I listened to Vince Guaraldi’s, “Christmas Time is Here,” today. It’s my favorite holiday tune. When I hear it, Christmas seasons of childhood flood my mind — all it takes is a few bars of the intro and it all comes back.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, the best holiday cartoon in my opinion, for which the song and album were created, was vastly more interesting and exotic to me than the usual fairy tales for which I had to suspend disbelief when I was little. The Peanuts gang lived in a world the likes of which I’d never been to, but could easily identify with and imagine.
It didn’t seem outlandish that no adults were ever seen and that even their voices presented no discernable directions to do this or that. There were only children who seemed to live in walking distance from each other and who kept each other in close company and counsel. Such a scenario was utterly intriguing and attractive because where I lived, in the middle of nowhere, there were no other children around at all save for my sister. And I admittedly could’ve done without most of the adult voices I had to hear and all of the unpredictability and ugliness that often came with them.
Then, there was poor, lonely, furrowed brow Charlie’s ever-present existential crisis and his search for the true meaning of Christmas, with which I heavily identified. There was no one-dimensional presentation of happiness or expectation that everyone put a smile on their face in Hennepin County, and no one seemed to deny the emptiness that can hover around the holidays. I’d felt it myself in South Alabama and appreciated the recognition of the complexity of my emotions and that they were no less multifaceted than any adult’s. Charlie Brown’s world seemed to be one in which children had at least a semblance of agency, which was something I wanted for myself desperately.
But most importantly, there was the jazz. Sweet Baby Jesus, there was jazz! Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack made such a world seem possible. It was the perfect music to go with the yes, elevated but absolutely correct notion that children are not just small, unformed beings with no thoughts or problems of their own. I loved it. It was somehow melancholy, but decidedly untreachly and smart. It was emotional shorthand for what I felt but also for what I wanted to feel. What I wanted to feel was different from the way that I did. Hearing “Oh Tannenbaum,” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” interpreted in a new way let some light and air into my world by taking what was familiar and giving it a new context, therefore new possibilities. The music transported me to a place in my imagination where people wore suits and dresses instead of jeans
and sneakers on Christmas Day, and clinked wine glasses instead of Budweiser cans. I imagined I could one day go ice skating on a frozen pond, feel snow falling onto my fingers and my tongue while standing on a city sidewalk, and go to the lot to pick out my very own tree just like Charlie. It allowed me to dream of that something different that I knew was out there, that something more elegant and refined, that something that would support my wish for my own agency and my own kind of Christmas.
Interesting that my favorite thing to listen to during the holidays has no lyrics to speak of. But as a friend said to me the other day, “That record sounds like I feel.” I don’t need to hear words. Just a few bars of the intro and it all comes back.