The Christmas period is often thought of as the happiest time of year, and so we are all supposed to share in these feelings of festive joy for the duration of it, having to listen to the intoxicatingly chipper Christmas music. However, I find that I soon tire of these songs and am often left in want of music that reflects and indulges my more sombre moods at this time when these sentiments feel most out of place. And so, I present the best 3 Christmas songs I know to do just this…
‘River’ is an autobiographical song recounting Joni Mitchell’s feelings of melancholia in the aftermath of a breakup set against a landscape of wintery scenes. The song opens with a piano playing a minor inversion of ‘Jingle Bells’, foregrounding the deep sorrow that Mitchell suffered at this time and suggesting the ubiquity of her dejection as it infects what is a typically jolly tune. This is reflective of her inability to partake in the jubilant festivities of what is meant to be the happiest time of year due to her personal sorrow. The lyrics of the opening verse capture this sentiment as she describes conventionally joy-infused images of Christmas with people ‘cutting down trees […] putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace’, which are undercut by her repeated, woeful lament: ‘oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on’, expressing her desire to escape the heartache she feels in the wake of her romantic split. These are also the lyrics of the closing verse, and this speaks to the emotional stasis of Mitchell at this time as the song begins and ends with her feeling the same dispiritedness and no emotional transformation occurring.
In the middle verses Mitchell bares her soul to us, explaining how she is at fault for the demise of her relationship as she self-deprecatingly declares herself ‘hard to handle’, ‘selfish’ and ‘sad’. I find this to be an oddly refreshing narrative; so often we encounter stories in which people cast themselves in the role of the morally pure victim of their lover’s cruelty, but here Mitchell admits to her own shortcomings and failings as a partner. Moreover, the aforementioned lone piano endures throughout the song’s entirety as the sole instrument, asides from her voice, inducing a sense of isolation as well as intimacy, because there is no artificially produced element which stands between herself and us as listeners. Also, while a piano is not inherently “Christmassy”, it still evokes an air of Christmas; during this time, at least for me, it serves as the hearth of the home where family gather round to hear one another play, but here, instead of invoking this communal and joyful atmosphere, we imagine the solitary figure of Mitchell singing to herself about a love lost.
In this song Sufjan Stevens captures beautifully the reason why so many hate Christmas; the holiday period is often fraught with tension, intensity, messiness and family pressures. Stevens individualises this idea when singing of how his ‘father yells throwing gifts in the wood stove’, and that his ‘sister runs away’, an image antithetical to ones typically associated with Christmas being that of the harmonious nuclear family sitting gaily around a fire. He then goes on to pose the rhetorical questions: ‘can you say what you want?’, ‘can you be what you want’, which imply the repressiveness of Christmas-time as we so often suppress our underlying issues so as to upkeep the artificial facade of festive glee and perfection that Christmas imagery so often pushes upon us. However, in burying these issues they can often boil over into bigger arguments and dramatic scenes such as the one Stevens describes.
The closing line ‘Nothing feels right’ references another reason why many do not enjoy the holiday period; it is a time when their negative feelings are most out of place. This is because their misery is set against a backdrop of vibrant lights and colourful decorations, and the ruling doctrine of joy leaves no room for them to express their discontentment, meaning they not only feel upset but incongruous to their surroundings.
This track is a cover of Merle Haggard’s original from his 1974 album of the same name, however I find Phoebe Bridgers’ version to be superior as in Haggard’s version the emotionality of his lyrics are undermined by the tune’s major key and is somewhat jarring. Bridgers, more appropriately, opts for a solo piano as the only backing for her vocals, much like in Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’, and this is to the same effect as it gives the song a more introspective and depressive tone that I feel is necessary.
The song topically focuses upon how despite December is ‘the happy time of year’, the narrator cannot partake in this due to their impoverished economic disposition. They think of this month as something to endure, as suggested by the title, and they wish it away dreaming of ‘a warmer town, come summertime’. This points to how financial difficulties are exacerbated at this time as people struggle to heat their homes and provide the material goods that Christmas has come to require as it is now essentially a consumerist holiday. Bridgers’ whispery backing vocals express the narrator’s woe, and feel somewhat haunting, much like a biting wind echoing through a cold house during the winter months. She goes on to sing of being ‘laid off at the factory’ in spite of hard work, and how this means they must disappoint their ‘little girl [who] don’t understand why we can’t afford no Christmas here’. This is tragic on both a personal and political level; it speaks to the immense cruelty of seasonal layoffs by merciless corporate entities who do not care for the lives of those they employ, and individualises this wide-scale issue in the case of a parent who is left trying and failing to give their child the Christmas they deserve.
I would exhort all readers to listen to the entirety of Bridgers’ Christmas EP ‘So Much Wine’ as all of the songs covered, from The Handsome Family’s eponymous track to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘7 O’Clock News / Silent Night’, all capture the bitter-sweet nature of the holiday period for many as issues like fiscal struggles and alcoholism come to the fore.