The Inescapable Sadness Of Christmas Music
And how it paradoxically makes us happy.
I’ll just say it outright?—?Christmas music depresses me.
I’m pretty sure it goes back to when I was 5 years old and was convinced every time I heard Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on the radio that it was actually my grandma singing to me from heaven. I’m not sure why I thought this—my grandma may have looked a little like Judy Garland, but she was (and still is) very much alive. But whether it was rational or not doesn’t change the fact that to this day, that song makes me indescribably sad every holiday season.
Lately, though, I’ve come to learn I’m not the only one who gets depressed by Christmas music. A lot of those classic holiday ditties, from the religious (“Silent Night”) to the non-religious (Elvis’s “Blue Christmas”) are totally melancholic.
This can partly be explained by history: A lot of iconic Christmas music was originally written during World War II. With so many young men fighting overseas, it was inevitable that themes of longing, grief and loss would predominate. In Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (1943), for example, the singer croons about how badly he wants to return home in time for Christmas, but something in his voice tells us he knows he won’t be. The song is a total downer all around.
Even Christmas songs that aren’t inherently sorrowful can still make us pine for the past in a kind of sad way. The lyrics of holiday music often reflect memories and traditions with loved ones. And whether it’s the image of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or the wintery feeling of “Jack Frost nipping at your nose”?—?both references are from Nat King Cole’s iconic 1950 ditty “The Christmas Song”?—?we’re attached to these lyrics partly because we’re nostalgic for our own childhoods, even if our childhoods didn’t involve roasting any chestnuts over any fires, open or otherwise.
As we grow up, the magic of Christmas fades, yet Christmas music is a time-hop back those memories. Irving Berlin touches on this notion in his song “White Christmas” (1942), which is a terribly depressing number despite its outwardly pleasing name. Written in a lavish Beverly Hills hotel, Berlin sings about his poor upbringing and how he’s longing for Christmas to be snowy-white “just like the ones I used to know.”
Music of any variety, Christmas or non, is inherently emotional. “Music is unique because it sparks activity in just about every circuit in the brain,” Nina Krauss, a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University, told me. “This supercharge of activity integrates sensory networks, cognitive networks and emotional networks.” In other words, music is a direct bridge from our senses to our innermost feelings.
The sadness of holiday music may, paradoxically, comfort us. Research conducted by graduate students at the University of Southern California last year found that songs that deal with emotions like grief and sorrow can purge bad feelings and actually have a healing effect on our brains. We find sad music pleasurable when it’s perceived as non-threatening and when it produces psychological benefits, the study found.
“If you’re the kind of person who listens to sad music during the holidays, you’re more likely to be an empathic person,” Matthew Sachs, one of the study’s authors, told the science website Inverse shortly after the study was published last December.
For so long, I thought I was weird for having multiple playlists dedicated to “Sad Christmas Jams.” I thought there was something wrong with me for cranking the volume on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” because of the (kind of twisted) way it made me feel connected to my grandma.
But I know now I’m not alone: The same thing has been happening to millions of other people at least as far back as World War II. So while Christmas music makes me depressed, I don’t necessarily mind it?—?it’s a yearly check in with myself, bridging my past with my present.