A Charlie Brown Christmas’ soundtrack captures the holiday spirit by not defining it

A Charlie Brown Christmas’ soundtrack captures the holiday spirit by not defining it

You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Long before composer and pianist Vince Guaraldi first met with the producers of A Charlie Brown Christmas, there was music in the Peanuts universe. In the first decade and a half of Peanuts strips, actual music is present in the staff notations hovering over Schroeder’s bowed head, and it’s implied in the movements of the strip’s rising star, Snoopy, or in the rhythm and lyricism of Charles Schulz’s dialogue. The cartoonist clearly had an ear for the stuff: In the essential, exhaustive Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography, author David Michaelis notes the young Schulz’s admiration for classical music, prodded along by the development of the LP and the format’s ability to contain the mass of an entire symphony in a single disc. Yet, by the time a record bearing the names of Schulz’s creations hit the market, it did not reflect the cartoonist’s conservative tastes. The sonic signature of Peanuts was cast in a music style that once made Beethoven devotee Schroeder visibly wretch at the mere mention of its name: jazz.

Schulz may have had his own stylistic misgivings, but the fact remains: When producer Lee Mendelson chose Guaraldi to score the unaired documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown—the soundtrack to which produced “Linus And Lucy” a.k.a. “The Peanuts Theme”—he made a choice that would define the Peanuts franchise from that point forward. That choice would also define an entire holiday for the millions who’ve purchased or downloaded (or merely overheard) the Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

A Charlie Brown Christmas deserves its place in the seasonal canon, not only because of its elegant and moving distillation of the holiday’s spirit and origins, but also because it’s one of the last perennial strongholds for two very American art forms: the comic strip and jazz. Newspaper subscription rates shrink with each passing year—as does the number of newspapers to which one might subscribe—but annual broadcasts of A Charlie Brown Christmas continue to draw millions of viewers. Likewise, the soundtrack album remains in print, this year enjoying a restored and remastered reissue with liner notes by Guaraldi biographer Derrick Bang—along with a pressing in green vinyl, the better to match Charlie Brown’s sad little tree. 

Guaraldi’s compositions command a regular portion of the seasonal economy, even as countless other styles of popular music have stolen jazz’s prestige and cachet. For many listeners, A Charlie Brown Christmas may be the only jazz recording they engage with at any time of the year. (Speaking anecdotally, it was that way for me for several years.) That’s a sad statement of the music’s decline in popularity, but it’s also poignantly appropriate, given the themes expressed in the story and songs of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The plot points are period-specific (Lucy’s 5-cent psychoanalysis; aluminum Christmas trees), but they call upon uncertainties and insecurities that connect the viewers of today to the viewers of 1965—and people throughout history. Guaraldi’s melodies have a similarly transportive power, evoking images of families gathered around TV sets and hi-fi cabinets, forming new traditions in line with the storytelling modes of the day. 

The vocal version of A Charlie Brown Christmas’ musical centerpiece, “Christmastime Is Here,” does so directly—“Olden times and ancient rhymes / of love and dreams to share”—but any number of licks from the album are enough to touch off Proustian reverberations, shaking loose the scent of pine, the crunch of snow beneath boots, and warm recollections of being reminded that you’re not the only one who doesn’t know how to feel during the holiday season. Sometimes it’s a little more banal, but no less dear: For me, the opening chords of “Christmastime Is Here” have always recalled the station-identification bug on the VHS recording of A Charlie Brown Christmas I made during the ’90s. It’s trite, but thinking of the freezing temperatures displayed below the logo of a Lansing, Michigan CBS affiliate was a welcome reminder of home when I lived in Texas for a spell.  

With lyrics by Mendelson, “Christmastime Is Here” offers a perfect, childlike summation of the holiday it celebrates, all snowflakes and sleigh bells and general Yuletide merriment. That’s a stark contrast to the minor-key accompaniment provided by the Guaraldi trio—the bandleader at the piano, with Jerry Granelli on drums and Puzzy Firth temporarily replacing Fred Marshall on double bass. As “Christmastime Is Here” and the other songs from A Charlie Brown Christmas have been folded into the catalogue of enduring Christmas carols, they’ve continued to stand out by representing a particular strain of wintry melancholy. 

That’s certainly not unprecedented in the secular realm—think “Please Come Home For Christmas,” by the aptly named Charles Brown—or among spiritual standards. Schulz, Mendelson, and director Bill Melendez famously used the joyous strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to close the Peanuts gang’s search for the true meaning of Christmas, but Guaraldi’s two instrumental takes on songs that turn their eye toward the holiday’s religious side—“What Child Is This” and a “Little Drummer Boy” adaptation titled “My Little Drum”—sport chord progressions that match the default mood of Charlie Brown and his creator. And if you really pay attention to Mendelson’s “Christmastime Is Here” lyrics, a pattern of somberness reveals itself: Even from the mouths of babes, “Oh that we could always see / Such spirit through the year” betrays Schulz’s desire to deliver a special that broke from the general “good-time frivolity” of Christmas programming. 

Or, at the very least, the music could help those made uncomfortable by such frivolity find humor in their situation. Even in A Charlie Brown Christmas’ bluest passages, there’s an impishness to Guaraldi, Granelli, and Firth’s performances. When Guaraldi allows himself to stray from the main theme of “Christmastime Is Here,” he does some wonderfully expressive dancing up and down the octaves. Just as Peanuts wouldn’t be Peanuts without Snoopy and Linus to balance out Charlie Brown and Lucy, the record also makes room for tracks that lean toward what Schulz might deem frivolous. There’s “Linus And Lucy,” but there’s also “Skating,” where the cascading keys and rustling snare drum call to mind snow flurries in both real-life and cartoon form. In order for “Christmastime Is Here” and the trio’s wistful-yet-jaunty rendition of “The Christmas Song” to truly sink in, they need tracks like “Skating” and “Christmas Is Coming” to present the opposite end of the Yuletide spectrum.

It’s easy to get the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas twisted: Place too much emphasis on Linus’ big reading from the Gospel Of Luke or lines like, “We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket,” and you come out with a scolding screed that ignores the humanity of Schulz’s wiser-than-their years characters. The cartoonist wasn’t one for making definitive statements, just informed observations, and more often than not, he left space in his frames for readers to fill out in their imaginations. He may have railed against overly chipper holiday fare, but he also concluded the first animated Peanuts program with a sequence where the kids wave their hands over a drooping, dying piece of shrubbery and turn it into a holiday symbol both gaudy and inspiring.

By allowing A Charlie Brown Christmas to be soundtracked by the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s accessible yet impressionistic songs, Schulz further left the door open to interpretation. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to capture the sentiment of a centuries-old tradition within a half hour of largely improvised music, and the trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas doesn’t—it evokes emotions and images and memories, but it also allows the listener to imprint his or her own visions of sugar plums on its melodies. These are sounds that are inextricably tied to Melendez and Mendelson’s vision of the special, but can just as easily be superimposed over images of Arrested Development’s despondent man-children or Wes Anderson characters who were denied a childhood.

The music within is both timeless and timely: The off-the-cuff nature of its recording promises endless surprises, but the choice to pair a children’s cartoon with jazz hardly qualifies as avant garde in 2012. As a classmate of mine sarcastically pointed out when I played the CD in my 10th-grade English class, it’s “cocktail hour” music, hardly the bold affront to The Way Things Are Done that it was in 1965, when cartoons were either set to stock orchestral pieces or public-domain recordings. Time has a way of massaging the edge out of works like Guaraldi’s soundtrack—that’s perceptible within the general arc of Peanuts as well, where the language used by the characters was eventually drained of its venom and Charlie Brown was even allowed to win a baseball game. (Having grown up with the softer version of the strip, it’s still bracing to hear Violet and Patty absolutely tear into ol’ Chuck when he returns from the Christmas tree lot.)

The silver lining there, the cloud of dust in the snowstorm, is that A Charlie Brown Christmas has mellowed alongside its score. Both broke ground at the same time, and in the ensuing decades, both have become staples of that magic period that occurs between the day after Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. In the year when the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s album received one of the ultimate stamps of establishment approval—a spot in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry—the special enjoyed prominent placement on ABC’s seasonal slate in late November, giving the network’s Wednesday-night bloc of family sitcoms a post-Thanksgiving reprieve. Jazz may have sent a shiver down the spine of Charles Schulz and his pen-and-ink proxies, but it’s the right sound for the characters and for their unique perspective on “Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, mistletoe, and presents to pretty girls”—and the deeper, meaningful roots beneath that gleaming Christmas tree. And what that means to you is left up in the frosty air between the chords of “Christmastime Is Here.”

Monday: Celebrate Christmas with some real heroes.