Christmas Advice Column: Why Sad Christmas Music?

Dear Christmas Advice-Giver,

Why are some of the religious Christmas Carols so sad when this is the season of happiness?  I mean, really, “In the Bleak Midwinter?”  Nothing like a downer.  Aren’t we all supposed to be just super joyful right now?  And what does “bleak” mean anyway?

Signed, “Bleakless”

Dear Bleakless,

Here’s the situation:  For much of Christian church history (i.e., before advertising took over the world), the four weeks before Christmas Day were weeks of soul-searching, fasting, and preparation.  The formal name for this time is Advent, which simply means “coming toward.”  So, we are “coming toward” the entrance of Jesus into the world.  The question before the people is this:  “Why?  Why does the world need a Savior?”

Let us think about it and take a few minutes to intentionally enter the suffering of the world.  As a starter, consider the untold millions who are what is called “food insecure.” They really don’t know if there is adequate food even for the day to keep them from gnawing, weakness-inducing, muscle-wasting hunger.  Next, notice the pockets of extreme political instability. We see people sitting on their spark-ready tinderboxes, just waiting for the next provocation, imagined or real, to appear.  Finally, we might look at economic and climate uncertainties. With a tightly interconnected world economy and a fragile and vulnerable infrastructure, the relative comfort experienced by many could realistically disappear within hours.

Now, does the world need redeeming?  Do we need to be set free from the binding chains of darkness?  Do we need healing?  Do we need to connect with people across the divide of intractable differences? Do we need to use our creative minds for the larger good rather than mutual destruction?  Do we need to relearn the rhythms of life, work, play and worship that nourish and fill us rather than overly-stimulate us and then squeeze the last drop of life-moisture from us?

If we can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then music that reflects the deep longings of the soul makes a lot more sense.  Seriously, most of us really do want world peace for Christmas.

So, let’s think a bit about the push to be “super joyful” right now.  Where do you primarily see that message?  Mostly from businesses who want you to buy their stuff, the more expensive the better and, lots and lots of it.  They hold out promises that if you do, you will find utter bliss upon either giving or receiving that stuff.

Certainly gift-giving is a great idea. I don’t want to dismiss that custom.  We need celebrations, and we especially need them as the days become shorter and the nights become longer. We need lights and music and festivities.  We need Christmas Day.

But a world with only lights, and never the darkness to appreciate them, quickly turns dull and unappreciated.

Look at some of the words to “In The Bleak Midwinter.”

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him:  give my heart.

This song, originally written as a Christmas poem by Christina Rosetti in 1872, was set to music in the early 1900’s.  The words beautifully show both the loneliness (bleakness, empty, hard, cold) of Jesus’s birth and our human incapacity to give adequately in response to such a great gift given to us.

By entering into some of the sorrow of the season, we gain greater capacity to find the delight and joy in it as well.

Merry Christmas,
Your friendly Christmas Advice-Giver

54 thoughts on “Christmas Advice Column: Why Sad Christmas Music?

  1. Many Christmas songs sound sad because they reflect upon more joyful times when we were very young, and Christmas was a happy time. Somehow, as we age we try to recapture those moments, but they are never to return.
    Christmas also has many joyful songs which is what I like the best. They proclaim the arrival of our Savior Jesus Christ. Do not waste your energy longing for times past, instead embrace the joy of the season and the beautiful future offered by Christ.


  2. We must have that sad to know happiness, and
    Dark to recognize light.
    I do love the subtle slow and thought provoking songs of Christmas.
    But I absolutely connect with those joy filled songs.
    Like “Joy to the World” sung by Whitney Houston and the choir in “the Preachers Wife”


  3. a nice read.

    iand i suddenly remembered this line: when you’re still waiting for the snow to fall, it doesn’t really feel like christmas at all.

    do listen coldplay’s christmas lights. cheers.


  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post.
    Celebrating Christmas in Australia, something is wrong if it’s not a stinking hot summer day and so images of the bleakness of winter don’t resonate with me. We might get a few severe bush fires but otherwise the weather is pretty good.
    It would be good to have more time before Christmas to be more contemplative and reflective. We are all running on empty with end of year activities. I just want to go to sleep for a few months. I have a couple of young kids and that is madness at this time of year. I also struggle because they believe in Santa and when I tell them something is expensive, they say Santa can get it.
    That said, this year I have taken up the violin and I am enjoying playing Christmas carols. They don’t have the words attached so I will have to think a little more about the meaning instead of trying to get the right note.
    Must also start reading the CHristmas story to the kids too.
    Christmas should be more than an endless to-do list, sholdn’t it?!!


    1. I would love to know more about celebrating Christmas in Australia. I’ve been there a couple of times (my first grandchild was born there) and loved the country. I have also long thought that it would be better if Christians in the southern hemisphere were to celebrate Christmas in June–the celebration really is tied in many ways to the winter solstice and the rebirth of the world when the days stop growing shorter.


  5. I believe you summed it up nicely here

    By entering into some of the sorrow of the season, we gain greater capacity to find the delight and joy in it as well.


  6. Wow it is so great to see Christian content being Freshly Pressed. It is true that a lot of Christmas music is sad but it really is a joyous time! The Son of God came to save us, what more could a group of sinners and thieves ask for? Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


  7. I love all the dark Christmas songs, Robert Shaw, and the religious songs. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the church. Even though I have left formal religion I still feel deeply attached and am guided by the ideals, much much more so than when I was in the church. I wish that when people grew up and decided they no longer believed in god, they didn’t then just turn to the consumer, capitolisit culture as if this was the only alternative.


  8. christmas day is a amazing life,,,cause’ by that one all human being can felt some different thing,,,not just that one by christmas our heart look like change from as usually,,may be that because Jesus is coming to our life,,,i thing to hear all songs CD chirstmas,,i feel so sad,,and always cring,,i thing all the songs its so wonderful and can’t said by a words,,,example HOLY NIGHT,,!!!! Jesus i love you,,,


  9. Some of the more “chipper” Christmas songs are sometimes downers too! “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”… creepier than joyful if anything, I’d say…


  10. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is my favorite Christmas song, precisely because of its loneliness and starkness. It always makes the hair on the back of my neck rise, even now that I no longer attend church.


  11. I guess. But I prefer to keep my repentance/downer musing for the Lent preparatory season. For Advent, I like to reflect on hope and light and joyful expectation. Lord knows there’s enough sadness the rest of the year. Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel!
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!


  12. Alfred Delp! Alfred Delp! In a Nazi prison he wrote beautiful sermons about Advent on tiny slips of paper, and smuggled them out to his parishioners in the seams of his laundry. (The guards didn’t figure out that one priest was going through an awful lot of clean socks.) It’s good Advent reading for putting holidays in perspective.
    What a lovely post, thank you for writing it! There is so much wonderful overlooked Christmas music out there waiting to be heard and played. Here’s another: “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning, dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid…” or “Watchman, tell us of the night…” On and on.
    Luminous Advent to you! M


  13. Amazing. I was just thinking about the beauty and bleakness of the tune “Sunrise, Sunset” and how — if one will only throw him/herself into the sadness of the melody — it gives a profound inner joy by reminding the listener about the inseparable duo in life: happiness and tears. If this song raises my hair or makes me shed tears, that doesnt mean I’m dreary. In fact im in a higher level of joy. Its a great feeling to be reminded how simple life is or should be.

    Now I thought I was alone, bizarrely loving sad Christmas music until I found an ally and an excellent answer from this post. On the other hand, if I weren’t a penniless traveler, I would be suck into this season of “getting and spending” and would be playing some really loud rap metal Christmas music.

    I say, peace and calmness this Christmas. We have no idea how thankful we should be.


    1. Nope, we are not alone. I also love “Sunrise, Sunset” and cry every time I hear it–and am warmed at the same time. This is life, this movement from the melancholy to hopeful joy. But the advertising/media world rarely acknowledges this, and those are the messages most of us hear day in and day out. Thanks for writing.


  14. Interestingly, I’m completely agnostic, and yet, I find a lot of peace and serenity in the more woeful sounding Christmas songs. I find it interesting that I do not a single holiday CD with contemporary tunes, but I have many with holiday CDs with religious songs by sympany. I love to attend church services around the holiday, though I do not truly identify with the Christian religion on many other levels. I agree, I also partake in bell ringing and and egg nog, because I believe life is short and we should all enjoy the gift of happiness anywhere we can find it, but I turn to sad Christmas to really feel spiritual. Thank you for sharing this blog post! (And excuse my spelling… spell check seems to be failing me.)


      1. I’m pleased you could read what I wrote. I was commenting from a computer at work with a very old browser, and I couldn’t see to edit my comment… which in hindsight very much needs editing. But I agree, that sound resonates universally in each soul.


  15. Thanks for this post. It’s sad that our consumer culture has replaced Advent with Christmas-shopping season.
    Of course, it’s important to note that the reason for the misery and bleakness in the world is sin, and each and every one of us is guilty of sin. The somberness of Advent and Lent isn’t just sadness over the trials and hardships of life, it’s repentence and sorrow for our own sins that made the incarnation necessary. But along with that, we have the joy that Christmas and Easter are coming, and that our sins are forgiven through God’s ultimate grace.


  16. Nothing makes me happier than sad music – it shows we haven’t all yet bought into the shallow commercial culture that sees Christmas as nothing more than a marketing opportunity.
    This time of year has always been a nervous one for people living in the Northern Hemisphere. Now we kid ourselves that Walmart will always be there for us and bask in (mostly hideous) happy music in order to mask the reality of our precarious situation.
    In The Bleak Midwinter isn’t just one of my favorite Christmas Carrolls, its one of my favorite tunes of all time.


  17. for our ‘Blue Christmas” service last night, I retold the beginning Luke 2 story as the story of horrifying circumstial difficulties it actually reveals, if we can cut through the spiced cider and tinsel. The 80 mile trip from Nazareth to Gethsamane was coerced- Joseph and Mary had no control over making the journey: “screw the girl’s imminent delivery, you’re going to be counted, then taxed!” Then after finally making it to Bethlehem, there was no room for them. Joseph must have felt like a failure; Mary had to feel as if they were utterly alone. Powerless pawns in the games of God and Caesar.

    It’s important for us to acknowledge to others and ourselves, that some of the bleakest times we’ve ever had have happened at Christmas time. Our grief, or our separatedness, or our poverty must be wrong! Everyone seems to be smiling, happy, able to buy whatever their kids want!

    Bottom line, nothing beats a sad-sounding song when it is shared by genuinely hurting people who are discovering together that they are not alone. It gives yet another meaning, during such a worship service, to the idea of being in a safe sanctuary..

    O Come, Emmanuel..


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