The Christmas spirit is sometimes a bummer

By Rich Heldenfels 
and Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal staff writers

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Pop music writer Malcolm X Abram (left) and Pop culture writer Rich Heldenfels share their favorite sad Christmas songs - even sadder than their sweaters. Go to ohio.com to watch a video.(Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)

Christmas songs are playing. So sad.

For every merry chime, there’s someone making you cry.

What, you’re saying that depression is not a traditional part of Christmas? That albums like Bummed-Out Christmas, A Lump of Coal and Yule Be Miserable are just novelties? Really …

They’re singing “Deck the Halls,” but it’s not like Christmas at all.

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.

I’m watching Christmas on TV, wishing you were here with me.

Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues.

Through the years we all will be together — if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

To be sure, just talking about Christmas songs depresses some people; in a recent chat about holiday music, several University of Akron freshmen said they were bummed by the seemingly nonstop bell-busting playing of songs going back to before Thanksgiving.

The songs collectively form a something-for-everyone genre: tunes that are variously happy, reverent, optimistic — and sexual (as we noted in our 2011 holiday roundup), angry, political and yes, sad. In fact, a cursory search online will find plenty of lists of depressing Christmas songs; the Los Angeles Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nerve website and Buzzfeed are some of the places to have offered suggestions. Despair is somehow made worse by setting it at Christmas time. See: Joni Mitchell’s River, the Everly Brothers’ Christmas Eve Can Kill You and many, many more.

And the sorrow begins with the holiday standard, White Christmas.

Tell people that it’s a sad song, and they may look puzzled, caught up as they are by glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow. Part of the problem is that many versions omit songwriter Irving Berlin’s original introductory passage, making clear that the singer is in Los Angeles but “longing to be up north,” that a white Christmas is not going to happen.

In the 2002 book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, author Jody Rosen says that it “is not an ode to joy, or snowmen or Santa. It is a downer, a lament for lost happiness — in spirit, if not in form, a blues.”

Even as the song talks about days being bright, the musical phrasing around it is dark and gloomy, says Rosen (although some versions, such as the Drifters’ — which Elvis Presley borrowed for his rendition — are much more upbeat). For the dreamer singing the song, holiday wonder “is conspicuously and hopelessly out of reach.”

And indeed it was for many of its earliest listeners, the soldiers at various battlegrounds and bases during World War II, as well as their families back home. The war was a melancholy backdrop for several classic Christmas songs, such as I’ll Be Home for Christmas, another account of dislocation, where the singer may get home “only in my dreams.” Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sounds anything but merry musically; its first draft warned that this Christmas “may be your last” before it was changed at the insistence of the director and stars of Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song premiered. It is most famously associated with Judy Garland’s singing of it there, in a scene full of despair.

The urge to add bummer songs to holiday collections is almost irresistible. The new holiday set by Lady Antebellum includes Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), another lament buried under uptempo music; Blue Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — fully one-third of its 12 cuts. And it would have been even better served by a more specific lament, say, “I’m a little drunk and I need Yule now.”

Tracey Thorn’s new Tinsel and Lights embraces Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Joni Mitchell’s River (not released as a Christmas song but, because it mentions the holiday, added to the canon) and Dolly Parton’s ode to gettin’ by, Hard Candy Christmas. Pitchfork reviewer Marc Hogan said of Thorn, “The moments of goodness and light here bump up against plenty of songs that are depressing or otherwise unseasonal-feeling.”

But the fact is, bummer songs do reflect a Christmas feeling, whether it’s from the absence of loved ones, a lack of money or a sense of loss around this time. So here’s a seasonal sampler in all its sadness.

• The Everly Brothers, Christmas Eve Can Kill You (1972)

Well, the title certainly suggests that this song will not be a perky ode to tinsel, passing out presents and being snuggled in the warm comforting bosom of one’s family. No, Don and Phil Everly apply their pristine brotherly harmonies to a lament of a lonely hitchhiker trying to get a ride on Christmas Eve over sad acoustic guitar chords and funereal organ. Extra points for the Everlys for making two-part vocal harmony sound so alone when singing lines such as “A car goes runnin’ by, the man don’t even turn his head, guess he’s busy bein’ Santa Claus tonight. The saddest part of all is knowin’ if I switched with him, I’d leave him stumbling ragged by the road, I’d ride that highway to arms of my sweet family, and forget about the stranger in the cold.” Someone give them a ride and a bear hug, please. (Malcolm)

• Prince, Another Lonely Christmas (1984)

Originally a B side to I Would Die 4 U, this lost-love song blends the eroticism typical of ’80s Prince (“Remember the time we swam naked in your father’s pool?”) with inescapable gloom. While many Christmas songs look ahead to the holiday, this tune is about the aftermath. “Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas,” it begins; this holiday was already a bad one, and not the first. And, “every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris ’til I’m blind” — oh, the misery! (Rich)

• Over The Rhine, All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue (2007)

The venerable Cincinnati husband/wife duo of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist/pianist Karin Bergquist already make music that leans toward quiet introspection, and this song finds the protagonist working through her holiday blues despite having her loved one with her, over a jazzy bed of piano chords, upright bass, moaning backing vocals and Bergquist’s bluesy melody. “Weatherman says it’s miserable, but the snow is so beautiful. All I ever get for Christmas is blue. It would take a miracle to get me out to a shopping mall, all I really want for Christmas is you.” (Malcolm)

• Taylor Swift, Last Christmas (2007).

Swift covered the much-redone Wham! tune five years ago, but it fits tonally with all that has made her the young empress of pop. The song starts with the lament that “Last Christmas I gave you my heart. The very next day you gave it away.” But listen closely to the way Swift bites into the lyric. The girl is pissed. (Rich)

• Sufjan Stevens, Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!) (2006)

Stevens is the undisputed king of indie rock Christmas songs, having released 10 holiday EPs that became 2006’s 46-song box set Songs For Christmas — and who just released another box set called Silver & Gold that features 58 more holiday favorites and originals. This song finds the protagonist chronicling the dissolution of a relationship with the pressure of the season highlighting the couple’s discord. “I stay awake at night, after we have a fight, I’m writing poems about you, and they aren’t very nice.” The chorus sums up the untenable relationship, “Did I make you cry on Christmas Day? Did I make you cry, like every other day?” (Malcolm)

• Dwight Yoakam, Santa Can’t Stay (1997).

Broken relationships are a holiday staple. (See also Chris Isaak’s Christmas on TV.) This hard-charging Yoakam composition is especially raw; a dad shows up at his estranged wife’s home dressed as Santa and drunk (see the next selection for more in that vein). His departure has his children wondering “why Momma said Santa can’t stay.” And “She told him that twice yesterday.” The kids may be home, but so is the mom’s new boyfriend. And, as the dad leaves, “cold tears fall from his eyes.” Yow. (Rich)

• Alan Jackson, Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas (1993)

The song was originally recorded by John Denver in 1973 (although Bill Danoff, who co-wrote the song, prefers Jackson’s take). And it’s all in the title. A young boy who is “almost 8 as you can see,” begs his old man to leave the bottle alone this Christmas for the sake of his mamma. “Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas, I don’t want to see my mamma cry. Mamma smiled and looked outside the window. She told me, ‘Son, you better get upstairs.’ Then you laughed and hollered ‘Merry Christmas.’ I turned around and saw my mamma’s tears.” (Malcolm)

• NewSong, The Christmas Shoes (2000).

Possibly the most polarizing — and effective — of all holiday songs is this piece using illness, death and family loss to reveal the true meaning of Christmas. It’s about a little boy asking a man to help him buy shoes — ones for his mother because “she’s been sick for quite awhile” and the boy wants “her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight.” It was so successful that it inspired a TV movie of the same name. Critics find it manipulative and maudlin, and it is. But it is also a gut punch, so openly emotional that, well, I was just listening to it again and tearing up. (Rich)

• Merle Haggard, If We Make It Through December (1973)

One of Hag’s signature tunes that became a number one country hit and Top 30 pop hit. Despite being nearly 40 years old, the song about a depressed blue-collar dad holding out hope that things will get better next year is certainly appropriate during these rough economic times. “I got laid off down at the factory, and their timing’s not the greatest in the world. Heaven knows I been workin’ hard, I wanted Christmas to be right for Daddy’s girl,” Despite not being able to help his little girl understand “why Daddy can’t afford no Christmas here,” Haggard’s protagonist still holds dreams (delusions?) of “bein’ in a warmer town come summertime.” It’s a classic country lament by a classic country songwriter. (Malcolm)

• Pretenders, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1987).

Besides the Meet Me in St. Louis rewrite, the song was changed again for Frank Sinatra, who disliked the line about muddling through; it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” That’s the lyric Akron’s own Chrissie Hynde sang for this track on the first A Very Special Christmas compilation. Still, she told Entertainment Weekly in 2007, “I was in a particularly melancholy mood, so I don’t think ours is a cheerful version. Singing it upset me; I was on the verge of tears. I was thinking about relationships, and how things had changed, and the people that I couldn’t see and couldn’t be with. But maybe that [sadness] is what most people feel at Christmas, and maybe that’s why people relate to it.’’

And to so many other things. (Rich)


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