People tend to mistake folk singer Joni Mitchell’s “River” (1970) for a Christmas song. You’ll hear it in hotel lobbies, department stores and coffee shops this season. It begins with the tune of “Jingle Bells,” then changes a bit as Mitchell sings,
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
But the fifth and following lines move in a different direction: “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” The rest of the song is about giving up, wanting to run away from the pain of lost love. One of the most memorable songs on Mitchell’s album Blue, it’s terribly sad.
The same is true for Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” (1958) which begins with a piano playing “Good King Wenceslas.” Its lyrics (by Richard Rodgers) plummet immediately into sadness: “Sit there, count your fingers; / What can you do? / Little girl, you’re through.” The Christmas tune continues to thread throughout, with occasional jazzy bridges.
The same is also true for Simon and Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night” (1966) which, on its surface, is a beautiful acoustic rendition of “Silent Night.” Underneath—and I remember listening wide-eyed at my parents’ record player when I was a kid—lurks “the early evening edition of the news” that covers the indictment of Chicago serial murderer Richard Speck (“the nurses were found stabbed and strangled”), death-by-overdose of comedian Lenny Bruce and a Vietnam-era speech in which Richard Nixon predicts “five more years of war” if U.S. involvement is not increased.
Perhaps the subtlest and most beautiful sad Christmas song is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmastime Is Here.” Despite its lyrics, which speak of happiness—“Snowflakes in the air / Carols everywhere / Olden times and ancient rhymes / Of love and dreams to share”—the song’s somber chord progression and impressionistic piano arpeggios depict Charlie Brown looking worried next to a tiny Christmas tree bowed down by one red ornament. The song ends somewhat ambivalently with, “Oh, that we could always see / Such spirit through the year.”
Sad songs are important to us, working against our tendency toward unrealistic exuberance. They feel true-to-life rather than packaged in sparkly paper. Sad Christmas songs counterbalance the merriment and revelry the holiday season tends to induce. Even the contemplative “Silent Night” helps us deal with hyperactive numbers like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
As 2012 comes to a close, Americans have good reason to lace their party mixes with sad Christmas songs. Like the news report slowly getting louder behind Simon and Garfunkel’s “Silent Night,” awareness of our national economy nearing a “fiscal cliff” is swelling. No matter what happens next, the entire economy will be affected: either the Federal government cuts spending dramatically or drastically increases taxes. America’s reached its debt ceiling and has to figure out what to do.
Money Morning’s financial analyst Shah Gilani recently put the situation in a Christmas context: “More unmarked stimulus spending? No accountability as to which sinkhole it will fall into? […] Where is the spending discipline now and into the future? Oh, we’re supposed to believe it’s going to get here? Santa’s coming too, right?
This is the same sadness captured by Charles Schulz in his holiday comics. That neither Santa nor the Great Pumpkin are about to sweep down from the sky is a fact children eventually come to terms with but adults have a harder time understanding. Perhaps that can change. Instead of indulging in a four-to-five week shot of peppermint mocha Frappuccino and “Joy to the World” plus thousands of dollars per household in festive credit card deployment, perhaps we can hear Schulz’s chorus singing, “Oh that we could always see / Such spirit through the year.” Perhaps we’ll rein it in and plan for January and February.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).