“Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” — Proverbs 25:20
“If your ugly sweater was designed to be an ugly sweater then it doesn’t actually count as an ugly sweater,” Anica Cihla recently wrote on Twitter. I think the same thing could be said for Sad Christmas Songs. If it seems like you’re trying too hard to make a Sad Christmas Song, then it just won’t work. You wind up with a Maudlin Christmas Song, which isn’t the same thing at all.
A Maudlin Christmas Song will only make listeners sad about the fact that such a song was ever recorded. This is especially true if the MCS in question involves sorely neglected children who fear that they have been forgotten by Santa and/or Jesus. (Or whose parents are dead and/or dying. Please don’t sit down to write a Christmas song thinking, “OK, time for me to torment some orphans.”)
Having said that, I have a soft spot for certain Maudlin Christmas Songs. Randy Stonehill’s “Christmas at Denny’s,” for example, which teeters on the edge of parody. Or Johnny Cash’s “Ringing the Bells for Jim.”
I would also make a distinction here between Sad Christmas Songs and Sad Break-up Songs That Happen to Be Set at Christmastime. The latter are fine, but I think of them as a separate category. There’s also another larger category, I suppose, of Christmas songs that are just a bit melancholy and minor-key and lonesome and bleak mid-winter-ish. I like those too, but Sad Christmas Songs are a more specific sub-set of their own.
What makes for a good Sad Christmas Song, I think, is something like what Geoffrey Rush describes as “the oldest drama-school adage”: “You never played drunkenness in a scene even though your character may be completely sozzled. Because most drunken people are trying to look sober.” So if you want to convey drunkenness, act sober. And if you want to convey sadness in a Christmas song, act cheerful. If you want to convey hopelessness, act hopeful.
Thus the saddest lines in Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” are “everything’s gonna be alright” and “we’ll be fine.” Those lines are far more affecting than the song’s more aggressively “sad” bits about the little girl not understanding why the family can’t afford Christmas presents.If Judy Garland had sung about her heartbreak at leaving the boy next door and having to lose everything she loves when her family gets uprooted, that might have been kind of saddish, maybe. We’d know that it was supposed to be sad and that we were supposed to feel sad about it. But make Judy have to pretend not to care about any of that and instead focus on consoling her baby sister and the words “let your heart be light” can become devastating.
A Sad Christmas Song doesn’t have to keep up the cheerful front all the way through. The mask can slip a bit. Or — hey Charley, for chrissakes, do you want to know the truth of it? — it can even be pulled off altogether. But the attempt to wear that mask is what makes many of the best Sad Christmas Songs work.
Anyway, the point here is that it gets pretty dark this time of year, but tomorrow it will … Wait, no, bad example. Tomorrow is going to be even darker. But the point is the day after that it will … Wait, sorry. The day after tomorrow will actually be just about exactly as dark as today. But the day after that, yes, three days from now it’s going to be slightly less dark.
So you’ve got that going for you and, you know, let your heart be light.
Until then, here are some Sad Christmas Songs. Enjoy.
John Prine, “Christmas in Prison”
Paul Kelly, “How to Make Gravy”
Dolly Parton, “Hard Candy Christmas”
Aimee Mann, “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas”
The Pretenders, “2000 Miles”
Joni Mitchell, “River”
Stevie Wonder, “Someday at Christmastime”