Christmas Time is Here”, Marshall takes the ‘fluttering snowflakes’ duties, as his dexterous fingers navigate the double bass with precision. He and Guaraldi perfectly match in their timing at the end of the song, as both play soft yet rapid pairs of notes.
Marshall is able to be nimble and soft at the same time, and his solo during the instrumental version provides a pallet-cleanser from Guaraldi’s dominating piano. There is less melancholy in Marshall’s playing—less underlying sadness. He is integral in creating joy that exists in tandem with the melancholy.
IV. Olden times and ancient rhymes/Of love and dreams to share
Traditions are the backbone of Christmas. Christmas in different households is really all about the little variations to ancient traditions, slight alterations to the script which make every family’s celebration their own.
Growing up, we always said prayers together as a family each evening, and then in December, after our usual routine, we would sing “Silent Night”. I’m not sure when I stopped saying prayers, but my stopiing of singing “Silent Night” happened before that.
I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve had a really strong urge to learn the original German lyrics to “Silent Night”. Maybe I’m trying to tap into something historical—hoping that learning the song’s origins will help to recapture some piece of my childhood. It probably won’t. Knowing that it probably won’t is likely what’s stopping me from having learned the dang German, already.
V. Sleigh bells in the air/Beauty everywhere
Something about the way Guaraldi’s piano was recorded feels noticeably different from most other piano recordings, and it’s a large part of why numerous attempts to cover “Christmas Time is Here” have fallen short (in my opinion, anyway). Whenever I listen to “Christmas Time is Here”, I’m struck by how hard Guaraldi strikes the keys at certain points. The rising chords at the 4:30 mark of the instrumental version are a prime example; they ring out far louder and stronger than the vast majority of the song.
With the rise of the electric keyboard and the phasing out of classic analog pianos, I am guilty sometimes of forgetting that classic pianos are an instrument that makes its noise from dozens of hammers striking down upon the concealed strings and wire. Guaraldi’s style is such that you can’t possibly forget the underlying mechanisms, you feel the hammer’s strike. It’s forceful, clear, and distinct. It’s lovely. At points it sounds closer to bells being struck in rapid succession than to the “piano sound” of modern electric keyboards. I think this playstyle makes Guaraldi uniquely suited to Christmas music—being that bells are so closely intertwined with the ‘feel’ of the holiday. Its why it makes sense that the rest of Guaraldi’s catalogue (while by no means mediocre) pales in comparison to his brilliance at holiday composition.
VI. Yuletide by the fireside/And joyful memories there
In my early childhood, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent at my grandparents’ house. We would have the quintessential Christmas morning experience at home, before making the ten-minute trip to grandma and grandpa’s for the afternoon and evening.
At some point in my adolescence, as my grandparents got a bit older, we began hosting Christmas Day at our house. My siblings and I were always doled out token hosting responsibilities, while my mother and father did all of the real work. My task was to build and tend to a fire, and while I was at it, satiate my grandfather by bringing him whatever he needed (this just made logistical sense, as he always sat directly next to the fire in a large leather chair). This task involved about ten minutes total, which included poking at the flame three or four times, pouring one (maybe two) glasses of white zinfandel, fetching a cracker and placing cheese on top of it, and occasionally bringing a cat to my grandpa’s lap.
My grandfather was the epitome of Silent Generation stoicism, and these incredibly small gestures were enough for him. He was content to sit by the fire, overlooking the two younger generations as the quintessential patriarch, proud of the family that he had helped build. I kept his glass full, his appetizer plate full, and the fire warm, allowing him to gaze over the merriment in front of him and smile contentedly.
Later in the evening, after all of the guests left, I was usually relieved of my fire-tending duties by my father, who often stayed awake the latest on Christmas, and was the one who watched the fire die down. I sometimes wonder what that was like, watching the glowing embers slowly fade into ash, before closing the doors on the fireplace. Should I have stayed up, played the same role of patriarch-satiater for my dad? Or, did my father like those quiet moments to himself? To reflect on the day, the days before, the years flying by, another Christmas having passed, his children one year closer to adulthood. I don’t know. I can’t know. I won’t know.
This is my third Christmas without my father, and my first without my grandfather.
VII. Christmas time is here/Families drawing near
The final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” might be my favorite part of one of my favorite songs. Guaraldi’s fingers flutter between two keys, while slowly moving the nimble extensions of his hand up and down the piano, different sets of two, falling upon the piano with the same pace and grace. They seem to press the keys softly enough that it’s almost surprising we hear any sound at all. The pitch of the fluttering notes rises, falls, and rises again, slowly fading into nothing.
On most days following work, I head northeast of my apartment to Central Park, where I like to walk around the Jaqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir. It’s usually fairly quiet, and the views of the Manhattan skyline simply cannot be beat:
Several weeks ago, I was walking along this route as a light snow fell, with the tiniest hint of accumulation beginning on the ground. Being the beginning of December, I was starting to work a full listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas into my daily routine. As I made my way around the North-Eastern curve of the loop, the final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” began to play, Guaraldi’s keystrokes filling my ears. The notes paired perfectly with the light snow, as the sparse flakes in the air rose, fell, and rose again, before finally settling on the ground, all merging into tiny piles, the individual flakes becoming indistinguishable from the whole.
Perhaps…perhaps that is what it means to experience a blue Christmas. Each of us a unique flake; cold, wet, tossed about by the elements before landing on the cold hard ground.
But, at least we can fall into each other. And maybe—just maybe—we can find some comfort in the knowledge that we aren’t alone in our loneliness.