Christmas is one of the most joyful times of the year, as families and friends gather together to eat, drink and be merry. Given the traditional association of the holiday with fun and laughter, it is not surprising that most Christmas songs focus on the light side of the season, but not all of them.
There are some festive tunes that dwell on the black side, from depression to unemployment. So switch on your Christmas lights, because we think you will need them to banish the darkness that these songs bring.
10 East 17 – ‘Stay Another Day’
During the 1990s East 17 were one of the UK’s two big boy bands alongside Take That. Their image was of the hipper and more streetwise of the two, but their biggest hit was a typical boy band ballad that dominated the UK charts at Christmas 1994. On the surface, ‘Stay Another Day’ seems to be just another sad song pleading with a girl not to leave. That is certainly not cheery, but there have been lots of popular festive songs about romantic love.
The real story behind ‘Stay Another Day’ is a whole lot darker than that though. It was composed by band member Tony Mortimer and, far from being about a random girl, was actually inspired by the suicide of his brother. Mortimer kept the words vague enough for people to interpret it in their own way, but opened up about its real meaning 25 years after it topped the UK Christmas charts. It is impossible to say whether it would have affected the success of the song at the time had people known about its very non-festive inspiration, but it makes the video with the band members trying to look mean while wearing fluffy white winter coats seem stranger now.
9 De La Soul – ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’
The title of this 1991 tune by ‘daisy age’ rappers De La Soul might seem like an extreme reaction to getting socks again for Christmas, but it is actually a jolly tale of child abuse and murder! Taken from the album called ‘De La Soul is Dead’ (clearly they were in a happy place that year) it tells the tale of Millie and her father Dillon, who is considered by everyone to be an upstanding man through his job as a social worker.
However, behind his family man image Dillon is a violent man who beats his daughter and forces her to take part in “the touchy-touchy game”. The lyrics cleverly switch between what is really happening and the public perception of Dillon, before Millie decides to get hold of a gun and end the abuse by shooting her father. She opts to do this while he is playing the role of Santa at a local department store and the words depict Dillon begging for mercy that he does not get. The song killed off the ‘hippy rappers’ image that the band had been saddled with since ‘3 Feet High and Rising’, but for some reason it rarely features on those television lists of favorite festive tunes.
8 Merle Haggard – ‘If We Make it Through December’
Country music has always been fond of a tear jerker and, as blue collar music, often deals with the troubled lives of people trying to make ends meet. Not many of its songs combine those themes with Christmas though, which is where ‘If We Make it Through December’ by Merle Haggard stands out. The plain speaking but effective lyrics tell the story of a man with a wife and child who has lost his factory job in the run up to Christmas and cannot afford to make the season as happy for his family as he wants to.
Although this will connect with anyone who is struggling financially during a period that is very expensive for all of us, the song is not totally without hope. The main character talks about his family pulling together to get through the cold month of December so that that they can look forward to a brighter time next year in lines like: “If we make it through December/ Everything’s gonna be all right, I know”. This combination of pain and hope is what gives country music its power for many people, and makes this song particularly relevant in 2020 – even if there is no mention of a plague!
7 Bing Crosby – ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’
Originally sung by crooner Crosby, this song has become a Christmas staple, but it has a tinge of sadness that makes it stand out from other festive favorites. Crosby recorded the song during 1943, at the height of World War Two, and it is sung from the point of view of a US soldier stationed overseas who is writing to his family to let them know he will be coming back for Christmas.
So far, so heartwarming, but the final lines of the song change everything. After talking about all of the things he wants to see when he arrives home – from mistletoe to gifts under the Christmas tree – the soldier adds: “I’ll be home for Christmas/ If only in my dreams.” Thus the song is actually about someone longing to be with his loved ones but knowing he almost certainly will not be. Unsurprisingly this really spoke to people during the war, but it has continued to do so ever since, as we are often separated from our families at Christmas. The feelings of loneliness and yearning that it creates are so powerful that the BBC actually banned it at the time, out of fear that it would sap morale! The wartime background also adds another layer of darkness, as those fighting in conflicts abroad know that there is a chance that they will never be going home.
6 LCD Soundsystem – ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’
Of all the artists releasing sad songs during what is supposed to be one of the happiest times of the year, LCD Soundsystem take the cake in that they actually reformed after five years just so they could do it! The dance-rockers split in 2011 and spent several years afterwards dismissing any suggestion that they would ever reform. Then along came Christmas 2015 and suddenly they decided that what we all needed was a lament about festive isolation and despair. Apparently, singer James Murphy had the song in his head for eight years, but instead of getting therapy, he decided to release it as a single.
‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’ is full of such ho, ho, ho sentiments as “Christmas will break your heart/ like the armies of the unrelenting dark”, with Murphy describing it upon release as “depressing” (no kidding). He even joked that the lyrics had been trimmed back from their original 75 lines to avoid too many suicides! The eight remaining ones may still be a bit too much for most people after what we have been through in 2020 though, so this one is probably best avoided unless you have a sizeable stash of Prozac.
5 Band Aid – ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
We are probably being a bit unfair in including this one, as no one wants a cheery lyric about famine and death, but the words of this charity song somehow manage to be clumsy and unsettling at the same time. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was written by Boomtown Rats front man Bob Geldof and Ultravox singer Midge Ure to raise money and awareness of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, and features a roll call of the hottest pop stars in the UK at the time.
There is a lot that is embarrassing about the song – the title for one thing as around 45% of Africa is Christian and thus does know when it is Christmas – as well as lines about Christmas bells being “clanging chimes of doom”, but it does have a strange power despite that. The dark peak of the song comes early on, when Bono sings the famous line: “Tonight thank God it’s them/ instead of you” which was controversial at the time, but is a genuinely disturbing reminder to us of just how fortunate we are and how grateful we should be.
4 The Fall – ‘No Christmas for John Quays’
At first this might sound like it is a protest song for some unfortunate called John Quays who is stuck in prison or enduring some other horror, but things are never what they seem with The Fall. The Manchester band that was formed by true original Mark E. Smith during the mid-1970s produced songs full of fragmented lyrics inspired by the Vorticist art movement as well as writers like William Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and all that is reflected in ‘No Christmas for John Quays’.
Taken from their 1979 debut album ‘Live at the Witch Trials’, the title is a pun on the word ‘junkies’, with the lyrics talking about how the “powders reach you” and describing an addict who is “out of his face with the idle race” and does not even realize that it is Christmas because every day is exactly the same for drug addicts. Some might say that this is a bit like listening to records by The Fall, but we will not do so.
3 Nat King Cole – ‘The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot’
This weepy song was originally sung by the British ‘Forces Sweetheart’ Vera Lynn back in 1937, but it is the Nat King Cole version that has become more famous. The tale it tells of a child with no father who sends a letter to Santa asking for a drum and some toy soldiers for Christmas is like a Charles Dickens story – only without the redemptive happy ending that Dickens would have given us.
There is absolutely no festive cheer for the boy in this song as he wakes up on Christmas morning to find zero presents. He has to play with his old broken toys while all the other children are opening their gifts and is left wondering why Santa has abandoned him just like his father did. Despite being incredibly grim the song was a huge hit for both Lynn and Cole and has stayed popular ever since among people who prefer to spend Christmas sobbing rather than scoffing.
2 Judy Garland – ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’
The title of this song may make it sound like a typically jolly yuletide tune, but the melancholy melody is our first indication that things are a bit more complicated than that. The composers Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin stated during an interview in 1989 that the tune was inspired by Spanish madrigals, but it is the lyrics that really tell us that this beloved song is a sad one.
Written for the movie ‘Meet Me in St Louis’, the song features in a scene where the Judy Garland character consoles her younger sister over their upcoming move away to New York. Garland thought some of the original words – such as “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past” were too dark and demanded a rewrite. Given that the song and movie were created during World War Two, they start to seem even more morbid. The lyric that eventually got recorded combines more hopeful sentiments with a melody that suggests those hopes might not come true. That was still too much for Frank Sinatra though, who had them revised again before recording it in the 1950s.
1 John Denver – ‘Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)’
John Denver might be remembered by most of us as a happy go lucky country boy, but he also recorded a country Christmas song as gritty as anything the likes of Merle Haggard could manage. This song is written from the point of view of a young boy pleading with his alcoholic father not to get wasted over the festive season as “I don’t wanna see my mommy cry.”
The lyrics go on to recount a previous Christmas when he found his dad passed out under the tree. On the one hand it is pretty tough to listen to and on the other it comes across as almost a parody of a maudlin country tune – a bit like ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ by Billy Connolly but with less obvious laughs. Denver was deadly serious though and this tale of alcohol abuse and child neglect will certainly put a chill in your Christmas cheer if you steel yourself to listen to it.