My father and I have a ritual we do every yuletide season: For us, Christmastime isn’t officially underway until we hear Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” on the radio or in a store. Sure, it’s a goofy version of the song, but it’s become this annual tradition that, the first time it pops up randomly during the winter, we have to contact the other person to let them know, okay, it’s now really and truly the holidays. My dad always hears the song before I do, and he never forgets to tell me.
Because there are so many secular Christmas songs, there are endless possibilities for what your own official “Okay, now it’s Christmas” tune could be. Maybe it’s “Last Christmas.” Maybe it’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” If it’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” you’ll get no side-eye from me. But while “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” has a special place in my dad’s and my heart, it’s actually not the song that most connotes Christmas to me. No, the song I’m thinking of has been implanted in my brain since childhood.
People are sometimes surprised when you tell them that “Christmas Time Is Here” wasn’t some old traditional that was brought back for A Charlie Brown Christmas. No, it was actually written for the 1965 television special, one of a handful of originals composed by Vince Guaraldi. Is “Christmas Time Is Here” the most famous song from the show? Maybe not — “Linus and Lucy” is perhaps even more recognizable. But from the opening piano notes, “Christmas Time Is Here” has come to symbolize the grace, solemnity and beauty of Christmas. Even if you’re someone who can’t stand the holidays — even if you’re someone who tends to be pretty cynical about the very notion of a hugely commercialized holiday possibly suggesting grace, solemnity or beauty — the song suggests what Christmas could be. The song’s so fragile that it feels like a wish. And outside of Kind of Blue, it’s among the few jazz recordings most non-jazz people know intimately.
Born in 1928 in the Bay Area, Vince Guaraldi took his last name from his stepfather, growing up in an extended family that was seeped in big band music. After serving in the Korean War, he returned to the States to focus on jazz piano, playing in Cal Tjader’s band in the 1950s.
“I first heard him [out] with Tjader in a club in Seattle,” noted jazz critic Doug Ramsey once said. “And I remember distinctly what happened that night. Vince was a very intense piano player — he completely committed himself to his solos. He was playing an upward series of arpeggios, and played himself right off the end of the piano bench on to the floor, got up as if nothing had happened, and went back to work, finished the piece. And later, I talked to Tjader about that, and he said, ‘Yea[h], he’s done that before.’”
Sporting fabulous facial hair, Guaraldi started rocking the bushy mustache because he didn’t like his appearance. “Vince was very self-conscious about his teeth, because they were like baby teeth. And he had a short upper lip,” his girlfriend Gretchen Katamay, said in Derrick Bang’s biography Vince Guaraldi at the Piano. “So he grew the mustache, and it became his trademark. … He’s baby-faced. He had a mustache when I met him, and he still looked 20. He wanted to look older. But then he realized what a hook it was, and it got longer, longer and bigger. And he was a doodler; when he was deep in thought, he’d twist that sucker.”
Guaraldi started making his own albums in 1956 with the release of Modern Music from San Francisco. This was an era in which jazz and traditional pop were starting to face off with this new strain of music known as rock ‘n’ roll, and Guaraldi’s style was smooth but swinging, urbane but breezy. However, it wasn’t until his 1962 record Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, inspired by the Oscar-winning film, that he enjoyed major commercial success. One of the tracks, an original composition entitled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” made the pop charts, even though it was actually the B-side of the single “Samba de Orpheus,” also from Jazz Impressions. (In his book, Bang quotes Vince Guaraldi Trio drummer Jerry Granelli as saying, “[The record label] hated ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ Vince had to almost wreck the office to get them to do it.”
“Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is remarkable for two reasons. First, if you listen to this instrumental, you can hear the jazzy, tuneful, upbeat sound that would so clearly inform the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. (There’s a lot of “Linus and Lucy” in here.) And the other reason it’s notable is that it’s the song Lee Mendelson heard in the car.
“I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, and I had the jazz station on — KSFO — and it was a show hosted by Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins,” Mendelson, a television producer, recalled. “He’d play Vince’s stuff a lot, and right then, he played ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ It was melodic and open, and came in like a breeze off the bay.”
Mendelson was putting together a documentary about Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist behind Peanuts. Maybe Guaraldi could write some music for it? A Boy Named Charlie Brown ultimately didn’t go anywhere, but Mendelson and Guaraldi had such a good collaboration that when Coca-Cola commissioned a subsequent Peanuts Christmas special, the two men worked together again.
“Linus and Lucy” had been dreamed up for A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but was brought back for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Written by Schulz, the special chronicled Charlie Brown’s attempts to fight off the holiday blues by directing a Christmas play starring all his friends. (Along the way, he learns the true meaning of the season.) The making of that 1965 special is an incredibly suspenseful tale — the network that put it out, CBS, absolutely hated it — and is full of the behind-the-scenes drama that often accompanies future classics. But among the show’s chancier creative decisions was to include a jazz soundtrack on a kids’ animated Christmas special.
“There was a jazz station here and a jazz station there, but you didn’t hear jazz radio,” said Granelli. “There wasn’t jazz on television. … So it was pretty radical and there was no compromise. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s water this down so it’ll go on there.’ It was like, ‘Hey man, this is the way it is and that’s it.’”
The soundtrack mixed holiday standards, like “O Tannenbaum,” with Guaraldi’s originals. “Vince was perfect for all of us,” Mendelson later said. “He was easy to work with, like Schulz. When I finished the storyboards for A Charlie Brown Christmas and showed him my bar sheets — the pages that show the music and dialogue cues for each scene — he’d say, ‘Just tell me how many yards you want.’ By yards, he meant seconds of music.”
Several of his numbers have become indelible, such as “Skating,” which accompanies a sequence in which the gang go ice-skating. But “Christmas Time Is Here” was something Guaraldi thought was special, envisioning the instrumental as the show’s musical theme. Accentuated by Guaraldi’s melancholy piano chords and Granelli’s subdued brush strokes on the drums — the trio’s bassist, Fred Marshall, supplied a hushed bottom end — the song felt like waking up to discover that an overnight snowstorm has turned your surroundings into a magical winter wonderland. There’s a peacefulness to the six-minute instrumental that nonetheless also conveys some of the seasonal depression that Charlie Brown (and a lot of people) experience during the holidays. Somehow, “Christmas Time Is Here” managed to make room for both the tranquility and sadness of Christmas, creating something that felt timeless but also ancient.
Mendelson loved the song, but he felt it was missing something — namely, words. And he didn’t have a lot of time to figure out the solution since the special needed to be done soon in time for broadcast. “[A]bout two weeks before it was about to run on the air, I thought, ‘Maybe we could get a lyricist to put some words to this,’” Mendelson said. “I called a few lyricist friends of mine, and everyone was busy. So I sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote out a few words, and we rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air.”
Technically, it was a children’s choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Ten young singers were chosen, including Dianne Garcia, who in 2016 recalled that Guaraldi “was this groovy musician, who sported a huge handlebar mustache. He would skateboard with us and then we’d practice.” The sessions, according to Garcia, lasted about two weeks in order to lay down the vocals for different tracks, including “Christmas Time Is Here,” and it appears that he emphasized an unaffected naturalism from the choir. Both Mendelson’s lyrics and the young singers’ performance are simple and direct — almost amateurish in their lack of polish. In fact, I’m betting you don’t know many of the words since they function more as a sonic element rather than something that really registers as concrete ideas. For the record, here they are…
Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of year
Snowflakes in the air
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share
Sleigh bells in the air
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there
Christmas time is here
Families drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
In popular music, children’s choirs are often meant to convey purity or sincerity — they can be heavenly, ghostly or even downright eerie. Because the St. Paul’s choir doesn’t dominate “Christmas Time Is Here,” it feels as if Guaraldi sampled them from an old recording, like they’re this forgotten memory of what Christmas used to be like — which, of course, fits nicely with the special’s theme of ditching the holiday’s modern commercialism and embracing the season’s love and sense of community. (And the fact that it’s a church choir also plays into A Charlie Brown Christmas’ overtly religious tone, which was controversial even at its time but remains one of the most humane and moving depictions of faith in popular culture.) With the vocals, the song serves as a reminder of what Christmas can truly be, whispered in your ear and then quickly evaporating.
Despite the network’s myriad concerns — about the slow pace, about the jazz music, about the religious overtones — A Charlie Brown Christmas was a huge hit, paving the way for more Peanuts holiday specials, which Guaraldi also wrote the music for. The Charlie Brown Christmas album has been certified quadruple-platinum, establishing it as one of the most popular jazz recordings ever made. But the success was short-lived for Guaraldi, who died in 1976 at the age of 47 from a heart attack. (At the time of his death, he was working on the music for It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, which was Peanuts’ 15th special.) “I don’t think I’m a great piano player, but I would like to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience,” he once said. “And I hope some of those tunes will become standards. I want to write standards, not just hits.”
In terms of a legacy, Guaraldi isn’t held up as one of the pillars of jazz mastery. Writing in The New Yorker in 2017, jazz pianist and critic Ethan Iverson stated, “Guaraldi was a proficient San Francisco jazz musician who worked with Cal Tjader and Stan Getz in the 1950s. Though his bebop lines were enjoyable, he lacked the fire of Hampton Hawes or the mystery of Jimmy Rowles. Guaraldi probably would only have had a hometown career if it weren’t for” the success of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which brought him to the attention of Mendelson. But his work on the Peanuts specials have cemented a popularity that doesn’t seem destined to fade anytime soon. As Toby Gleason, who produced a documentary about Guaraldi, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, put it, “He’s the most-known jazz musician who people wouldn’t even be able to tell you his name.”
The amount of covers of “Christmas Time Is Here” speak to how beloved that track is — although, as Gleason indicated, most listeners probably just think of it as “that Peanuts song.” Nonetheless, it’s a pretty standard addition to any self-respecting pop vocalist’s Christmas album.
Funny thing, though: Even though the singers are often talented, they tend to foul up the original. Whether it’s John Legend or Norah Jones, the interpreters crush what’s so fragile — and, hence, so beautiful — about Guaraldi’s version. They “improve” on the children’s choir by enunciating so distinctively and emoting so powerfully. They make what was amateurish professional, perhaps permanently demonstrating just how useless “professional” is as a metric of quality. The melancholy is drained away, as is that innocent desire to see Christmas as a time of perfect harmony. The covers always reduce “Christmas Time Is Here” to being merely pretty. Weirdly enough, the best redo might be Stone Temple Pilots’ live version from several years ago: The late Scott Weiland figured out to instill his take with the same vulnerability that’s inherent in Guaraldi’s kid choir.
But maybe no cover of “Christmas Time Is Here” is as well-remembered as the genius running joke that Arrested Development concocted in which different characters, when they were feeling sad, would be seen walking, their heads slumped down, utterly inconsolable, as the song inexplicably played on the soundtrack. The joke made obvious what all of us felt, which is that “Christmas Time Is Here” is a really depressing song. That’s probably the same reason Wes Anderson has it playing faintly in the background during a scene in The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman’s terrible father tries to reconcile with (adopted) daughter Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie, which takes place around the holidays, taps into everything that’s bittersweet about such a seemingly lovely Christmas song: “Christmas Time Is Here” is about what the holidays can be, but we all hear it from the perspective of knowing how disappointing Christmas often is.
And yet, the first time every holiday season that I hear the opening of “Christmas Time Is Here,” it gives me a little rush. It’s Christmas — a sentiment that I hold with equal amounts of excitement, happiness and sorrow. But Guaraldi’s song does as well — it understood what Charlie Brown understood about the season. Andrew Thomas, the director of The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, thought that there was a lot of Charlie Brown in the deceased musician. ”Vince was actually very soft-spoken and a bit of an antihero,” Thomas suggested. “He was full of innocent hopes and dreams, but the world sometimes worked against him.”
Shortly after recording the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, Granelli left the trio, wanting to pursue different musical directions. Later in life, he returned to those songs, playing them at shows for the first time in forever. In 2017, he talked about his mixed emotions regarding hearing something like “Christmas Time Is Here” so many years later, now that his bandmates were dead:
“You know, I don’t talk about this much, but you have to realize it’s a little melancholy. I mean, these people were my friends, you know. So it’s kind of like listening to my friends and they’re not around. … So there’s melancholy and then there’s — I can hear traces of things — like the way I play brushes on ‘Christmas Time is Here.’ Sometimes I hear that cymbal and I go, ‘I wonder what happened to that cymbal? Damn, did I give that cymbal away? And who did I give it to?’”
Granelli died this summer. The trio’s bassist, Fred Marshall, passed in 2001. Lee Mendelson died in 2019. Charles M. Schulz died in 2000. Bill Melendez, who directed A Charlie Brown Christmas, passed in 2008. Most of the people involved in that special are gone now, which only adds to the show’s sense of ghostliness.
It also adds to the song’s bittersweet melancholy. The holidays are a time to reflect on those who are no longer with us — the people we used to spend our Christmases with. Each year, those memories recede more and more. The kids’ choir reminds us of an innocence we used to have, quickly brushed aside once we got older, wiser and more cynical about everything. I think loving “Christmas Time Is Here” requires remembering that part of you that’s still joyful about Christmas, and life in general. We’ll never see such spirit through the year. But for a few minutes, let’s pretend.