Everybody loves Christmas… well, not everybody, at least not every year. Sad Christmas songs are a staple of the season and can be a nice break from the saccharine drone of “White Christmas” over the mall speakers. (Yes, “White Christmas” is a good song, but come on already.)
We’ve put together a list of 12 (get it?) downer X-mas tunes that are certainly guilty of being a little maudlin in their own way, but still make for a solid change of pace. This is by no means a “best of” list, because if it were, it would be led off by Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” and Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas.” (We like The Eagles well enough, but stop playing their crap cover of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” consumer outlets across the USA. Thanks.)
We also did not include a number of songs, such as The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” because they are really a little more political than sad. And the one thing James Brown can’t do is make you sad — it all just comes out funky.
So, without further ado, here are 12 songs (in no particular order) to make your days a little less merry and bright.
“Little Bobby stares down at the plate where cookies still lay.”
One of the few real Country artists left digs deep into the fertile grounds of divorce, alcoholism, and actually dressing up in creepy suits for this legacy to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The rockabilly beat, overlaid bells, and cleverly dark lyrics make for a highly listenable downer. Best purchased on Yoakam’s Come on Christmas (1997).
“‘Yeah,’ he snarled, ‘All the pushers are up on the Knob someplace. What they care about anybody else?’”
From the spoken word / studio trick classic Spare Ass Annie, this is Burroughs at his deranged best / worst for about 16 minutes as he reads the tale of Danny the Carwhipper, shambling around NYC looking for a holiday fix. Along the way, he steals a suitcase in which he finds a woman’s severed legs — Christmasey stuff. The track also was made into an animated short presented by Francis Ford Coppola.
“He was my lovin’ baby, and I love him oh so strong. Oh Mr. Santa Claus, his arms are where I belong.”
This uptempo Count Basie number probably won’t bring you down, but it’s an excuse to listen to an Ella Fitzgerald sing, so it’s like a Christmas present to yourself. Go ahead, you deserve a little xylophone this season. From her amazing Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, which has the added cool factor of a psychedelic unicorn on the cover.
“Just like the air at Chistmas, there’ll be a chill upon the cheer.”
If Loretta Lynn is singing it, it’s going to hit you in the gut. A family is missing their dad, who is far away for some undisclosed reason. Does it really matter at Christmas? Best purchased on a remastered collection of Lynn’s great Christmas hits, including “To Heck with Ole Santa Claus.”
“Hands ‘round this table full of lies, I feel you standing on some other’s side.”
Released as part of an otherwise forgettable Acoustic Christmas collection in 1989, this is one of the most haunting and lovely Christmas songs ever recorded. It has that rare quality of expecting the listener to actually listen to the lyrics — otherwise, you can be mislead by Caroline Crawley’s gorgeous voice, which is not so bad.
“This lonely house don’t need no mistletoe, ‘cause I‘m the only one that comes and goes.”
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this song, other than the fact that one of the great ladies of Country sings it. Kitty Wells could make you break down over “Surfin’ USA.” Her man is gone, and that ain’t good. Available on a collection of holiday standards to help lighten the mood — just a little.
“I know you look lovely standing beneath the mistletoe. And I’d love to put my arms about you, tell you where I long to go.”
This one is pretty much straight electric Blues, and it’s darn good. As with most songs on this list, the lyrics here reflect pining for the special someone. But like most great Blues songs, it’s not whiny — Son is just telling you how it is. You can get this track on the spotty, but overall worthwhile, Alligator Records Christmas Collection from 1992.
“I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.”
Honestly, Waits tries a little hard on this piano bar number, but then that’s Tom Waits for you. Things are looking up, but not so much, for a hard-luck woman writing to her lost (what else?) jazz musician boyfriend at the holidays. From early in his career, this track is best purchased on the Used Songs (1973-1980) compilation covering that era.
“It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good. We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood.”
From Prine’s Sweet Revenge (1973), this takes the “missing you” theme to the limit, as a prisoner pines for his girl who “flows in his veins.” Prine is one of the best lyricists of modern American music, and his raspy voice is a perfect match for his darkly charming storytelling, as always.
“Soon it will be time for Santa Clau-a-u-a-us, and surely he will bring you back becau-a-u-a-se …”
Miss “Jingle Bell Rock” was a holiday album machine, but she really had only one gear. The weird juxtaposition of strings and Supremes-grade background harmonizing made this 1964 rockabilly number about a missing beau just odd, in addition to a little sad. Which is how it feels to be sad at the holidays. (For an added veneer of unease, check out the Blackstone Valley Sinners’ version from their 1993 holiday album.)
“I’m sorry I’m crying, but my brother Jim’s dying.”
From his very religious The Christmas Spirit (1963), Cash does here what he does better than anyone — takes the morbid and finds some light at the end of the tunnel. A clergyman finds a little girl ringing the church bells for her brother, who is dying during the Christmas holiday. Even though there is a happy ending, that’s not what you will remember.
“It’s not the darkest night that I spent alone. Not the only one that I will ever see.”
Another Christmas breakup song, but an exceptional one, primarily because it doesn’t dwell entirely on the holiday as a source of misery. The refrain “Christmas means little me” sums it up pretty well, and the wilting instrumentals and vocals still impart a sense of determination. Available on the very good Just Say Noel collection of cool kid bands from 1996.
And now, if we’ve got you feeling a little down, go check out this YouTube video of kids dancing to Syd Straw’s incredible “The Christmas Twist.” See, we’re not totally Grinched out.