Songs for a long dark night

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow …

The Christians and the Pagans,” Dar Williams
Christmas in Prison,” John Prine

Cry of a Tiny Babe,” Bruce Cockburn
Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues
Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John Lennon
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Hem
How to Make Gravy,” Paul Kelly
Little Town,” Over the Rhine
Long December,” Counting Crows
Merry Christmas From the Family,” Robert Earl Keen
One of Us,” Joan Osborne
River,” Joni Mitchell

It’s the darkest day of the year, so here’s a dozen songs that, to me, capture a bit of the solstice spirit — the whole seeking light in the darkness/warmth in the cold aspect. (Even in the case of the Paul Kelly song, which I suppose technically is about seeking shade in the heat.)

Rabbi Brant Rosen recently confessed that, ” I love listening to Christmas songs – particularly those of the aching, melancholic variety.” He defends this guilty pleasure, in part, due to such songs’ “quasi-exilic yearning” — which is a lovely phrase. That aching and yearning is what I love about many of my favorite holiday songs. It’s cold and dark, but “maybe this year will be better than the last.”

I’ve got a half dozen different renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and they’re all muddlers. Not a shining star or highest bough in the bunch.

The original lyric was, “Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Frank Sinatra wanted to record the song for his Jolly Christmas album, so he asked songwriter Hugh Martin to “jolly up that line.” Martin whipped up the jollier “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

Ugh. I have nothing against jolly, in principle, but when it comes to Christmas songs, I very much prefer having to muddle through somehow.

I’ll take melancholic, “quasi-exilic yearning” over forced jollity any day.

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  • Andrea

    I thought the shining star line came in when the cast of Meet Me in St. Louis protested that the muddling through line was an awfully mean thing for Esther to sing to Tootie.

  • Rowen

    I prefer this song more upbeat. I have it on one of my Revels albums. But Ms. McKennitt does a very pretty job, and it has that nice melancholy sound to it. She calls it In Praise of Christmas, but I’ve heard it called Drive the Winter Away.

  • Cathy W

    “War Is Over” always makes me feel like a waste of oxygen. Possibly that was the point?

  • rizzo

    Oy to the World – The Vandals

    It’s all about punks and friendship, great song:)

  • That Other Jean

    Nobody sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” better than Judy Garland. It’s my favorite non-carol Christmas song, and the original is still the very best.

    For carols for a long, dark night, James Taylor does a fine version of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

  • redsixwing

     Sleeping Sun, Nightwish. This one is not at all Christmas-like, so probably fails the challenge on that account, but is one of my favorite songs for a long dark night.

    I wish for this nighttime/ to last for a lifetime.

  • Launcifer

    I’ll just leave this here.

  • Magic_Cracker

    White Wine In The Sun” by Tim Minchin

    Makes me cry. Every time. (But I still really like it.)

  • TheRealAaron

    It’s not technically a Christmas song, but since you talked about Sixpence None the Richer in an earlier post I feel it has to be included:
    A Million Parachutes

  • Peace On Earth” by U2 fits this bill quite perfectly.

    Peace on Earth / Hear it every Christmas time / But hope and history won’t rhyme / So what’s it worth? / This peace on Earth

    This was also the first song that came to mind after Newtown:

    They’re reading names out over the radio / All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know / Sean and Julia, Gareth, Anne and Breda / Their lives are bigger than any big idea

  • guest

    For anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to miss this until now:

    I love the disconnect between the Christian words and the Pagan imagery. 

    Getting ready to attend our city’s traditional Solstice celebration in a couple of hours….

  • Launcifer

    Just thought of another one: though it isn’t a Christmas song, it’s it’s also the first thing that came to mind when I read the title of this post, so have some Robert Plant.

  • dr ngo

    The two choral settings of “In the Bleak Midwinter” – by Holst and Darke – are both wonderfully mournful.

  • dr ngo

     Nice, but this Youtube link is screwed up – keeps going to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” instead (and a crappy rendition at that).  Vimeo has the real thing, and you’re right about the fascinating disconnect between words and images.

  • DorothyD

    And they’ll lay you down, low and easy…

    We’re Coming in from the Cold – Bob Marley and the Wailers
    Frozen Fear – Government Mule
    Glad Tidings – Van Morrison
    Riddles in the Dark – Chris Thile 

    Riddles in the Dark is a mandolin instrumental and has nothing at all to do with winter or Christmas, but I’m including anyway just because. 

  • AnonymousSam

    In light of what day it is, why not “It’s the End of the World (as We Know it)”? :p

  • Evan Hunt

    They did change the lyrics for Meet Me In St. Louis, but the “muddle through” version is what they changed it to — the original lyric was even darker.  (“Have yourself a merry little Christmas / it may be your last / next year all our troubles will be in the past…”)

  • Evan Hunt

    Thank you for all of these recommendations — a few of them are new to me.  I love offbeat Christmas music, and I frequently make mix CD’s for my family in place of Christmas cards.

    If I can take an opportunity to share something of my own, this is a song I wrote for last year’s Christmas mix…  Not so much quasi-exilic, but I hope people like it.

  • Wednesday

    I’m sure this went up last week when it was actually Hannukah, but Light One Candle is a seasonal favorite of mine that is plenty yearning and melancholy.

    There’s also Vienna Teng’s Atheist Christmas Carol.

    (My favorite version of “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas” is the one sung
    by Bert and
    . But that’s probably due to the rose-colored glasses of childhood nostlagia.)

  • LouisDoench

    Ian Anderson has his own take on the Christmas Song

  • hidden_urchin

    “Lost Christmas Eve” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

    Also, anyone who ever gets a chance to see them in concert should take it.  The show is amazing.

  • delta-orion

    I think someone last week mentioned “Song For a Winter’s Night”?  Both the Sarah McLachlan version and the Gordon Lightfoot version are lovely, though Sarah McLachlan’s version is the one that really hits that melancholy feel.

    Other melancholy Christmas/winter/holiday/whatever songs I like–

    Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong”
    Dala’s “Hockey Sweater”
    Danny Michel’s “Snowglobe”
    Melissa McClelland’s “Two Snowbirds”
    Tori Amos’s “Winter”
    Sarah Harmer’s “Tether”

    And of course, any of several versions of “I’ll be Home for Christmas”

    Oh, and I second the comment above about getting weepy over “White Wine in the Sun” — when he gets to the part about the baby daughter, I lose it.  Every.  Damn.  Time.

  • Amaryllis

    Mary had a little baby,
    born in Bethlehem.
    And every time the baby cried
    she’d rock him in a weary land.

    Ain’t that a-rocking, all night long.

    How do you get through a long dark night? With a few lullabies:

    Ain’t That a-Rocking – I’ve got Odetta’s version, which I can’t find a link for, but here’s Barbara Hendricks instead.

    Blake’s Cradle Song – Sting
    Christmas Lullaby – Doc Watson (a version of Watt’s Cradle Hymn)

    Suantrai – Anuna, which I can’t find either, but here’s Celtic Woman instead.
    The Christ Child Lullaby – an English version of the same song. I’ve got the one by Iona, but not a link for it; here’s Grace Griffith instead.

    Don Oiche Ud I mBeithill – Celtic Woman
    That Night In Bethlehem – an English version; I’ve got The Boys of the Lough, but I can’t find a link for them or anyone else singing it in English.

    Lullay, lullay: Als I Lay On Yoolis Night – Anonymous 4 (The newborn Jesus precociously tells Mary that he’s heard that earthly mothers sing lullabies to their babies, so won’t she sing one for him?)

    (So she does)
    Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung – The Baltimore Consort

    The, sadly, always appropriate Coventry Carol – The Mediaeval Baebes

    And finally, because the night ends sometime, Bright Morning Stars – Abigail Washburn

  • I don’t have much of anything in the way of Christmas music, but one that I do have fits the “melancholy” aspect:

    Red Water (Christmas Mourning) – Type O Negative

    Also by Type O, is Halloween in Heaven, which may not be thematically linked, but it does mention Christmas…

    And then there’s Sarah McLachlan’s Song For A Winter’s Night, which was mentioned earlier.

    Not sure what else I have that fits the bill.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Glad to see you’ve included my two favourite Christmas songs: How to Make Gravy, and River.

  • B

    I like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Longest Night of the Year.”

  • Rose

    Dude! I don’t know if anyone already mentioned (didn’t notice anything in the comments) but I was just listening to my parents’ James Taylor Christmas cd, and he totally kept the original muddle through line in his version! Hopefully this is the right one. 

  • “Winter, Fire, and Snow” by Anúna (
    And you, little son come safely home
    Riding the tail of the wind

    “Winter’s Carol” by Tori Amos (
    Through a midwinter clearing
    A final kiss and a new beginning
    Kiss on the queen wearing his wreath
    Soon with the sun she will be ascending

    “Trains and Winter Rains” by Enya (
    Neon signs in the night,
    Red and blue city lights.
    Cargo trains rolling by,
    Once again someone cries.

    “December in New York” by Thea Gilmore (
    And if you listen close
    You’ll hear the fairylights and smoke
    of the East Coast calling

    “Winter Solstice” by The Tea Party (

  • Round this time of year I’m always on the lookout for unapologetically Pagan winter solstice songs. Songs I can add to my growing set list for an unapologetically Pagan solstice party and Yule fire vigil. I love longs like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” but it’s a Christmas song. I don’t want to borrow Christmas songs that kinda-sorta fit. I want my own religious traditions, even if they’ve only been made up over the past 75 years or so.

    I dug up my old copy of Gaia Consort’s album Gaia Circles, and rediscovered that “Gathering” is not about just any Pagan gathering but specifically about “calling back the light” — as we specifically do every solstice morning in Colorado when we go Drumming Up The Sun at Red Rocks. So there’s that.

    Gaia Consort also have a lovely ballad called “Father Christmas” that begins “It’s a few days before Christmas and the sun is going down like the last light that we’ll ever know.” But it’s got one too many moments of nose-in-the-air “aren’t we smarter/more enlightened than those foolish Christians who are afraid of wildness” superiority for my tastes.

    Another CD I dug up was Circle Round and Sing! which is like Wee Sing for Pagan families. Unfortunately for my purposes, “The Sun is Born” is very much a Wee Sing type song, which isn’t quite the atmosphere I’m looking for.

    Ah well, the search continues.

  • DorothyD

    A late entry because I only just now stumble across it: Coldplay’s Christmas Lights. I love the visuals in that video, reminds me of a scene from an I Spy book.