FEATURE: The Half Cloth Guide to Christmas – Part Three
by Chad Jewett
Welcome to Part Three of our three-part Half Cloth Guide to Christmas. Be sure to check out Part’s One and Two, along with a bit of our thoughts on the Holiday Season and our inspirations for the list. Once you’re all caught up, enjoy more of our favorite records, films, and Christmas specials.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Combining a beautiful, arts-and-crafts animation aesthetic with a deep sense of both the joy and melancholy of the holiday season, A Charlie Brown Christmas feels like a gentler version of the same Americana renaissance that would give us Pet Sounds. Essentially a collection of holiday vignettes organized around Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas, the special’s twenty-five minutes are filled with tone-poems dedicated to ice skating, catching snowflakes, picking out Christmas trees (in an especially beautifully animated tree lot), and, most memorably, Linus’ recitation of the gospel of Luke. Yet somehow, that speech about the birth of Christ and God’s message to a group of shepherds feels gracious and open-hearted where it could have felt didactic or preachy. Indeed, “open-hearted” is the best way of describing A Charlie Brown Christmas, which, like Charles Schulz’ cartoon strip, is committed to finding the humor in all that is bittersweet about even our happiest moments. You can think of the moment where the Peanuts gang gathers around a newly-appreciated twig of a Christmas tree as a Christian symbol of mercy, or you can think of it as a moment of humanist hope. Either way, like those searchlights that Linus and Charlie Brown follow to find that tree, A Charlie Brown Christmas feels like a beacon of hope every year, not least of all because it’s so honest about the fact that we could all use one.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
While the animation and humble aesthetic of A Charlie Brown Christmas deserves its own moment, the special’s soundtrack, recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, might deserve a book. Offering the essential version of “Linus and Lucy,” as well as new Yuletide standards in originals like “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Skating,” the Charlie Brown Christmas album is an all-time great Christmas album. Finding room for a few hymns (“Hark The Herald,” “What Child Is This”), a few pre-Modern melodies (“O Tannenbaum,” “Greensleeves”), and a few pop-era classics (“The Christmas Song,” “My Little Drum”), A Charlie Brown Christmas nevertheless feels incredibly cohesive, wrapping each of its songs in a warm, West Coast jazz timbre, all hyper-melodic piano and sympathetic bass. That opening spring of keys on “O Tannenbaum” never fail to feel like opening the first door on an advent calendar; the gentle, slightly shambolic take on “The Christmas Song” is almost achingly poignant, a warm respite for holiday travels between houses. In Schulz’s holiday special, these songs are ably deployed for near-abstract mood music, be it Schroeder’s “Beethoven Christmas Music,” or the Peanuts gang singing “Hark The Herald” around their Christmas tree. But if you’re just taking the time to listen to this music, you’ll find it shaped to any visual, to whatever movie plays in your head when you think of the Holidays.
Saturday Night Live, Various Sketches.
Steve Martin’s Holiday Wish. John Malkovich’s demented rendition of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Pete Schweddy sharing his culinary gifts with the “Delicious Dish” ladies at NPR. Jimmy, Horatio, Tracy, and Chris singing “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” for what felt like eight seasons in a row (and should have been twenty). Maya, Kristin, and Amy going all-out Supremes on “Santa’s My Boyfriend.” A certain early ‘90s R&B duet from Adam Samberg and Justin Timberlake. Christmas for Debbie Downer, Will Ferrell’s Robert Goulet, Eddie Murphy’s Gumby. Jimmy Fallon’s exuberant take on “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home.” The (Bill Hader as) Al Pacino-starring You’re A Rat Bastard, Charlie Brown. Stefon’s increasingly insane Holiday entertainment suggestions. Maybe just those images of various SNL casts, skating, or trying to skate, across the Rockefeller Center ice rink — members of the American family, gifted men and women who died too young, others that are part of your Christmas every year, be it in Scrooged, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, even Trading Places. Jimmy Fallon is hosting this Saturday, the Christmas episode for 2013; you can assume I’ll be watching.
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966)
If you grow up anywhere near Springfield, Massachusetts, you see images from Dr. Seuss everywhere. The Berkshires get to claim Norman Rockwell, Eastern Mass has, I don’t know, Aerosmith? Nathaniel Hawthorne? We get Seuss. Forest Park, a combination city park and zoo, carves out most of its space for a drive-through Holiday lights display, largely devoted to images of Whoville, the Cat in the Hat, and of course, The Grinch. More than anywhere else in the country, if you’re a kid in Western Mass, Seuss’s odd, green, furry take on Scrooge is second only to Santa in sheer Christmas iconography. But I doubt he’s too far down the list anywhere else either. The 1966 special is, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, a charmingly rough-around-the-edges animated classic, and like Charlie Brown, it’s beating heart is its music, be it the tipsy “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” or the lovely melody sung by the Whos as they gather round their tree Christmas morning. The special is still funny, the Grinch is still an incredibly well-conceived character, to the point where you’re still stoked when his previously shriveled heart grows three sizes, as he realizes the folly of trying to steal Christmas, when so much of the Holidays are about the intangibles of love and fellow-feeling. If The Grinch is second to Charlie Brown, it’s only because Charlie Brown does such a good job telling us about ourselves at Holiday time. But that doesn’t mean that thrill of watching a newly-ennobled Grinch sled his way into Whoville goes away. It totally doesn’t.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
I have an embargo against watching Christmas movies before November 1st (that’s Halloween’s time, thank you) and after January 1st (kinda depressing). But if I were to break that rule, it’d be for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. As the last committed defender of Chevy Chase, I can tell you that he absolutely destroys as Clark Griswold, a well-meaning yet exceedingly goofy middle-class dad. Chase left Community because he didn’t care for his character’s two-dimensionality, and after three decades of playing Clark Griswold, I can’t quite blame him. Most characters would feel like a downgrade for a comedic actor whose defining role was a man who can be both the smartest guy in the room (Clark’s exasperated reactions and muttered barbs about his country bumpkin cousin-in-law, Eddie, are Simpsons-grade quotable) and the dumbest guy hanging from a second-floor drain-pipe. You can watch Chase’s 6-foot-5 frame trying to evade an invading squirrel, or rocketing down a sledding hill on a saucer greased with prototype cooking oil, and just marvel at SNL’s greatest athlete. And then there’s Beverly D’Angelo, equally funny in her subtle facial expressions, her eye-rolling, her quick comments, defining the good-humored but put-upon wife of a man whose devotion to “the perfect Christmas” would have been Michelangelo going on about the Sistine Chapel about five hundred years ago. The movie rewards repeat viewings and never goes more than two minutes without being funny. Oddly enough, as one of two Christmas movies, set in suburban Chicago and penned by John Hughes, you can think of Christmas Vacation and Home Alone as companion pieces, both manic, yet heartfelt, odes to the comedy of errors that the Holiday season tends to be.