I revel in the ease of “Christmas Time Is Here”. It stands as the perfect foil – simple and clear and didactic – to Charlie Brown’s expressions of dismay, articulated during the opening moments of his own 1965 television special, at an inability – likely due to over-commercialization and a lack of authentic sentiment – to fully embrace the Christmas season.
The Vince Guaraldi- and Lee Mendelson-penned holiday tune accompanies Charlie’s thoughts and establishes a relatable context of sentiment – “Christmas time is here / Happiness and cheer / Fun for all that children call / Their favorite time of year” – and perception, omnipresent and sweeping: “Sleigh bells in the air / Beauty everywhere”.
At the same time, by referencing “Olden times and ancient rhymes / Of love and dreams to share” and “joyful memories there”, it also does much to underscore a background of perpetuity and familiarity against which Charlie is able to articulate his feelings of pseudo-alienation.
Given its straightforwardness and foundations of commonality, it is no surprise that “Christmas Time Is Here” has been covered countless times. While many, likely the majority, are half-hearted attempts that take on the song out of respect for both it and end-of-December routine, Diana Krall’s approach, included halfway through her 2005 LP, Christmas Songs, merits consideration, not for its initial guitar-plucking pleasantness, which, much like much of the rest of the LP, allows it to, more often than not due to Krall’s always impressive delivery and successful poignancy, stand out from Bermuda Triangle-like yuletide backgrounds of family and shopping and festivity into which so many holiday albums disappear, but for a moment of assertiveness – a refusal of innocuousness – that develops in its concluding moments.
Strings convey the high stakes. They peek in at points to underscore Krall’s removed but mindful incorporation of gloominess and to tease out much of the song’s latent melancholies; the arrangement and conveyance suggest subjectivity in lieu of Charlie Brown-era exposition. But the tangible moment of decision presents itself upon a second delivery of the song’s closing lines, a lyrical moment of frustration: “Christmas time is here / We’ll be drawing near / Oh, that we could always see / Such spirit through the year”.
At this point near the three-minute mark, Krall slows her pace and the strings are held, sustained, aimed in a cinematic pause that piercingly and condemningly calls into question our inability to do just that, to maintain in focus that which is, in obviously over-sentimental fashion, so often associated with the holidays: relationships, wonder, positivity, generosity, openness.
There are no lessons here, but clearly reminders; honest ones too for those familiar with Krall’s career and her ability to weave prioritizations of home and family into world-weary jazz arrangements, both stifling and playful. In this case, she celebrates Guaraldi and Mendelson before, to my ear, betraying the song’s attempts at solely seasonal descriptiveness by challenging us – by means of musicality and delivery – to reflect on how we only temporarily, out of routine, lift iron-clad veils of cynicism and busyness.
This is likely, if not surely, a naïve and overly subjective reading clearly linked to a childhood in a culturally Christian environment, but does that discount the perception? Should we not take notice of our failings and forgetfulness in order to, you know, endeavor to make the world a better place? In fact, in an era of Trump and Berlin and the loss of too many necessary subversives and the gain of too many empty vessels with uncomfortably wide reaches who preach nothing but division, what the hell else are we supposed to do?
“Christmas Time Is Here” – Diana Krall
Music by Vince Guaraldi; Lyrics by Lee Mendelson
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Kitikmeot-based music critic.