Woodstock's (Sugarplum) Dream

To quote the great Takeshi Kaga, “If memory serves me right, Christmas is just around the corner.” And with it, a tightening of the tension between cocooned self-indulgence and the ethereally transcendent. In the cold and isolated straits of our current time, it’s easier than ever to hearken to an iGent seasonal anthem, Gabriel Yared’s eerie reworking of “Silent Night” that plays as The Talented Mr. Ripley’s title character celebrates his first Christmas as someone else, doing what he thinks rich people do: sipping champagne in front of a roaring fire, carefully unwrapping exquisite presents to himself. Were he real and contemporary, no doubt he would quickly gain influencer style points by taking a photo of the entire over-the-top ensemble. 

The key themes seeping from the “Silent Night” sequence are: self-spoiling; insulation (made physical with the comfy bourgeois furniture Ripley surrounds himself as what he thinks are the furnishings of the upper class) as well as isolation from any judgmental second (let alone third) parties; and delusion. Many delusions: that a well-indulged self is sufficient; that taste and heavy comfort are what’s posh; that transcendence, in short, can be found in the heavily expensive and material. 

Their complete refutation is found in a cartoon. And why not? Generation X found its idiom in cartoons and other indicia of pop culture. Thanks to Reagan-era deregulation, many of them were incredibly irresponsible animated toy commercials, when they weren’t just frankly insane. However, the demands of pre-streaming, pre-on-demand viewing meant that millions of undiscriminating children across the country shared a common experience, however deranged, at the same time every day. 

Something similar happened at the holidays, when animated specials ensured that children of all creeds received a general exposure to the holidays of one faith. Some of those specials had been and still are repeated over and over every season so that the names behind them, and their esthetics, went through stages of being embarrassingly old-fashioned and clichéd, to forgotten, to now, at many years’ distance, charming.

One special in particular probably seeded the messaging of all that followed, even if none quite have come close: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Today, it seems strangely preachy and, with its lots full of metallic and gaudily colored artificial Christmas trees (the better to contrast with Charlie Brown’s tiny real tre), both kitschy and kicky. It was already several decades old when we 1980s kids were watching it; today it’s still shown, even if it’s on networks and platforms that didn’t exist back then, so remains a common reference among generations.

It’s the sort of reference that doesn’t come up until you have kids of your own who watch the special. The music that carried the special, creating so much of its wistful, thoughtful atmosphere, became relevant to me again at other points in my life, particularly when I found it and its composer, Vince Guaraldi, referenced in the liner notes to Saint Etienne’s Continental, which had been a favorite import CD (dating myself even more than my explicit Gen X references). I bought it at an isolated time when I had to save up for even the tiniest purchase, reading and rereading the least scrap of content, including those liner notes that described the nostalgic, bittersweet charm of Guaraldi’s music and its Panamax-worth of freight. Among an amazing body of work, his soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas might be the best example: an elegant, jazzy arrangement of “Greensleeves,” my favorite holiday song, sits alongside a haunting and dense riff on “The Little Drummer Boy”, as well as the defining Peanuts theme song, “Linus and Lucy.” Those tracks and the others Guaraldi lay evoke not just childhood nostalgia but a wistfulness for other times of both more and less community, making the soundtrack a splendid shared holiday experience to listen to, with family, friends or alone, adult or child. 

Guaraldi himself scored all the Peanuts specials from 1963 through the late 1970s’ ill-fated It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown. Fans collected those of his scores and cues that had not been released on official soundtracks like some sort of cryptocurrency, their value tracked not in the blockchain but in their ability to convey so evocatively innocence, playfulness, loneliness and delight, whether those of a small child or of an odd yellow bird in his birdhouse bachelor pad. Like Woodstock listening to his hi-fi, we can dream of being together, even if the holidays find us apart.

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