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Ryan Johnson, Published December 19 2013

Johnson: Depressing Christmas songs show a less jolly side to season

If it’s the most wonderful time of the year, why are so many Christmas songs so depressing?

For every saccharine-sweet “Wonderful Christmastime” or “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” there’s a “Hard Candy Christmas” or “If We Make It Through December” to douse the holiday spirit.

Consider “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a holiday standard that seems pleasant enough.

The song was written by Hugh Martin for the 1944 musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with lines so bleak that star Judy Garland requested a revision.

Even after the lyrics were tweaked, watching Garland’s character sing “Through the years we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” breaks my heart.

Frank Sinatra had that last line changed to the rosier “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” before recording it for his holiday album, “A Jolly Christmas,” and the upbeat lyrics have become the more frequently used in the decades since.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” too, has a deceptively happy title that doesn’t hint at its true melancholy. Hearing Bing Crosby sing “I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams” – and realizing this song was released during World War II – makes it clear this is really about not being home for the holidays.

The fact that these mopey songs still are everywhere each Christmas, decades after they were written, suggests they connect with a broad audience who relate to songs of loneliness and despair more than another tired repetition of lyrics about the wonders of snow or jingle bells.

It’s no secret that this season can be a time of overwhelming stress – how to afford all the presents, which relatives or set of parents to spend the holiday with, how to have enough time for every party and family gathering – and for many, it’s simply not a happy time.

Christmas can become a grueling marathon, with people just trying to make it through the motions until they reach the finish line on Dec. 25, knowing they’ll have a 10-month break until the yuletide anxiety will once again rear its ugly head.

When I was a kid, the holiday season meant I’d get a three-week break from school full of family, presents and cookies. But since I entered adulthood, I’ve learned that Christmas now simply can’t live up to the sentimental version of Christmas that I remember from my youth.

Now, I need to juggle bills while trying to pick the perfect gifts for a growing list of people. I struggle to find a way to visit family members that have moved across the country. An old song or a picture brings back holiday memories with loved ones who have passed away, making me wish I would’ve had more time.

There are so many great things about the holiday season. But they can easily be overshadowed by the constant frustration I encounter knowing the traditions that were so important to me when I was 8 just aren’t possible anymore at the age of 28.

It’s a time of year when we’re bombarded with messages of what we should be buying and how we should be spending our free time, and many of us can’t have a holiday that will live up to all the hype.

Instead of letting it make me miserable, I’ve decided to embrace new traditions and savor the moments I can have with friends and loved ones, even if they can’t match the overly simplistic memories of my childhood.

Maybe we all have the same choice over which holiday songs we will care about. We can continue to embrace the blissful ignorance of “Winter Wonderland,” or we can take the depressingly real woes of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” at face value and learn to more fully appreciate the good times.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587