We all associate Christmas with songs so happy some folks cannot help but hate them — folks who, through circumstance or temperament, aren’t able to enjoy the holiday season as much as the rest of us. Santa’s supposed to leave a bundle of love under every Christmas tree, but it’s not always like that — not every year, not for everybody. Reunions can be equal parts joy and awkwardness. Holiday deadlines fray tempers, and some partake in too much holiday cheer. Reindeer shit happens.
New Year’s Eve anticipates the future, but Christmas is as much about the past as it is about the present (and presents). For if you’re not longing for someone to kiss under that mistletoe, chances are you’re longing for your childhood self and the magic of Santa, or bygone Christmases with Grandma and Grandpa. Ol’ Saint Nick doesn’t only leave gifts; he brings memories, too, both jolly and otherwise, that stoke our internal fireplace.
Fortunately, there’s a rich vein of holiday music that’s only tangentially about walking in a winter wonderland. Some of our popular Christmas songs carry a palpable tinge of loneliness, a nuanced pining that’s a key element to their endurance. For if Christmas can’t bring you together with the ones you love, it inevitably becomes a holiday about missing them, and drinking in their memory with the cocoa and the marshmallows.
It’s not a coincidence that three of the most timeless Xmas tunes were written and popularized during World War II, when much of the planet was either fighting or missing those who were. That’s a major part of the aura surrounding the greatest selling single of all time, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Although the 1941 song is ostensibly comforting and cozy, its singer is clearly lost in dreams of a holiday “just like the ones I used to know,” subtly acknowledging that present circumstances can’t deliver the same seasonal serenities as the past. Even when Barbara Streisand covers the tune on 1967′s A Christmas Album as Irving Berlin originally wrote it, with opening bars that situate the singer amidst the pleasantries of Beverly Hills, there’s nevertheless that draw to what’s not there, something more than snow. In her phrasing, so full of understated yet thoroughly defined feeling, she pulls herself towards it, practically willing herself back to Williamsburg.
Bing’s follow-up Christmas smash the next year, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” was, unlike its predecessor, written with soldiers explicitly in mind. Once again, it’s ostensibly optimistic: The singer pines for a similar holiday oasis held in his memory bank, a celebration of certainty, what’s familiar, the family rituals soon to be savored. But then comes that final “…if only in my dreams” line, and the narrator is revealed to be as sadly unreliable as a Kafka antihero.
Written for the 1944 Vincent Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is, in the film’s original context, Judy Garland’s reassuring message to her weeping little sister before their impending move to New York. Whereas most holiday songs simmer in nostalgia, this one advises us to live in the present: Have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Soldiers understood then, as we do today, the resulting tension between the chin-up lyric and the downbeat melody that quietly recognizes every Christmas could be our last.
Recognition of life’s pains via popular song didn’t magically recede after WWII. Instead it grew with the mid-century rise of country music and blues that captured the overlapping struggles of rural and African-American life. Texas C&W star Ernest Tubb was one of several to first popularize “Blue Christmas” in 1949, but it’s Elvis Presley’s 1957 rendition on his well-justified landmark, Elvis’ Christmas Album, that’s recognized as definitive: It’s here where what musicologists call “blue notes” were introduced to the tune via the Jordinaires’ eerily discordant harmonies that bring out the indigo in this legend’s lonely holiday bummer.
Fascinatingly, Elvis’ Christmas Album is among most controversial: From the slamming blues shock of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s irreverent “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” to the unabashed gospel cuts that close the disc, it might be his blackest. His rendition of “White Christmas” closely followed the Drifters’ radical reconfiguration of the tune, a perennial hit in African-American communities. But when Elvis recreated it for the mainstream, Irving Berlin flipped out, and called for the entire album to be banned from radio; his “White Christmas” suddenly wasn’t so white anymore. The King also proved that seasonal longing could translate to unabashed rock ‘n’ roll: “Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)” shrugs its shoulders at flashy gifts while swiveling its hips. What Elvis wants is his straying lover’s arms wrapped once again around him like ribbon circling a present.
Released on the same November 1963 day as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was a flop upon release: The timing couldn’t have been worse for the girl-group kingpin’s Wall of Sound treatment of otherwise familiar sugary holiday treats. Yet amidst this strikingly childlike disc is one far more adult original, Darlene Love’s devastating future classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” This Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry/Phil Spector composition is particularly poignant because it showcases not just a torrent of desire, but also a star that should’ve been. Ordinarily relegated to the backup singer sidelines, Love here wails out jukebox opera. The producer cut an alternate lyric, non-seasonal version with her, but the original holiday context pumps up the panic in her melodrama: If her baby doesn’t get his act together and hijack Santa’s sleigh pronto, Love will surely explode from sorrow.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono tapped into Spector’s innocence for their 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The children of the Harlem Community Choir sing harmonies imbued with sorrows brought by the Vietnam War, then darkening America’s consciousness, while Ono gets the saddest parts of the melody. They’re all longing for peace, the absence of which sharply contrasts with the season: How can war reconcile itself with Christmas?
Lennon’s contemporary Roy Wood plays with similar contrasts via his own ultra-Spector-ish production for Wizzard’s 1973 UK hit “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” Cannily acknowledging seasonal commercialism by beginning with the jingle-jangle of a cash register, Wood packs the track as full as Santa’s sleigh while as it shoots skyward with a flurry of jazzy saxophone blasts, French horn trills, bagpipe buzzing, kiddie choir tra-la-las, and ever-upwards modulating key changes. Yet beneath all this giddy exuberance lies what’s actually an acutely wistful melody; it’s Love that he’s channeling while imploring us to give our love for Christmas.
The list could keep going: From Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” songwriters and singers play up the discrepancy between the Christmas of their fantasies and the one fate has dealt them. But few have done it as darkly as Aimee Mann on her 2005 album The Forgotten Arm. Her Badfinger-y “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” doesn’t feel remotely like Christmas and that’s the point; she can no longer wing it loaded or sober. Hers is the realistic flipside to the Pogues’ proudly alcoholic “Fairytale of New York” spent in the drunk tank of a Manhattan jail. Her days of seeking refuge in the holiday dreams of Bing or Barbra are over. Santa left a lump of coal in her stocking — the truth.