Sometimes they are heartbreakingly, bone-crushingly painful.
The cultural messages we hear don’t leave much room for sadness or anger or grief. The decorations are relentlessly cheery. (In our neighborhood, there’s an electric Santa waving to cars passing by all night long!) The commercials on TV and radio tell us to buy, buy, buy for the people we love. Even the Hallmark movies always end with a picture-perfect ending.
As my colleague Kimberly Sena Moore wrote, some holiday music can be hurtful. There is this cognitive dissonance there – our minds telling us that we should be cheerful, but our hearts not feeling cheerful at all.
Fortunately, music can contain and express a lot of different emotions, and there are holiday songs that portray all of the complex emotions we may have this time of year. Here are ten of them:
Bing Crosby made this song a top ten hit in 1943, and on the surface, it seems to paint the picture of an idyllic family Christmas celebration. It’s in the last line that we see the complication here: “I’ll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams.” This song was meant for military members serving overseas, but it can be just as meaningful for anyone who can’t be home this year.
Another wartime tune, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” was sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis, in a rather sad scene where the family is preparing for a move to New York City, away from their beloved St. Louis. Military members, who had the very real understanding that they may or may not see another Christmas, were brought to tears by Judy Garland’s performance of lines like this: “Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow / So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” Later on, Frank Sinatra asked the songwriter to “jolly up” that muddling through line. His version, including the line, “hang a shining start upon the highest bough” may be the one you’re more familiar with, but the melancholy roots of this song remain.
Among the holiday songs about lost relationships is this one by Kitty Wells. The lines, “Holidays are lonely days for me/No, Christmas ain’t like Christmas used to be” and, “This lonely house don’t need no mistletoes/For I’m the only one that comes and goes” surely speak to the loneliness that many feel during this season, in Wells’s poignant country style.
Also about lost relationships, this song is a plea for Santa Claus to send her love back home to her. This is a blues song, yes, but it’s hard not to like Ella Fitzgerald’s beautiful, jazzy rendition.
This Elvis Presley hit may be about a lost romantic relationship, but I hear the words of grief and loneliness in the lines, “Decorations of red on a green christmas tree/Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me.” (I wrote a longer post on this song here.)
This song, based on a 19th century poem by Christina Rossetti, paints a starker Christmas picture than we are used to these days. You can almost feel the cold wind blowing in this song, and the lyrics speak to the intimate, very human scene of the Christmas story told in the Bible. Part of the last line strikes me as comforting for someone who wants to be a part of the Christmas celebration but who just can’t be jolly: “What can I give him/Poor as I am…Yet what can I give him?/Give my heart.”
Dating from the 16th century, the haunting minor melody of this song is from a mystery play once performed in Coventry, England. The lyrics of this carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, a dark event in which Herod ordered the killing of all male infants under the age of two in the city of Bethlehem. This beautiful song is, then, the lullaby of a mother for her doomed baby boy. Without delving into Christian history and theology, we can definitely say this: not all Christmas music is cheery.
Add to the list of quiet, introspective holiday songs this 19th century Austrian carol. Although it does not speak to the grisly scene depicted in the Coventry Carol, this lullaby paints the picture of the un-self-conscious, quiet intimacy of mother and child, in stark contrast to the holly jolly songs we hear on the radio.
For Christians, this season is a time for remembering the birth of a savior, so several Christmas songs hint at the ministry, death and resurrection of the man that little baby grew up to become. If Christian faith is important to you, reflecting on this part of the Christ story may bring the meaning you are searching for in this season. This song speaks especially to mothers and the uncertainty and pain that can come with that role.
This folk song was collected in the 1930s, and it too speaks to the larger theological implications of the Christmas story as understood by Christians, that God came to earth in human form to suffer and die just as any human does. For people who are wondering about suffering and pain this time of year, this song may provide comfort, at least from knowing that others have wondered about this topic, too.
No matter what kind of Christmas you expect to have this year, I am wishing you peace for this season and the year to come.