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Blue Christmas: Melancholy Songs of Christmas

By Edited Jun 24, 2014 0 0

Christmas is supposed to be a time of exuberant celebration, but for some, it's less than a happy occasion. Here are a few songs acknowledging that not everyone is filled with joy at Christmastime.

Blue Christmas - Perhaps the most famous Bummed Out at Christmas song, it's generally taken as a song of romantic loss and was most famously sung by Elvis, who seemed to have a bit of a corner on down and out Christmas tunes. It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You), I'll Be Home on Christmas Day, If I Get Home on Christmas Day and Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees are all pretty sad songs the King of Rock and Roll crooned about a man away from those he loves at Christmas. Still, with iconic lines like "You'll be doin' all right with your Christmas of white, but I'll have a blue, blue Christmas," Blue Christmas is the most famous, and it turns up on the radio all the time, having been covered by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Celine Dion and Porky Pig. As soulful as Elvis's rendition is, my own favorite version is the one sung by the children in The Year Without a Santa Claus as a forlorn message to Santa.

The River - I only discovered this song a couple of years back, but since then, I've found it on several Christmas albums, with artists like James Taylor, Paul Byrom and Sarah McLachlan pouring all of their angst into this wistful tune that juxtaposes the splendor of the season with the despair of someone for whom the holiday has lost all meaning. "I wish I could find a river I could skate away on," the hollow speaker admits. There's a romantic angle to this one as well, though the pain feels deeper than that. I get the sense that the speaker in Blue Christmas will probably be able to enjoy Christmas next year; in this song, I'm not so sure.

Where Are You, Christmas? - This one turns up on the radio fairly frequently, but always the heavily pop version by Faith Hill, which ends on a triumphant note of renewed faith. The song in the movie is much shorter and more faltering, with the tiny but pristine voice of Taylor Momsen speaking for everyone who finds the Christmas of magic waning as they grow up. A Charlie Brown-like dissatisfaction with materialism is a major factor here, as is the general loss of innocence as one grows up. "My world is changing. I'm rearranging. Does that mean Christmas changes too?" she wonders to minimal accompaniment.

I Believe in Father Christmas - This aching, bitter song by Greg Lake is another that is critical of the commercialism of Christmas. "They sold me a dream of Christmas. They sold me a Silent Night," he rages as the lovely instrumentation carries hints of what has been lost. There's an unrelenting heaviness to the song, though the end carries a bit of relief as he seems to conclude that Christmas can be a blessed celebration if we approach it with the right attitude.

Pretty Paper - This socially conscious song written by Willie Nelson has turned up on a few Christmas albums, but Roy Orbison's despondent version is the one that you're most likely to hear on the radio. The title is a reference to the glitzy trappings of the holiday, and the song is a way of scolding people who go about their merry business in December, never stopping to think about the disenfranchised. Indeed, though the second verse ends with the dispiriting "in the midst of the laughter, he cries," it's easy to get so caught up in the elegant words of the chorus that you don't stop to think about who is crying and why. But you should.

It Doesn't Have to Be That Way - Romance is one topic that comes up again and again in Christmas music. This gentle song by Jim Croce is not completely pessimistic, since there's a sense that he still thinks this broken relationship could be repaired. Nonetheless, "the Christmas carols sound like blues, and the choir is not to blame." Nobody could quite pour his soul into a lyric like Jim Croce, and we can really feel his pain.

Same Old Lang Syne - But that sense of loss is far deeper here in the one song by Dan Fogelberg that seems to dominate the airwaves consistently - but only for a month out of each year. The saxophone plays a minor version of Auld Lang Syne at the conclusion of this song about old more-than-acquaintances bumping into each other on Christmas Eve and trying "to reach beyond the emptiness, but neither one knew how." The powerful image of a white Christmas plays into the tragedy of the song as the woman he loves, now married, drives away in a snow turned to rain.

Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas - John Denver, Alan Jackson and the Decemberists have covered this poignant song in which a seven-year-old boy begs his father not repeat last year's disastrous holiday by coming home sloshed on Christmas Eve. I'm partial to Denver's version, which I listened to every year long before I heard of the others, but each singer puts a slightly different spin on the woeful tune of a child who knows all too well the disharmony that alcohol can bring to a family. "I don't wanna see my momma cry," the boy pleads, and we hope that this year, Dad listens.

Christmas 1915 - This song by Cormac McConnell, exquisitely covered by Celtic Thunder on their second album, ends on a fairly optimistic note, but it's still a horribly depressing song about war's ability to strip people of their humanity. It starts off incredibly heartening, as "on the Western Front, the guns all died away." British and German troops lay down their arms to spend the holiday peaceably interacting with one another and reveling together in the beauty of the hymn Silent Night despite the language barrier. By song's end, however, the truce is over, and the men who were friends yesterday are back to killing each other again. Devastating, with the delicate harmonies of the singers reflecting the desire for harmony in the world.

Ideally, Christmas is a time of peace, contentment and brotherhood. However, if you ever have trouble conjuring up those feelings in December, listen to some of these songs and know you are not alone.



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