Good grief! As finals season approaches, so does the holiday season. Synonymous with this time of year is a certain franchise: Peanuts. With five feature films and 51 television specials under their belts, Charlie Brown and company are the epitome of consistent cultural presence. Though it seems there’s a 25–minute to hour–long short for every holiday—from Easter to Arbor Day—true Peanuts primetime arises as soon as East Coast temperatures hit the fifties. The best of the best cover the three major American events of the season: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Millions have watched these specials air each year for decades (a fact that led to considerable backlash when Apple TV+ acquired them and it appeared the company wouldn’t allow the tradition to carry on). Aside from Charles Schulz’s instantly memorable characters, however, there’s another element that contributes to the Peanuts specials’ charm, and it’s all thanks to Vince Guaraldi.
Our story begins with Guaraldi’s first big hit. After briefly attending San Francisco State College and spending two years in the US Army as a cook, he floated from band to band while experimenting with styles like Latin jazz, an influence that’s clear throughout the rhythms of his work. While putting together a mostly–cover album, he added an original piece to the B–side. 1962’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was remarkable in more ways than one: Not only did it spend 19 weeks on the Top 100 chart, but it also was a no–vocals jazz piece, an unusual trait. The instrumental earned Guaraldi his first and only Grammy Award, for Best Original Jazz Composition.
In 1963, a man in a taxi on the Golden Gate Bridge would hear “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio—and in a twist of fate, he was a television producer. Lee Mendelson was in the middle of his search for a soundtrack to a Peanuts documentary in the works when he encountered Guaraldi’s Grammy–winning instrumental, and he quickly got in contact with the composer. The first piece the jazz pianist put together was an early version of arguably his most famous: the energetic and iconic “Linus and Lucy.” Guaraldi was so eager for Mendelson to hear it as soon as possible that he played it over a phone call, and the rest is history.
From one listen of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” Guaraldi’s style is immediately apparent. The composition is full of warmth, present in the welcoming hum of the double bass and the simplicity of the piano chords (the latter of which are, of course, performed by Guaraldi himself). When the drums jump in, the tempo picks up and gains energy, propelling the tune forward into a catchier melody. The three instruments create a sense of intimacy that compels even those who wouldn’t consider themselves fans of jazz: It’s artistic easy–listening at its finest. This, and all of Guaraldi’s pieces, are full of personality—a necessary characteristic of any soundtrack to Schulz’s comic strip, so full of life and wit.
Now, his contributions to the Peanuts world are cemented as “standards, not just hits”—a full manifestation of his own goal as a composer. In addition to your seasonal pop classics from artists like Mariah Carey and Wham!, there’s no escaping Guaraldi while out shopping for gifts or turning on the holiday radio station. On A Charlie Brown Christmas’ soundtrack, the vocal version of “Christmas Time Is Here”—whose lyrics were written by Mendelson—pairs the sweet, imperfect voices of the children’s choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of San Rafael, Calif. with understated and steady accompaniment. The song evokes the power of musical simplicity and the youth of Schulz’s characters, making for an easily recognizable—and singable—Christmas carol. But it’s also tinged with a “wintry melancholy”—the lyrics end on the words, “Oh, that we could always see / Such spirit through the year.” “Skating” picks up the pace with quick, higher–pitched piano notes that cascade up and down the keyboard; it’s easy to imagine the fun of gliding across the ice while dancing snowflakes swirl from the sky. Iterations of “Linus and Lucy” appear on a number of the Peanuts soundtracks, and the dynamic dialogue between the pianist’s left and right hands perfectly captures the sibling dynamic between the title’s characters, Linus and Lucy Van Pelt. Mendelson commented regarding the piece: "It was so right, and so perfect, for Charlie Brown and the other characters … There was a sense, even before it was put to animation, that there was something very, very special about that music."
The two lesser behemoths of the holiday trinity also boast musical classics. The score for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—captures a nostalgic charm in its main “Thanksgiving Theme,” the most popular version of which is the last track on the Charlie Brown Christmas album. An easily recognizable piano motif that speeds up and down the keyboard, introduced at the beginning on piano and echoed on other instruments, evolves into a more sophisticated symphony with triumphant brass. Meanwhile, on the recording for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Graveyard Theme” are standouts, with percussion evoking the sound of rustling leaves and instrumentation in minor keys that hint at mischief and eerie encounters.
Though these pieces align with specific cultural moments on the calendar, they are truly timeless in their listenability during any time of year. Beyond their special applicability during Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Halloween, Vince Guaraldi’s soundtracks are, simply put, delightful jazz. At a point in American history where jazz represents around 1.4% of total music consumption, the Peanuts specials likely constitute the majority—or even all—of people’s exposure to it. Guaraldi’s nickname, “Dr. Funk,” demonstrated his groundedness in and commitment to the genre. Nearly 50 years after his sudden death at 47 from a heart attack, the composer’s music preserves both jazz and the comic strip’s place in our national culture as singular pieces of Americana.
Though Schulz’s Peanuts, 17,897 strips long between 1950 and 2000, were about kids and their shenanigans, they spoke to something greater—and so do Guaraldi’s compositions. Chaotic baseball games, schooltime crushes, and failed football kicks fill the comic’s panels, and point to universally relatable struggles. Charlie Brown’s and other characters’ repeated challenges even in the smaller things on an elementary school scale, mirror readers’ own humanity, but not in an entirely depressive tone. There’s always a glimmer of humor to be found, even while the characters fail spectacularly again and again. Snoopy’s recent rebound in popularity among Gen Z only speaks further to the Peanuts’ relentless relevance. The story’s philosophy, in Schulz’s own words, is about finding laughter in loss. “I’m astonished at the number of people who write to me saying, ‘Why can’t you create happy stories for us? Why does Charlie Brown always have to lose? Why can’t you let him kick the football?’” the cartoonist said. “Well, there is nothing funny about the person who gets to kick the football.”
Guaraldi, who would have been 95 this year, surrounded these characters’ misadventures, as lighthearted as they could be existential, with music that captured the nuance. Jazz is both widely accessible and emotionally complex, a uniquely American art form that swings easily between moods, just as a 25–minute TV special must quickly cover the ups and downs of its plot. As pianist George Winston, a committed Guaraldi fan, explained, “His music is part of our culture and we know it even if we don’t know Vince.” Though most of us never met Vince Guaraldi, generations do know him—and will continue to discover his genius—through every note of the musical storytelling he shared with us.