|Written by Sharon Knolle|
Christmas songs are usually cheerful little numbers, about Santa Claus coming to town or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Even more contemporary numbers are usually upbeat, such as “All I Want for Christmas is You.” But there are several holiday songs whose lyrics are downright gloomy.
Since Christmas is one of the most stressful times of year, it’s only fair that some more ambivalent feelings about the season surface.
Except for the one about the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.
That one’s just cruel.
How many Christmas songs have explicit language warnings? This one has two lovers calling each other “a bum, a punk” and “an old slut on junk” as well as “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot.” The Pogues classic starts out in the drunk tank of Christmas Eve where an old man says he’s sure it’ll be his last. What saves this from being utterly depressing is the wistful hopefulness at the end and the absolutely beauty of the melody and Kirsty MacColl’s voice. (Sadly, MacColl died in 2000, after being hit by a boat in Mexico. RIP.)
So while this isn’t your standard Christmas song by a long shot, it’s still a favorite that gets played possibly as much (or more) than Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”
“Santa Can’t Stay”
Written and recorded by Dwight Yoakam (1997)
When Mom and Dad split up, that means that Santa (aka Daddy) can’t stay and little Bobby just doesn’t understand in this song that should be a tearjerker, but whose jaunty melody makes it surprisingly upbeat.
“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”
Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971)
Also recorded by Damien Rice, Maroon 5, Andy Williams, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Darlene Love, The Fray, Sarah McLachlan, Carly Simon
This song is always going to make most of us sad because it reminds us that John Lennon died far too young. And war is never really over, is it? The sentiment, for “a very happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear,” is one that is sure to be dashed each year, and everyone who’s recorded this sings it with that sad knowledge. The Damien Rice cover is especially melancholy.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
Written by Kim Gannon (lyrics) and Walter Kent (music)
Originally recorded by Bing Crosby (1943)
This nostalgic war-time classic must have really hit hard with soldiers who couldn’t make it home for Christmas that year. And listening to it now, you can’t help but think of all those doughboys who never made it home at all.
The song begins with the soldier singing “you can plan on me,” and detailing all the things he’s looking forward to enjoying at home. But the realization that that’s not likely to happen makes the final line, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” one of the saddest last lines in any holiday song.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
Written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector
Originally recorded by Darlene Love (1963)
Also recorded by U2 (1987), Mariah Carey (1994), Death Cab for Cutie (2004)
Nothing like heartbreak around the holidays to put you in the Christmas mood!
This classic, in which the singer repeatedly begs her (or his) baby to “please come home” is decidedly downbeat. If you’ve had a break-up right before the holidays, listen to this at your own peril!
Written by Willie Nelson
Originally recorded by Roy Orbison (1963).
Also recorded by Nelson, Glen Campbell (1968), Mickey Gilley (1976), Randy Travis (1986), Asleep at the Wheel (1997), Kenny Chesney (2003), Chris Isaak (2004), Reverend Horton Heat (2005), and Emmy Rossum (2013).
The message of this song – which is about an amputee who begs holiday shoppers to stop and buy his “Pretty Paper” – is to stop in the midst of your whirlwind holiday shopping and consider the less fortunate. It’s not a message most people want to hear at the holidays.
According to Wikipedia, Nelson was inspired to write it after seeing an amputee in Fort Wort, Texas.
Instead of using a wheelchair, the man crawled on rollers, selling paper and pencils in front of a department store during the holiday season. To attract the attention, the man would yell, “Pretty paper! Pretty paper!”
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Written by Ralph Blane (lyrics) and Hugh Martin (music)
Originally recorded by Judy Garland (1943)
This Christmas classic, first featured in Meet Me In Saint Louis, was originally even sadder! As Hugh Martin told NPR in 2006: (https://www.npr.org/2010/11/19/131412133/the-story-behind-have-yourself-a-merry-little-christmas)
“The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”
Of course, the version most people know today doesn’t feature the depressing “We’ll have to muddle through somehow” line. When Frank Sinatra went to record it in 1957, he supposedly told Martin, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin changed the line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
Even with that change, it’s still one of the most melancholy of holiday songs.
Written and performed by Calexico (2000)
Damn, this is a sad one, made even more so by the melancholy, sparse instrumentation. “The spirit is broken…. your heart is snowed-in…”
I suppose it ends on a hopeful note, but if you’ve had too much spiked eggnog, this might not be the best choice if you’re feeling blue.
“The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot”
Written by Michael Carr, Tommie Connor & Jimmy Leach
Originally recorded by Vera Lynn (1937)
Also recorded by Nat King Cole
Definitely the strangest and saddest Christmas song ever: A little fatherless boy has no Christmas at all because “Santa” never arrives. It was written in the Depression and it sure sounds like it.
The Vera Lynn version was used in the opening scene in “Pink Floyd – The Wall” and A portion of the song was sung by Jim Belushi in the 1996 film “Jingle All the Way.”