Op-Ed: Melancholy Christmas carols bring comfort in a season known for glee

In American culture, Christmas is often synonymous with joy. Many familiar hymns proclaim this message with “Joy to the World” echoing in thousands of churches, while its secular counterpart encourages listeners to “Celebrate A Holy Christmas.”

But for many people, the feelings of the season are more complex, and this time of year brings with it feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. We think of our loved ones who are missed during the holiday. Parents are sad for a time when their kids are still writing to Santa. Almost everyone has a lot of work to do, and lonely people can feel more lonely.

As Christmas music begins its marathon of several weeks, I often think of songs that realize that “the greatest time of the year” is actually far from it.

Some of this feeling was captured by Elvis Presley in his version of “Blue Christmas”, which tells the story of a romantic breakup: “I’m going to have a blue Christmas without you / I’ll be so unhappy just thinking about you.”

The concept of blue Christmas is increasingly recognized by churches, where we can expect messages of holiday joy to override more conflicting emotions. Some congregations now offer Blue Christmas services, where readings highlight the reality of loss but also convey the message of hope represented by the birth of Christ.

In fact, during Advent, the period leading up to Christmas in the church calendar, churches often emphasize the sense of mystery and confusion that precedes the birth of Christ. Probably the best-known Advent song is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which has a solemn, hymn-like melody that dates back to 15th-century France.

The opening verse speaks of the Jewish inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem, which was conquered by Babylon and mourned “here in solitary exile.” As they await a messiah or “Immanuel” predicted by the prophet Isaiah, meaning “God is with us,” they long for him to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And blow away the dark shadows of death.”

Beyond the church doors, “Christmas Time” captures the bittersweet quality of the holidays, with Vince Guaraldi’s moody jazz harmonies and waltz mood behind an angelic children’s choir. The opening theme song to the classic “Peanuts” animated TV special aptly begins with a depressed Charlie Brown going to Lucy’s for therapy.

But in my opinion, “I’m Home for Christmas” can convey the season’s nostalgia and melancholy atmosphere better than the others. In October 1943, almost World War II.

He sings, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” in his rich baritone tone, and describes the snow and mistletoe he hopes for—until listeners realize that a visit to this home may be “only in my dreams.”

The popularity of the Crosby version of this song is due in part to how it reflects the emotions of a world at war. Fearing that it would demoralize though, the BBC banned the song during the war, saying it “adopted a policy of excluding morbid sentimentality, which became nauseating especially when sung by some vocalists, and was completely incompatible with what we felt”. to be needed by the people in this country.”

The catalog of melancholic Christmas tunes is extensive and continues to grow. During the wartime of 1943, “Have a Merry Christmas” wrote in a wishful mood, “We’ll be together for years to come / If fate permits”. The hit song “Please Come Home for Christmas” by many artists, including the Eagles, doubles the romantic longing for “Blue Christmas”. Joni Mitchell’s “River” opens with sad piano notes from “Jingle Bells” and includes the words “I wish I had a river to slide on”. The list goes on.

It’s no secret why this season produces sad songs. For many of us, the holidays carry an emotional thorn. Some people have too many people to connect with and buy gifts, while others just don’t have enough.

December can only be one month. We often measure our current lives against the past, most of the worries are filtered out by selective memory. However, even for those who find this season difficult, holidays can promise a more peaceful and harmonious world. And we can take some comfort in the fact that the mixed feelings of the holidays help us create great music that somehow reminds us that we can somehow “mix it up”, at least when the songs are playing.

David W. Stowe teaches religious studies at Michigan State University and is the most recent author of “Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137.” This article was produced in partnership with The Conversation.

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