Christmas Time is Here: A Personal Essay

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:

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.

VIII. Oh, that we could always see/Such spirit through the year

The Christmas Playlist to Save Your Sanity

You’re driving to the nearest mall on attempt 2.5 to get your holiday shopping done. Attempt one was not as fruitful as you would have hoped, with the Foot Locker carrying the Kyrie 4s in every size but your dumb nephew’s. Attempt two was marked as a half attempt after the Cinnabon cheat meal you treated yourself to wreaked havoc on your intestines. Your resolve to make it through the holidays is dropping by the second.

Not helping matters is your local radio station, which has been recycling the same 20 Christmas songs ever since the last bite of turkey left the thanksgiving table. “Sleigh Ride” is a classic, no doubt, but you swear the next time you hear Johnny Mathis’ voice you’re gonna explode. And what’s worse, every time they DO play something novel, it’s downright awful. You know who was asking to hear Jane Lynch sing “Up on the Housetop”? Fucking nobody.

Are there really only a handful of decent versions of Christmas songs to carry us through December? Are you really stuck with the Christmas stylings of 109.1, WFML for the next thirty days?

No! There’s plenty of underappreciated greatness lying outside the public eye, especially when it comes to Christmas music. The beauty of the genre is that it’s an exercise in covers; there are only so many Christmas songs which have stood the test of time, and as such, everyone is putting their own spin on melodies which, even when butchered, can provide a rush of nostalgia.

It’s what makes it all the more impressive when an artist is able to make a song their own, by shining a new light on the same old songs that we all love.

To save your sanity this holiday season, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of songs which, for whatever reason, aren’t yet a part of the American Christmas canon. This could be due to obscurity or novelty, but either way, they probably haven’t been assaulting your ears this holiday season. Full disclosure: my taste in holiday music skews to the more quiet, pensive type, partially because those don’t grate nearly as hard on the ears with repeat listens. Without any further ado:

I’ve also put together some notes on the songs I chose, and those are below. Give those a read and give the playlist a listen if you’d like!

“Greensleeves”, Liz Story                                                                                       “Greensleeves” falls into the ‘tweener’ class of Christmas songs along with “My Favorite Things”, where its status as a Christmas or Non-Christmas song seems to depend on the cover art (e.g. Clarkson=yes, Coltrane=no). Liz Story’s version of “Greensleeves” is a smidge more difficult to parse, as it appears on a compilation album titled A Winter’s Solstice, AKA December 21st, AKA not Christmas. However, I’ve chosen to count it under the “ABC Family 25 Days of Christmas Corollary”. Sue me.

Not that anyone who’s listened to it would want to strike Liz Story’s version of the song from their Christmas playlist. It is a solo piano piece, with Story utilizing improvised variations on the classic tune. She gives it a decidedly and fittingly winters’ vibe. Story’s playing melds dexterously quick finger movements with soft strikes of the keys to create an effect where the notes sound like snowflakes cascading on a winter’s night. They fall quickly, but their light weight causes them to flutter and shift with the air. Eventually falling to Earth, unable to defeat gravity, but able to exert enough agility to temporarily defy the ground’s pull.

Such images are conjured by Liz Story’s piano, and I cannot call her “Greensleeves” anything less than a masterwork. Close your eyes with and allow images of a cold winter’s night to dance in your mind.

“Santa Baby”, Daniella Andrade
I normally HATE “Santa Baby”. It’s a weird vehicle for sexualizing Christmas, in one of those kinda-sorta-tongue-in-cheek-but-also-kinda-not ways. I’m no prude, but we really could leave Christmas alone. Nobody needed an “I want to fuck Santa Claus” song, and it disturbs me to no end that people wanted one in the first place.

BUT, I really enjoy this version. What comes through in Andrade’s delivery is a mix of detachment, sarcasm, and innocence that takes the sexual charge out of the song. She sings it like it was requested by some creep at a Christmas party, and she’s making fun of the ridiculousness of it while also showing off her chops. The extremely lax guitar and lo-fi quality add to this vibe.

That Andrade is able to produce a highly listenable track from a song I’m reflexively disgusted by is no small feat. It comes off of her 2013 The Christmas EP, which is solid seasonal listening throughout, though this is the standout tune for me.

“Swingle Bells”, David Tobin
A decent choice if you’re like me and love the idea of “Jingle Bells” as a swing song but vomit in your mouth a little bit when you hear Diana Krall awkwardly scat or say “I’m just crazy ‘bout horses!” 

“I Saw Three Ships”, Darol Anger
Hook me up to an IV drip of this string interplay STAT. Shit makes me feel like I’m living in the Christmas portion of an English historical drama. Where’s Keira Knightley?

“The Christmas Song”, Denis Solee
A laid-back instrumental rendition that is capable of evoking the scenes of a relaxed Christmas Eve by the fire, not with the words of a crooner, but with impeccably smooth ivory tickling, bass plucking, and a soft sax. I can dig it.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, Leslie Odom Jr.
Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon, and Odom’s turn as Aaron Burr has become the stuff of legend, propelling him to legitimate superstardom (if you had said that sentence to anyone in 2013 they’d have looked at you like you had 3 heads).

These two songs are a bit more stripped down, letting Odom’s angelic voice take the lead, which is always a great decision. These cuts also capture a Christmastime mood that I, and many other people experience, which Odom captured when he said of the album: “I didn’t want it to be sad. I didn’t want it to be sullen. But I don’t think the album was really ever cheerful.” Odom’s voice is good enough to make a half-assed attempt sound great, but that’s not what’s going on here.

What I especially appreciate about these efforts is how much care has been put into them. This isn’t some cobbled together, hastily assembled celebrity Christmas album that may as well be titled A Quick Influx of Cash.  Odom himself said that making a good Christmas album is “a lot different than singing at a Christmas party. You want to make sure that it sounds sincere and honest.” That attention to detail and desire for sincerity comes through on these two emotional ballads, and they are great additions to the genre.

These songs are really only on this playlist because of how new they are, having come out in late 2016. I think that in due time, Odom’s Christmas album will become a part of the go-to American Christmas music canon. He’s too talented, too charming, and the music is too good for it not to. So enjoy it now, before constant plays through the years make you sick of it.

“O Christmas Tree”, George Tidwell
Tidwell’s trumpet is fantastic, and the piano playing manages to avoid being a complete Vince Guaraldi rip-off, which is commendable, since his version of “O Tannenbaum” is iconic enough to inspire imitation. Kudos to this track for not trying that.

“Xmas Done Got Funky”, Jimmy Jules
(See song title)

“Winter Wonderland”, Earth, Wind & Fire
That’s right—Earth, Wind & Fire made a Christmas album! It was released just a few years ago, in 2015. However, unlike Leslie Odom Jr.’s Christmas album, this one really should have been titled A Quick Influx of Cash. This track is really the only one where I can feel them channeling their old selves, and E, W&F are so damn good that their watered down, half-assed stuff is still pretty great.

“Frosty the Snowman”, Beegie Adair

For Christmas music especially, I favor the simplicity of a piano/bass/drums trio. Highlights of this song are Adair’s piano variant of the “Thumpety Thump Thump” from the original, and the extended stretch of improvisation that we get for the second verse.

Beegie Adair could also totally be a name from a random name generator and I’d be none the wiser.

“Here Comes Santa Claus (Live)”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (Live)”, The Oscar Brown Jazz Trio
Live performances! Again with the piano/bass/drums, I know. I have such a type. But I enjoy these performances because I think the live aspect lends them a warmth that is lacking from a lot of holiday music production. You can hear the airiness and residual rattling of the snares on this track where it’s often missing in studio-recorded Christmas music, even on jazzier cuts.

“I Wonder as I Wander”, James Gaertner
A solo piano track which, similar to Story’s “Greensleeves”, begs to be listened to with eyes closed. Though this particular hymn carries more heaviness than most Christmas songs, it’s a really beautiful arrangement that I enjoy much more without the lyrics. Gaertner does a great job to make it listenable without losing the pure punch that the song is designed to carry.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, David Shoenberg
If you’ll indulge me, a word on the religious aspect of Christmas. “Hark!” is my favorite religious Christmas song, and I think far too often its performances are a miss. Yes, the song is supposed to represent the moment when “a multitude of the heavenly hosts” appears to shepherds in order to give glory to God. Artists from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey take this to mean that it should be belted out as a swelling, grand piece that starts near the top and only goes up. Glory is, as another hymn tells us, meant to be expressed in excelcis deo.

I have a different view. David Shoenberg’s rendition understands something fundamental about the holiday that is missed by those grandiose interpretations. The “newborn king” was, after all, born in the humblest of places, with the lowest members of society in attendance. If we learn anything from the nativity, it is that the seemingly shoddiest of circumstances often hold those people and things which are most precious. It makes little sense to me for the heavenly hosts to be a loud revelry trumpeting from the mountaintops in a story where everything is humble, understated, quiet.

This is how “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is supposed to be done. Shoenberg shows that true beauty is in subtlety. That glory can be given softly. That the “king of kings” would, of course, be born in a manger.

Shoenberg understands that, as my favorite theologian once said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”


And finally, the most underplayed and underappreciated piece of Christmas music out there:

“All I Want for Christmas is You”, Mariah Carey

Just kidding. It’s actually:

Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection, Various Artists

The whole thing. For my money, this is one of three indispensable holiday albums, along with Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. But while those two are rightly recognized as titans of the genre, this compilation album is oft overlooked. This despite containing some of the most ponderous, beautiful music I’ve ever heard, Christmas or not. As the title suggests, this is an album consisting entirely of acoustic guitar covers of Christmas classics. As with the previously listed songs, the featured artists are able achieve the remarkable feat of imposing their own sensibilities and creative flourishes onto instantly recognizable and beloved songs. The technical skill of each of the featured guitarists is undeniable, and it’s easy to find yourself astounded by their ability to merge pure precision with unbelievable beauty.

What’s more, the Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection is one of the more adaptable holiday albums out there. By that I mean that it works both for people for whom the holidays are the most joyous time of year, as well as those who find the season to be one of grief and woe. Its acoustic aesthetic lends it a relaxed, almost melancholic sensibility to satisfy those experiencing a blue Christmas, while not entirely sacrificing the hope and joy that pulses through the melodies we’ve hummed for decades.

While I would argue that the whole album is essential listening, there are certainly highlights. If you only wish to skim off the top, I think the best songs are Steve Erquiaga’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “Angles We have Heard on High”, Steve Morse’s “Carol of the Bells”, and finally Sean Harkness’ gorgeous cover of my favorite Christmas song, “Christmas Time Is Here”. Those four songs belong on every Christmas playlist. If you still haven’t heard them I implore you to listen now. You won’t be disappointed.

And that’s the playlist! Thank you so much for listening and reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

Finally, I’d like to wish you a safe, happy holidays from NQN. Thanks for reading in 2018, and we’ll see you next year!