Oh yes, we know Christmas is meant to be a time of good cheer, of peace and harmony and the nonstop ringing jingle bells. But when all-Christmas stations pop up the first week of November and there’s no ducking the ceaselessly upbeat department store mixes, the relentless cheeriness can be wearing.
It’s well known that the holidays can be the most depressing time of year for those prone to the blues. And yet there are many who find thier deep, low nirvana enhanced when a sad dirge perfectly matches the prevailing melancholia.
Without being too much of a humbug, then, we offer these tunes from the darker side of Christmas, songs where wistfulness makes way for severe cases of seasonal affective disorder, whose acronym is just so dang on-target.
Loneliness is the key Christmas feeling, and most of the sadder seasonal have to do with being apart from loved ones.
The tone was set in the World War II era “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” from the point of view from soldiers who would be “if only in my dreams.” Bing Crosby’s Top 10 hit from 1943 was followed by recordings by hundreds of others, from Frank Sinatra and Dean martin to Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
Elvis made a standard out of the similar “Blue Christmas,” a No. 1 country hit for Ernest Tubb in 1949, written the year before. Presley’s 1957 recording wasn’t issued as a single until 1964. Since then, it’s been sung by everybody from the Beach Boys to Kelly Clarkson.
But Christmas blues didn’t begin in the mid-20th century.
Way back in 1929, the bluesman Leroy Carr was lamenting about “Christmas in Jail – Ain’t That a Pain?” Victoria Spivey had the “Christmas Morning Blues” also in the 20s. Jimmy Witherspoon complained “How I Hate to See Christmas Come Around” in 1947.
But maybe the most famous holiday blues tune was Charles Brown’s signature song “Please Come Home for Christmas.” First recorded in 1950, it charted the next nine years. It also became a Top 20 hit for the Eagles and was released as a single by Bon Jovi as well. Brown himself got to re-record it for his 1994 Christmas album.
A similar loneliness echoes through the holiday hit parade.
“It’s Gonna Be a Lonely Christmas” was a 1948 hit for the Orioles; it led to similar sentiment, from The Moonglows’ 1953 “It’s Just a Lonely Christmas” to, eventually, to Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas,” a 1984 B-Side to “I Would Die 4 U.”
Rockers’ reaction to Christmas has been generally brattier. The Sonics’ ”Don’t Believe in Christmas” dismissed the holiday with power chords in 1965 (they also appropriated “Farmer John” into a song called “Santa Claus”).
It was the Dogmatics who first recorded “Xmas Time (It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like It)” in 1984, but its Boston references made it well suited for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to revive it in 2005.
It’s easy to turn Christmas piousness on its head by just overindulging. Hence the urgings of “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas” (originally recorded by John Denver) and two different songs titled “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas” one by Smiley Bates, the other by Commander Cody.
There is also “Santa Got a DWI” by Sherwin Linton and “Santa Came Home Drunk” by Clyde Lasley.
Such is the nature of novelty songs (let’s not even start with “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”; nobody’s shedding tears for her in that unnecessarily cheery dud).
Discovery of the inherent fraud of St. Nicholas isn’t necessarily a sad thing. But just the fakeness of “Santa’s Beard” has led to two separate songs under that title, one from the Beach Boys’ classic holiday album in which a youngster with Mike Love’s voice pulls it; and a They Might Be Giants cut from “Lincoln” about suspected infidelity.
Nick Lowe retains a wry view of the holiday on his new “Quality Street,” but one of two original songs says “though it’s been said many times, many ways, I’m a dollar short of happy.”
One great recent addition to the sad Christmas pile is from Okkervil River, “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas” capturing the melancholy of returning home for holidays, though mournful singer Will Sheff echoes Redding’s “Dreams to Remember,” not his Christmas songs.
The epic jazz resistance to the season came from Miles Davis in 1965, “Blue Xmas (to Whom It May Concern),” a vicious rebuke to the crass commercialism and bad taste rampant this time of year. You get the feeling it’s only reluctantly added to occasional jazz seasonal compilations.
Country’s the home of sad songs, though, and few are darker than one from Elton Britt, “Christmas in November,” a haunting hit from the early 60s. Its takes criticism about putting up decorations early but it’s only because, he explains between sobs, his child, Jebby, isn’t expected to live until December.
Economic survival is an issue as well, so Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” is an enduring anthem.
But some songs that touch on tough times, as good as they are, are excluded from this list because they have a touch of hope (such is the case with the excellent Pogues song “A Fairytale of New York” which is set in the drunk tank, but talks about seeing “a better time” and John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison,” essentially a love song).
By the same token, the indelible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is about yearning and loneliness but comes in a song structure of uplift and triumph.
Likewise, Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” describes a low rent family gathering but they’re still having fun.
No such feeling exists in Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is tough to find on many holiday mixes for its dour urban portrait. Tougher still would be Randy Newman’s “Christmas in Capetown,” one of his anthems from the point of view of a racist, whose language wouldn’t be welcomed at this, or any other time of the year, with South Africa back in the news or not.
The Kinks’ great “Father Christmas,” issued as a single in 1977, told of poor kids threatened a department store Santa demanding money rather than toys, which he can give “to the little rich boys.” But “horses and toys never could fix the poor little rich boys” Rufus Wainwright in his 2008 “Spotlight on Xmas.”
You want world awareness? Try the anthemic 1984 celebrity sing-along “Do They Know It’s Christmas” which led to Live Aid. It’s a pity that reminding people of the starving people elsewhere on the globe is not more embraced the one time of year people might be open to the idea of helping.
Sometimes song structure and melody sets the mood far more than lyric content and just as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” reads sad but plays triumphant, Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” from the annual “Charlie Brown Christmas” special reads joyful but plays wistful, its contemplative minor notes ushering in melancholy with every snowflake.
Jim White’s 2001 “Christmas Day,” from the album that gave us “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi,” isn’t so much about the manger but a lonely Greyhound station after the bus broke down.
For straight up humbug, it’s hard to beat Graham Parker’s “Christmas is for Mugs” with its chorus: “All I see are lager louts, shoplifters and thugs.”
One especially enduring ballad that blends seasonal blues with loneliness and regret is Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which debuted on her classic “Blue” album and has been bumming out listeners with its blue “jingle Bell” variations, looking at the world of people who go about on their own holiday fun (“they’re cutting down trees”).
Though not directly a holiday song, it references the season enough to be part of it, especially since it’s been recorded so much recently. On its way to the same fame, but having less to do directly with the holiday is “Hard Candy Christmas,” which originates from the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and survives here because of the metaphor for hard times embedded only in the title.
Modern day echoes of “River” can be found in Rilo Kiley’s “Christmas Cake,” Juliana Hatfield’s “Make It Home” and Eisley’s “The Winter Song.” One of the best of these in recent years “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michelson. When they say “December’s never lasted so long” it’s not because they can’t wait until New Year’s, it’s that they can’t stomach the season.
Sufjan Stevens has recorded so much Christmas material on his two boxed sets (!) that a fraction of the songs honestly question how the Yuletide went. “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” is one example.
When I first wrote this piece for the Songfacts website, a reader reminded me of one song I knew I should have included, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” in which, amid the hubbub and tinsel of the season, none dare a man sitting and crying.
I’ve been touched by the yearning in Marvin Gaye’s little known 1972 “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” that has a spoken word explanation from a Vietnam P.O.W.; Ne-Yo’s otherwise reverent new recording of it for “The Best Man Holiday” extracts the plaintive spoken word segment.
When it comes to the alltime holiday bummer, though, I’ve stopped parties cold with Woody Guthrie’s stark and affecting tune of brutal anti-labor thuggery, “1913 Massacre” that begins at a miners’ Christmas party in copper country and ends with a pile of dead children following a stampede and fire scare. Written following a real incident in Calumet, Mich., a century ago this Christmas Eve that resulted in 73 deaths including 59 children, it goes way beyond mere sadness and approaches despair. Until someone writes a seasonal song that involves Sandy Hook it will represent the absolute extreme of Yuletide bleakness.