Holly berries

I used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music, but in recent years I’ve loosened my own rule. During the light of day, I don’t yearn for holiday music, but last night while I was running Friday afternoon-into-evening errands, I switched from the news on NPR to Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” a CD that is perennially appropriate in late autumn-into-winter.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the pagan nature of Christmas: a holiday of light at the darkest time of year. Years ago when I taught in New Hampshire during the week and spent my long weekends in Massachusetts, there were many weeks when my Thursday night commute was brightened by isolated houses on lonely roads that had colorful Christmas lights. Those lights guided my way like beacons in a storm.

These days, my commute is significantly shorter, but I dread the darkness of winter more than the cold. Even a short commute feels long when the way is dark, so while I don’t need the cheer of Christmas carols when the sun shines, after dark I appreciate the company of songs designed for the longest nights of the year.

Japanese maple leaf

Most years, I wait until after Thanksgiving before I start listening to Christmas music. Although stores are always in a rush to get people in the mood for Christmas shopping, I typically insist on letting the holidays arrive in due course: first Halloween, then Thanksgiving, and finally Christmas and New Year.

Golden glow

This year, however, I’ve made an exception. Given the abundance of gloom in the world–downed planes, terror attacks in Beirut and Paris, and the nonstop yammer of hate-mongering politicians–I started listening to Christmas music early this year, changing to holiday CDs when the news from my car radio is too brutal to bear. In these days of gloom and doom, we need every bit of brightness we can find.

Christmas window display

Now that Thanksgiving is past and December is imminent, I’ve begun listening to Christmas music on my weekly drives between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I have a handful of CDs I listen to during the Christmas season, including Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night” and my friend Frank Wallace’s “Joy: Carols and Songs.” But the recording I listen to time and again during December is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Christmas window display

When most folks my age remember the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the song they’re most likely to remember is “Linus and Lucy,” the upbeat jazz number that is the Peanuts’ theme song. “Linus and Lucy” is catchy and infectious, with a tempo that causes beagles to dance…but it’s not my favorite song on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The reason I play this particular CD so often during the month of December has nothing to do with dancing beagles but with a relatively downbeat song called “Christmas Time Is Here.”

There are two versions of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The vocal version features a choir of children singing slow but sweet lyrics:

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Christmas window display

The instrumental version of the song, however, is the one I love…and what I love about it isn’t the fact that it’s sweet but the fact that it’s sad. Like all the Charlie Brown television specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” focuses on a lonely, loser kid; as I’ve said before, “As a ‘weird kid,’ I always related to Charlie Brown with his loser ways and ‘blockhead’ inferiority.” The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” captures the melancholy mood of being the one weird, lonely kid who sees Christmas as being a bittersweet time.

The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” sounds like a Christmas song, but it doesn’t sound like a children’s song. That’s what I like about most of the tunes on “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: they sound like songs grown-ups would listen to. To my ear, “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to if you found yourself alone in a bar on Christmas Eve, a bartender and a stiff drink your only companions. “Christmas Time Is Here” acknowledges that the holidays are a sweet and happy time for most people…but it also admits that the holidays have a melancholy edge for folks who don’t have families, or are separated from their families, or are otherwise alone or outcast.

Christmas window display

What I don’t like about the Christmas songs that are played incessantly in shopping malls and on radio stations right about now is their forced frivolity. Yes, the holidays can be happy, but must they be? What about all the folks who aren’t happy over the holidays, or what about happy folks who occasionally like a break from general merriment?

Shopping mall Christmas songs always strike me as having an ulterior motive, as if they are designed to keep people manically happy, happy, happy so they’ll keep shopping, shopping, shopping. Songs like “Christmas Time Is Here,” on the other hand, allow room for bittersweet introspection. The song isn’t outright depressed or depressing, but it admits that grown-ups might face the holidays with mixed feelings as they remember with nostalgia their own childhoods and face the loneliness, disappointment, and other downbeat emotions that Christmas can inspire.

Christmas window display

I have nothing against dancing beagles, but this time of year more than ever, I find myself relating to the kind of kid whose best friends include that aforementioned beagle and a sensitive, blanket-toting philosopher. Charlie Brown is the kind of kid who chooses the puniest, most pathetic-looking twig for his Christmas tree just because it needs a home, and “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to, stiff drink in hand, while you decorated that kind of tree.

Today’s photos come from the always-lovely Christmas displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene. Enjoy!