Santa Claus is coming to frown! Why the best Christmas songs are sad and slow

The loss of Low’s Mimi Parker last month, at the age of 55, got me thinking about the power of sad songs. With her husband and band partner Alan Sparhawk, Parker was responsible for one of the most downbeat festive albums ever made: Christmas, from 1999. From its spectral version of Little Drummer Boy to a cover of Blue Christmas sung at what sounds like half-speed, its eight tracks remained faithful to the Minnesota band’s melancholic indie sound. The opener begins with this harrowing observation about Jesus’s birthday: “If you were born today, we’d kill you by age eight.”

It’s one of the most sorrowful-sounding seasonal albums ever – but also one of the best. Little surprise if it has passed you by: we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the gift of truly sad Christmas songs. When compiling yuletide playlists, we prefer the manically jolly over the miserable. We’re happy to hear Noddy Holder screaming like an axe-wielding killer, but something approaching the true loneliness, grief and weltschmerz of the darkest time of the year? Many of us would rather scroll on by.

Too bleak for Motown … Marvin Gaye, whose I Want to Come Home for Christmas was never released in his lifetime. Photograph: Jim Britt/Getty Images

I’m not talking here about the joyous nihilism of the Pogues, or the poppy heartache of Last Christmas, whose narrator is already planning to re-gift his heart within the twelvemonth. Nor do I mean the awkward feels elicited by Do They Know It’s Christmas? – though we’ve all experienced the guilt of belting out the bridge and realising we’re having far too good a time singing about dread and fear. No, for real pathos you need something extra. Bittersweet melodies, lyrics that cut deeper the more time you spend with them. Something that can play on the most untuned of heartstrings, a voice that could wring tears even from Scrooged’s Frank Cross. A spot of Sarah McLachlan, a swig of Sufjan Stevens, someone covering Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in the most mournful tones they can muster.

I first encountered that last example in an episode of 2Point4 Children in which the kids got separated from their parents, and it has haunted me ever since. It’s not the despair that kills you but the battered belief in a better future. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the 1943 musical Meet Me in St Louis, and first sung by Judy Garland, it’s a song full of poignant cadences that are a perfect fit for its wistful sentiment. Or at least they were, until Frank Sinatra insisted on replacing the lyrics with cheerier lines: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” turned into “hang a shining star upon the nearest bough”. The original is infinitely superior, and ready-made for all your 21st-century Christmas downers from Covid lockdowns to cost-of-living crises.

‘We’d kill Jesus by age eight’ … Mimi Parker of Low.
‘We’d kill Jesus by age eight’ … Mimi Parker of Low. Photograph: Sergione Infuso/Corbis/Getty Images

During lockdown we all learned that few things feel lonelier than a lonely Christmas. On your tod at Easter, or going stag for summer solstice? You’ll get by. December, though, is cold and cruelly isolating, which is why yearning yuletide tunes are so powerful: Joni Mitchell’s River; John Prine’s Christmas in Prison. What price Geldof’s clanging chimes of doom when you’ve got the opening bells of the bluesy intro to Charles Brown’s Please Come Home For Christmas? (Follow up question: is there a sadder end to a line than “I have no friends”?)

Plenty of lonesome-without-you numbers (many middling to awful) have hijacked the holiday season and our susceptible ears with them. Only Prince could create a jewel of the genre and perform it just once: Another Lonely Christmas, the B-side to I Would Die 4 U, remains brilliantly obscure. It sounds like a regular tale of she-done-me-wrong until the shock reveal that actually she died – on the 25th no less! – and he’s managing his grief with banana daiquiris. As set-ups to guitar solos go, “Your father said it was pneumonia, your mother said it was stress” is pretty unforgiving, while the final organ outro lends a neat funereal touch.

Festivals of light don’t just illuminate the darkness, they draw attention to it, which is probably why Motown never released Marvin Gaye’s I Want to Come Home for Christmas – sung from the point of view of a Vietnam-prisoner-of-war – during his lifetime. Simon and Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, with its counterpoint of depressing headlines and angelic vocals, is a hard listen at the best of times, let alone when you’re trying to drown your worries in supermarket own-brand Bailey’s.

But it does, at least, remind us that things were ever thus. Life isn’t especially ho ho ho right now and we’re facing the very definition of Dolly Parton’s Hard Candy Christmas. A bleak midwinter cries out for a bit of catharsis, so put on some LCD Soundsystem and let Christmas break your heart.

Tell us your favourite downbeat Christmas songs in the comments

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