What Can Peanuts Teach Us about Christmas?

Christmas Time Is Here through the Year

Outwardly straightforward in its conception, the holiday classic “Christmas Time Is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965) displays a high degree of sophistication that belies its apparent simplicity. Not surprisingly, this correlates with the Peanuts comic strip in general—what looks at first like a chronicling of the day-to-day lives of some adorable children (and a precocious beagle and his fowl friend) is actually much more than that. In Charles Schulz’s exceptional world, children contemplate adult issues, and they possess wisdom beyond their years. In the animated films, the portrayal of adults makes the latter point quite clear. Adults are either hidden off-screen or absent from the scene entirely, their voices are muffled (“mwa mwa mwa mwa”), and while they provide information to the children—perhaps even insight—we the viewers are unable to decipher their speech. Thus, only children are able to instruct us, poignantly depicted as Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 in order to clarify “what Christmas is all about.” The unique insights of childhood become manifest as the analytical implications of this “simple” song become apparent.

The song’s complexity is evident first in the misalignment of textual and musical forms. Despite its arrangement into four stanzas, Lee Mendelson’s text exhibits a 3-part (ABA) structure in both rhyme scheme and content (see form chart). Vince Guaraldi’s tune, though, is in AABA (32-bar) form, as are many jazz standards. Expressed another way, ABBA≠AABA. In terms of phrase structure, the form of ‘A’ is identical to the form of ‘B’: each stanza is arranged as a sentence (2+2+4), and each contains a sequence in its second half. Despite this “childish” approach to form, ‘A’ and ‘B’ are quite distinct. The melodic range of ‘A’ encompasses a major-ninth, while in ‘B’ the range is limited to a perfect-fourth. The harmonic trajectory of the two sections is also different: ‘A’ ends with an Imperfect Authentic Cadence (IAC), while ‘B’ leads to a Half Cadence (HC). ‘B’ also includes more distantly related harmonies (e.g., flat-VI), and its harmonic sequence (which includes augmented-sixth “chords”) is more complex than the sequence in ‘A.’ The dual aspect of the formal sections, identical and diverse at the same time, parallels the “both-and” persona of the Peanuts characters: they function as both children and adults.

These surface features reveal some of the song’s complexities, and the accompanying voice-leading reduction (see Schenkerian sketch) points to even more intricacies. Motive x (a descending third) appears as a prominent melodic feature, and recurring rhythmic patterns increase its salience. But the motive also plays a structural role, as the interval of a third is projected over the course of larger spans of music. At the IAC in mm. 11-12 and 27-28, x is inverted (x’), underscoring the tune’s distinctive cadential gesture: an ascending melodic closing pattern. On the foreground level, the motive unfolds from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 1 (mm. 6-11 and 22-27) while an inner voice simultaneously unfolds x from scale-degree 1 to scale-degree 6. The entirety of ‘B’ is contained in a motivic unfolding from scale-degree 5 back to scale-degree 3 (m. 20), which finds dominant (!) support (V13). The unusual placement of scale-degree 3 at this point in the structure foreshadows the final cadence, where tonic supports scale-degree 2 (m. 28).

The Kopfton surfaces in m. 6, after the melody—which begins at its zenith—arpeggiates downwards through two overlapping statements of x. At m. 12, scale-degree 2 displaces scale-degree 3 (on a middleground level) before leaping upwards to scale-degree 5. Concurrently, the only direct statement of x in the bass affects the transition into ‘B’ (further differentiating ‘A’ from ‘B’), which is arranged harmonically as an embellished descending fifths progression. In mm. 16-17, as one of the song’s most complicated chords “resolves” (G-flat13 (sharp-11,flat-5) →Am7), the bass articulates its only statement of x’. These motivic parallelisms, and their respective locations within the form, not only distinguish the formal sections; they also reflect the imagery of “sleighbells in the air” and, especially, our return from the cold outside to the warmth inside by the fire.

Verses 2 and 3 describe several aspects typical of the Yuletide season: snowflakes, carols, ancient rhymes, sleighbells, outdoor beauty, and the fireside. Verse 4 then expresses a critical aspect of the text: the desire for the spirit of Christmas (i.e., “togetherness,” since “we’ll be drawing near”) to continue long past December 25. This wish for the season to last “through the year” is portrayed musically by the lack of completion of the Urlinie. Despite a number of low-level 3-lines (scale-degree 3 → scale-degree 1), the Kopfton never completes its descent to scale-degree 1 at the background level. The Ursatz remains open, thus the season endures after the song’s final (intentionally inconclusive) authentic cadence, and, presumably, after Christmas time as well. Remember, on the soundtrack, children are the ones who sing this song—leave it to Charlie Brown, Linus, and the rest of the gang to challenge and inspire our thinking. Owing to its lack of closure, their song essentially keeps on going, as if it might be sung again. So, we connect the end with the beginning and learn this: “through the year, Christmas time is here.”

In jazz performance-practice, performers typically avoid ending on an unadorned tonic chord (i.e., without chord extensions) and/or scale-degree 1 as the highest note in the texture. The avoidance of tonic as both chord and scale-degree also factors into the overall structure of many jazz tunes—often the verse and the bridge are open-ended, and the chorus provides closure. However, it is remarkable for a melody not to conclude structurally on scale-degree 1 or, at least, another member of the tonic (scale-degree 3, 5, or 7). [1] Interestingly, “Christmas Time Is Here” is one of two tunes from the film score that end structurally on scale-degree 2. The other is the instrumental number “Christmas Is Coming,” which we hear as the children jam and dance (along with Snoopy, of course!) during rehearsals for their Christmas program (much to Charlie Brown’s chagrin). Taking the film as a whole, then, the role of scale-degree 2 as melodic closing signifies the approach, arrival, and implied continuation of the Christmas season.

After his recitation, Linus reminds both Charlie Brown and the viewers: “that’s what Christmas is all about…” For children, Christmas is typically all about things, and they want the season to last in hopes of obtaining more stuff. Theoretically, adults understand Christmas is about more than physical presents. In the true spirit of the season, Mendelson paints charming word pictures, and Guaraldi writes deceptively simple music. The union of text and music—infused with both the innocence and the insight of childhood—suggests the perpetuation of our communion (“drawing near”), which is made possible because of “peace on earth, goodwill to all people.”

© 2017 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

[1] A survey of 700 popular tunes written between 1910 and 1966 demonstrates this point:

  • 86% of melodies end structurally on scale-degree 1
  • 7% end on scale-degree 5
  • 3.57% end on scale-degree 3
  • 1.71% end on scale-degree 7
  • 1% end on scale-degree 6
  • 0.71% end on scale-degree 2 (only 5 tunes out of 700)

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