One of Arrested Development‘s great running gags is that when characters get hit with sad news, they start moping around to the tune of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here.” If you’ve seen the show, you get the reference. If not, well, you should watch Arrested Development.
It’s a good joke, but it it gets its laughs by acknowledging an elephant in the room: The song is a huge bummer.
Guaraldi wrote “Christmastime Is Here” at the behest of Lee Mendelson, who co-produced A Charlie Brown Christmas along with Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. The song was intended as an instrumental piece, but the network demanded lyrics—lyrics which Mendelson absent-mindedly scribbled out on the back of an envelope. They’re awful: “Christmastime is here. Happiness and cheer. Fun for all that children call their favorite time of year.”
That insipid frivolity stands in stark contrast to the melody itself, which is much truer to the glum mood of Schultz’s comic. It’s not aggressively depressing, but it’s blue. If it weren’t so associated with Christmas, it’d make a fitting soundtrack to any rainy day at all.
At the end of A Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge has finally seen the error of being a grouchy old fart, Dickens describes his Christmas morning thusly:
He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!
Good grief. It’s the Christmas you always read about. New-fallen snow sparking in the sunlight and children riding reindeer down the street and what-not. Growing up on these ideas will do something to a child.
When I was small, I’d wake up on Christmas mornings hoping for a Kinkade painting outside my window. Such luck was rare. My family lived in the Nebraska countryside. On any given Christmas morning, the best I could hope for were piles of dirty snow. Otherwise, brown, crisping cornfields under gray skies was the norm.
I learned to love it, once my childhood imagination was able to pry itself away from Dickensian ideal. All the cold, cold grayness outside puts extra pressure on the inside. You bundle up in sweaters. You keep the coffee, spiced cider, eggnog, mulled wine or glogg coming. A fireplace put to good use, if it’s available. If not, blankets will do just fine.
Some celebrations do all the heavy lifting for you. Christmas requires some work on your part. It’s a melancholy time of year. Celebration will have to be crafted from whatever tools are at hand. That’s why it’s called “making merry.”
Christmas specials understand this, it seems. How many old claymation classics are built around the idea that Christmas could be canceled, and it can only be saved through some sort of vague belief in Christmas itself? Well, belief and a shiny nose, anyway. Even The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s principle threat is the White Witch’s mandate that it be “always winter, but never Christmas.” (Alissa Wilkinson wrote on this beautifully over at Bright Wall/Dark Room.)
The idea? Your “Merry Christmas” isn’t necessarily a guarantee. It takes some doing. It’s not easy.
It never has been. That very first Christmas may have been the day the grand plan of salvation kicked into high gear, but even that story is gloomy: an embarrassing pregnancy that none of Bethlehem’s innkeepers cared to deal with. And that’s before Herod’s soldiers show up, murdering every baby boy in sight. So it goes.
And so here we are. Every Christmas pulling us further away from childhood memories. Piles of dirty snow on the front lawn. A chill when the cousins open the front door. New babies taking up seats at the dinner table that used to belong to great-grandparents.
Is it sad? I’m not quite sure. I think so, a little. But there’s a comfort to it that can actually make your heart feel like it’s going to burst.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” matches the somber mood of Guaraldi’s melody, but has a more interesting backstory. The song was originally written by Hugh Martin for a little-remembered but very good Judy Garland vehicle called Meet Me In St. Louis. Listen to it now, if you haven’t heard it before.
Perhaps a bit sadder than you’re used to from that tune? Well, it’s downright jubilant compared to what it was going to be. Martin’s original lyrics, which never saw light of day, ran thus:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Yes, it seems Martin may have been feeling some feelings when he wrote the song. Garland demanded he make the song more cheerful before she sang it. Later, Frank Sinatra, who had expressed interest in covering the song on his upcoming Christmas album, legendarily said: “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Can you jolly that up for me?”
So, “it may be your last” became “let your heart be light” and “no good times like the olden days” became “here we are as in olden days” and so on. Martin managed to squeeze “From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” into Garland’s movie, but Sinatra axed it in his version, and that became the definitive take.
But no one ever changed the plaintive melody so, in a way, Martin’s original mood endured. There’s still a bittersweet nostalgia to it. An awareness of bygone days seemed a little easier and our faithful friends will soon be boarding planes and heading back to their real lives.
So I’ve learned to love the fragility of Christmas and the hard work of making merry. I don’t mind the muddling through. I get why Guaraldi could soothe George Michael’s broken heart, because any great melody is made better with a little harmony. No good cocktail has ever been made without a few bitters. And the merriest of Christmases are blessed by a twinge of melancholy.