I just re-released the single “Poor Little Jesus,” which I recorded in 2012 for a New Hampshire Christmas compilation album entitled “Christmas As I See It,” produced and engineered by Matt Marcil. And yes, it’s a little sad, focusing as it does on the conditions baby Jesus was born into, conditions we’d want no mother and child to have to go through, while we know millions experience far worse, even.
I hope you have a happy Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and/or New Year, but the holidays can be stressful, so don’t feel any worse if, after prolonged exposure to parasitic earworm cheerful holiday songs…
"Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingaling, too…”
…you find yourself wanting a Scroogey astringent palate cleanser. And fortunately, there is a rich tradition of sad Christmas songs out there.
The track that seems to get the heaviest rotation in recent years would have to be John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas:”
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done…”
–a dreary contribution to the darker holiday song catalog that never spoke to me. [I don’t like “Imagine,” either, but everyone else seems to, so I will leave that sacred cow alone for now]. Then the other day my wife, who was a Joan Baez fan in her childhood, came home singing the old song “Stewball.” Where did that come from? Then we realized we had just heard “So This Is Christmas” while out shopping. Lennon borrowed both the tune and the chord progression:
"Old Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine
He never drank water, he always drank wine.”
If you know both songs, you will never be able to unhear the mashup again.
I know it gets covered a lot, but I don’t have a problem with Joni Mitchell’s “River:”
"It's coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace…”
Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is Here,” laced with major 7ths, is suitably melancholic, which the happy lyrics do not hide in the least. And the country contributions to the genre are numerous, of course. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” is a keeper, as is John Prine’s super dry “Christmas In Prison:”
“It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good,
We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood…”
There's "Blue Christmas..." Oh, Google “downer Christmas songs;” and you find no end of examples from every genre. Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis pops up on every list. And it's sadder than you remember. But I was surprised to find that the one song that kills me every time didn’t make it onto any lists that I checked out: the Pogues’ “Fairy Tale of New York” with Kirsty Macoll. It’s just too sad; that's Shane McGowan for you, a train wreck you can't look away from, the pain buried by the end in the band's drunken 6/8 carousing. (actually, at around 4:26 they edited in a clip of McGowan, still alive, dancing in 2012; a bloody miracle, which... isn't that what Christmas is about?
Merry Christmas! If you can. Enjoy some music, happy or sad. I love you. And thanks for supporting my sometimes melancholic, sometimes, I hope, cathartic music in 2017.