The Most Miserable Time of the Year: Sad Christmas Songs

Christmas is a happy time, right? Okay, I know there are people who immediately groaned when they read that. Some of my friends turn into Ebeneezer Scrooges immediately after Thanksgiving (though I won’t name any names). In general, though, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, a time for televising the umpty-umpth rerun of every Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoon ever animated, for getting drunk on spiked eggnog and mulled wine, and for listening to Christmas music on the radio, your iPod or your favorite streaming music service. And Christmas music must be the happiest music ever written. Right?

Blue Christmas

Elvis may be smiling on this album cover, but it’s a sad smile.

Not necessarily. It took Amy, who being Jewish has a somewhat different perspective on Christmas music than I do, to point out what should have been obvious to me years ago: A lot of modern Christmas songs, maybe more Christmas songs than not, are real downers.

I’m not talking about religious Christmas music, which is mostly about how thrilled the singers are over the birth of their savior. And I’m not counting Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which isn’t really a Christmas song so much as it’s a “bitter-rejection-of-Christmas” song.

When you get into secular Christmas music, though, the landscape starts to change. Sure, songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are so upbeat that they make you want to dance. “The Christmas Waltz” even tells you what dance you’re supposed to dance to it. But a surprising number of pop Christmas songs are about how depressing a time of year this can be, especially if you want to be someplace that you’re not or with somebody you can’t be with.

I don’t know if it was the first depressing Christmas song, but Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” at one time the most popular Christmas song in the Great American Songbook, is definitely a sad song. As the rarely used intro says, “It’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up north.” It’s about a person (probably Irving Berlin himself, stuck in Los Angeles writing songs like “White Christmas” for the movies) having a somber Christmas because it’s not “like the ones [he] used to know.”

During World War II, there were thousands of GIs who wouldn’t be home for Christmas because they had a war to fight in Europe and Japan. The 1943 song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” acknowledged this by painting a picture of a perfect Christmas homecoming — “We’ll have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree” — then blowing it apart with what may be the most heartbreaking punchline of any song from that era: “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

By the 1960s, Elvis Presley was singing about having a “Blue Christmas” (a song actually written in the late 1940s), lamenting that the object of his affections would “be doing all right with [her] Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.” (Three “blues” in a row. Can’t get much bluer than that.) The song was a huge hit and still gets played, in versions by Elvis and dozens of others, every Christmas. And note how it neatly references the Irving Berlin song, not only in its title but in that line about “in your Christmas of white.”

It may have been Karen Carpenter, though, who really started the sad Christmas ball rolling with 1970’s “Merry Christmas, Darling,” a song written by her brother Richard in collaboration with Frank Pooler and not made any happier by the fact that Karen died a much-too-early death a little more than a decade later. It’s a sweet but heartbreaking song about a woman separated from her beloved for unspecified reasons and remains one of the greatest Christmas songs to come out of the 1970s.

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, made relevant only by the fact that we saw David Benoit and his trio perform a tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas there a few nights ago

Dan Fogelberg must have been drinking from the same pain-spiked bowl of eggnog when he wrote and sang 1980’s admittedly rather sappy “Same Old Lang Syne,” a song that’s often played as a New Year’s song, but that takes place on Christmas Eve. In it, the singer meets an old girlfriend who apparently broke his heart long ago and who is now in a loveless marriage with an architect. (Honestly, Dan, I don’t know how you got through the song without gloating — unless the whole song is one big gloat.)

It’s hard to say if Mariah Carey’s 1995 Christmas hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” released again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber, is a happy song or a sad song, given that she leaves us hanging in the end as to whether the person she loves leaves her standing, kissless, under the mistletoe. The uptempo arrangement suggests that this is really a happy Christmas song, but we don’t know for sure. Come on, Mariah. End the suspense and tell us if Mr. Right finally showed up! (Given that formfitting Santa suit you’re wearing on the album cover, I’m guessing he did.) And feel free to give me one of those presents under the tree that you seem so uninterested in. I’m guessing there’s some pretty expensive stuff in there.

Mariah Carey

Yeah, I’m sure the guy never showed up, maybe because her then-husband Tommy Mottola would have had his fingers broken.

When talking about sad Christmas songs, though, there’s one that leaves all the others in the dust (or snow) and you certainly wouldn’t guess it from the song’s name: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s about a family being torn apart from friends and relatives, not to mention having to miss the 1904 World’s Fair, because of their father’s job in New York. Garland sings the song to comfort her little sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, but that didn’t prevent lyricist Hugh Martin (who had written the song many years earlier) from having to change lyrics like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas./It may be your last./Next year we may all be living in the past” to their marginally more cheerful versions in the film. And when Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he asked Martin to “jolly up” the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Ironically, when Judy Garland sang the song to her daughters on television in the 1960s, she sang the Sinatra version rather than the one she had sung in the film.

The truth is, Christmas music is like all other types of pop music. There are sad songs, like the ones we’ve discussed. There are upbeat songs, like “Sleigh Ride.” And there are dance songs, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Christmas may be a happy occasion — although we’ve been told many times that suicides soar around the holidays, says that’s just an urban legend — but the truth is that we’d eventually get sick of hearing nothing but cheerful music.

I say bring on the heartbreak songs, if only because sometimes it brightens your day to learn that someone else’s life is going even worse than yours is.

UPDATE: After I posted the column above, Amy and I discussed some other downbeat Christmas songs. The most obvious was Wham’s 1984 “Last Christmas,” which earns its sadness rather cheaply: The singer apparently had a one-night stand last Christmas and expected it to outlast the holiday. It didn’t. Another Christmas song that could conceivably be seen as a downer is “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” a much-covered Amy Grant hit from 1990. Although the song is hopeful — it’s about an adult who asks Santa Claus to cure everything that’s wrong with the world — it requires the singer to list all of those things and that’s the downer part. “What,” the singer asks, “is this illusion called the innocence of youth? Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth.” Upper or downer? Your call.

My vote for most suicide-inducing Christmas song of all time, though, goes to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which has lyrics taken from an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Christmas Bells.” Depressed by the death of his wife and the even more recent death of his son in the American Civil War, the poet wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I suppose Longfellow was trying to find hope and meaning in the tragedies he had been through, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t believe a word of it. If “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is about a family falling apart, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is about a world falling apart. It makes “Merry Christmas, Darling,” where the missing lover is at least alive and presumably coming back some day soon, sound positively cheerful.

Have Yourself a Haunted Little Christmas

Disneyland loves holidays. They commemorate the major ones by, at the very least, sprinkling decorations along Main Street USA. Halloween gets pumpkins and skeletons. And for Christmas there are colored lights on almost everything, sometimes covering an attraction completely. (See Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, below.) A few attractions receive a full Christmas overlay, which is more than just colored lights on the outside. In my last post, I talked about the Christmas overlays for the Jingle (usually Jungle) Cruise, It’s a Small World, and the World of Color. But there’s one attraction where Disney installs an overlay in September that stays in place right through Christmas: the Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion

“Ho Ho Arrrggh!”

The Haunted Mansion gets an overlay based on the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. Because the movie is about both Halloween and Christmas, so is the overlay, mixing scary (and somewhat silly) monsters with Christmas ornaments. All of this is on top of the Haunted Mansion’s usual array of blood-curdling screams, tricky elevators and holographic ghosts.

A haunted ballroom

A haunted ballroom decorated with Christmas ornaments

The best way to get into the Haunted Mansion is to get a FastPass. FastPasses can be purchased by sliding your Disney Passports into a small machine an hour or more before you plan to visit an attraction, in return for which you get these small tickets:

Haunted Mansion Fastpasses

FastPass tickets for the Haunted Mansion attraction

This tells us that our passes are for the Haunted Mansion and can be used between 2:05 and 3:05 p.m. (Your times may vary.) It used to be that Disney was relaxed about the length of the time window you had for using the passes. Alas, they claim to be cracking down. For instance, we couldn’t have used those Fastpasses later than 3:05, though there was a time when you could have. (It was never possible to use the passes earlier than the time stamped on them.) During the magic hour within which the pass is active, you can skip the often lengthy Mansion lines and leap ahead of most of the crowd, getting into the ride in five or ten minutes. If you’ve ever stood in the line for a popular Disneyland ride, you know what a time savings like that is worth.

Once inside the Haunted Mansion, you find yourself in a foyer that turns out to be an elevator, with pictures on the walls and roof that turn into more and more terrifying forms as the elevator goes down.

The Haunted Elevator

Beautiful Christmas images in the Mansion’s elevator entrance…

Monsters in the elevator

…transform into monsters as the elevator descends.

Once you get downstairs, you wind through hallways that lead to the moving cars that carry you through the mansion. And, on the wall, you see images relating to the movie:

Scenes from the Nightmare Before Christmas

Pictures of everything from an innocent snowman to Jack the Pumpkin King playing Santy Claws

Most of what’s fun about the Haunted Mansion are the animatronic horrors you see along your ride and the haunted ballroom filled with holographic ghosts that you can view from the rafters above. Here are some of the photos that Amy and I took on our last visit:

A tentacle with pumpkins?

Is that a tentacle covered with jack o’lanterns or a giant wizard’s hat?

Halloween at Christmas

The town of Halloween discovers Christmas.

Christmas list

Santy’s naughty-or-nice list

Jack as Santy

Jack the Pumpkin King disguised as Santy Claws

Angel skeletons

“Angel skeletons we have heard on high!”

After the ride, we dined at the Pizza Port restaurant in Tomorrowland, then went back to Main Street and watched the park’s imagineers light the Sleeping Beauty Castle, gateway to Fantasyland:

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle with Christmas lights turned on

We did some other things, like visit Crush the turtle (from Finding Nemo) and draw pictures of characters from Disney cartoons at the Animation Academy in California Adventure, but I’ll devote entire blog posts to those things later on in our second Year of Living Disney. By then, Christmas will probably be over, though Disneyland Resort will continue its holiday celebration right up through January 6, when we may go back to get one last glimpse of the Christmas overlays before they go away. We’ll see.

Another Year of Living Disney

How you feel about Disney — the corporation, their movies, their parks — is a litmus test for something, but damned if I know what. One thing it’s surely a litmus test for is how close you’re paying attention. The parks and the feature-length animations have gone through dramatic ups and downs over the years, under Walt Disney himself, during the Jeffrey Katzenberg renaissance, under later budget-cutting management and now under the creative auspices of Pixar founder John Lassetter, who has at least for the present stabilized the company’s heart and soul and put them in a very good place.

In the Lassetter era, Amy and I have come to love most things Disney. Three years ago, we had SoCal annual passes to Disneyland, which is about 40 minutes away from us in Anaheim. I wrote a blog about it when it was over and promised to write more, but I never got around to it. I want to keep that promise now and write about some of our most interesting experiences at the park as they happen, before they fade into the vasty nothingness of my memory and become all bibbledy. (That was a paraphrase from Kaylee in Serenity, in case you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard it before.) We activated the passes on December 5, 2014, which means they’ll be active through December 5, 2015 (they throw in the 366th day as a bonus), and will get to see two Christmas seasons at Disneyland. And if you can’t get into the Christmas spirit at Disneyland, you’re due to be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Prepare accordingly.

Christmas in Disneyland

The most wonderful time of the year at the happiest place on earth

(My apologies to those who don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m an atheist and I’m already planning how to decorate the tree. I consider it an open season for happiness, love and lots of pretty lights. Then again, I don’t even mind when they start playing Christmas songs before Halloween.)

Our friends George and Greg were visiting from out of town, so we had a busy day planned. I expected to conk out somewhere during what became nearly a 12-hour visit, but at some point the Christmas spirit, the Disney spirit and sheer adrenaline kicked in. I haven’t had a better time in years.

To get an annual pass, you first have to register for one, then get it validated at the park. I’ve had the registration on my bulletin board for months:

Pass Voucher with Mr. Incredible

Mr. Incredible says: Give these guys their annual pass or…or I’ll do something incredible.

Disneyland is nothing if not efficient. After a short bus ride from the Toy Story parking lot (the easiest-to-use parking lot on Earth), you go to a booth and swap the voucher for a card:

Disneyland Annual Passcard

Donald, Mickey and Goofy in handy wallet size

What I’m calling Disneyland is technically Disneyland Resort, which consists of two parks (Disneyland and California Adventure), plus the Downtown Disney restaurant and shopping district, as well as several hotels. We headed for Disneyland first:

Train around Disneyland

The circumferential railroad over the entrance to Disneyland

where they waste no time in letting you know that this entrance is to Disneyland what the wardrobe was to Narnia:

Sign on Disneyland entrance

Abandon hope all ye…wait, that’s a different sign.

It being our first time back at Disneyland in a while, we took it easy on hitting the rides, just walking around looking at the sights. (It was also a Friday, when we usually don’t tend to go because of the line lengths.) We did, however, go on a few, the first of which was the Jingle Cruise, which is normally the Jungle Cruise but decorated with what the park calls a holiday overlay. It’s a far less elaborate holiday overlay than the ones for It’s a Small World and The Haunted Mansion:

Elephant decorated for Christmas

“Jingle tusks, jingle tusks!”

The overlay also meant that we got some new holiday jokes from the aspiring stand-up comics that Disney hires to serve as tour guides on the jungle, er, jingle boats. (To see what the Jungle Cruise looks like during the non-holiday season, check out my YouTube video from 2012. You’re welcome.)

I had plenty of time to make myself sick on the irresistible pastries sold in store after store on Main Street USA:

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&M: Motion sickness waiting to happen

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&Ms: Motion sickness waiting to happen

We also checked out several gift shops for potential Christmas presents. The gift shops, actually, are a wonder in themselves. There are dozens of them and every one seems to have a completely different line of t-shirts, plush animals and trinkets, obviously providing enough work for half the population of China, where most of them seem to be made. This includes the department-store-sized gift shop in Downtown Disney:

The World of Disney Gift Shop

The World of Disney gift shop in Downtown Disney

The World of Disney gift shop is vast and practically a park in itself:

Gift shop interior

Inside the gift shop park

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We met George and Greg at the Carthay Circle Restaurant in the relatively new Carthay Circle theater in California Adventure, a replica of the theater where Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, opened in 1937, thus launching an era of movie animation that continues till this day. The restaurant itself is an elegant and old-fashioned luxury establishment where we had our own private dining nook:

Carthay Circle Restaurant

Our friends George and Greg dining with us in the Carthay Circle restaurant

Afterwards we went back to Disneyland and took the Disneyland Railroad around to It’s a Small World, a much-derided attraction that becomes spectacular at Christmas:

It's a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights this time of year

It’s a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights for the holidays.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

It's pretty spectacular on the inside too.

It’s pretty spectacular on the inside too.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas overlay for It’s a Small World:

From It’s a Small World it was just a few feet to the viewing area for the Disneyland Christmas Fantasy Parade.

The Frozen float at the parade.

Frozen, Disney’s biggest cash reindeer in years, was well represented at the parade.

Woody in the Christmas Parade

Woody dashing through the snow

Santa in the Christmas Parade

Santa Claus is coming to town — and bringing the North Pole with him.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas Fantasy Parade:

It’s had 145,000 hits so far, making it far and away my best-viewed video. Apologies for the blurriness at the beginning, but it goes away quickly.) Here are some shots of this year’s parade:

We had a break before our next big event — more about that in a minute — so we caught the Disneyland Railroad into the prehistoric past, where the dinosaurs from the 1964 New York World’s Fair still roam:

At the end of the line (and back in the 21st Century), we cut through Downtown Disney to the Grand Californian hotel, where George and Greg were staying. We collapsed for a while in the lobby and looked at the Christmas decor:

Christmas tree in the Grand Californian lobby

The Grand Californian lobby, complete with humongous Christmas tree

which included a giant gingerbread house, recipe included:

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

We weren’t the only ones who needed a break. Santa headed for the Grand Californian lobby too, but those darned kids kept bothering him:

Santa at the Grand Californian

Santa trying to take a break at the Grand Californian

Finally, we added the pièce de résistance (yes, that was a direct cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) to the evening by watching what I consider Disneyland’s single greatest attraction: the World of Color. Named for the Disney television show from the early 1960s, the World of Color is to other water shows what the Starship Enterprise is to a frisbee. Somehow the Disney imagineers make colored fountains of water dance in choreographed patterns as they project animated images onto them. Combined with sounds, projections on the roller coaster in the background and occasional gouts of fire, this results in one of those experiences that can only be fully appreciated in person, but I’ll do my best to convey it to you in words and images.

Since this was the holiday version of World of Color and Frozen has been such a monster hit for Disney, it was hosted by Olaf the Snowman, who I fully expect to replace Mickey Mouse as the iconic symbol for the entire corporation. (Maybe then they’ll stop fighting to get copyright extensions on old cartoons.) The character images have a kind of three-dimensional appearance when projected on water and they photograph rather blurrily, but here’s Olaf in all his fuzzy wet glory:

Olaf in World of Color

Olaf the snowman in World of Color

And here are his friends Anna and Elsa plotting to build him:

Anna and Elsa build Olaf

Do you wanna build a snowman?

One of the reasons it’s difficult to represent World of Color in pictures is that it’s hard to convey the sheer, soaring magnitude of it, but look at this photo:

The World of Color fountains

The World of Color fountains erupt over the crowd.

See that image of Mickey Mouse in the background? That’s on a ferris wheel — and it’s HUGE. Yet the World of Color fountains dwarf it. And this isn’t even as high as they go.

By the way, the World of Color holiday show doesn’t just honor Christians (and Christmas-loving atheists like me):

World of Color honors dreidels

“I have a little dreidel…” (They play Feliz Navidad too.)

All amazing things must end. World of Color plays the crowd out with bowing fountains and a holiday farewell:

Happy Holidays from World of Color

Happy Holidays from World of Color!

Here’s my video of the 2011 version:

The images were quite different then, though it’s not hard to find a video of the current World of Color on YouTube:

And that’s it. It was nearly 11 p.m. and the first day of our new annual pass had come to an end. We said goodbye to George and Greg, drove home listening to Christmas playlists on Spotify, greeted our two cats and collapsed.

But our second Year of Living Disney is just beginning. More to come.