why christmas music is going to thrive in 2020

Growing up, my mom and I did a lot of holiday shopping together. We would pop from one brightly lit, frenetic department store to another. With gift giving as our love language, my mother and I feel most like ourselves and suspect we were injected with some merry saline solution in our sleep during this time of the year. Yet, every time we would get into the car, warm it up and put on Christmas music to go to our next destination, there was a shift. Whether the radio was playing “The Christmas Shoes” by Newsong or some other seasonal tune, there was a silence in acknowledgement of the sadness of the moment. I’d sneakily glance to look over to see if she was crying yet.

We have all been there; we’ve all soaked in the melancholy and realized that Christmas music is depressing as all hell. The most wonderful time has a playlist that just makes us all want to sob. With COVID-19 surging in the United States and the CDC urging people not to spend the holidays with people outside of one’s immediate household, Christmas music will be sadder and more relevant than ever this year.

Unlike so many other Christmas origins, the tone of the political moment, not capitalism, put depressing Christmas music in our heads. The World War II era birthed some of the most of the sad traditional Christmas songs. Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” (originally written by Irving Berlin in 1940) made its live radio debut seventeen days after Pearl Harbor. The song doesn’t talk about war explicitly; it’s a musical ache for a “normal” Christmas where soldiers aren’t off fighting overseas and there is peace. “White Christmas” is about longing, and this mood will influence future holiday hits.

Transitioning out of wartime and in the decades that follow, that yearning for tradition and comfort in Christmas music would be exuded romantically. Elvis Presley’s croons on his version of “Blue Christmas” (my favorite emo holiday song) that Christmas won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me. The reflection in “Blue Christmas” of past Christmases is where Presley finds what’s making him blue: the lack of the love of that other person he’s going without.  Fast forward to the 1990s, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” echoes the same wanting of another, while veiled in the raccouness of bells and pop synths. Carey is willing to forgo the solace of standard Christmas traditions through the song (I won’t even stay awake to hear those magic reindeer click) because, well, all she wants for Christmas is you. Whether the other person has been a part of Christmases past or is a new lover we suspect will swaddle us with tenderness and warmth,  these songs are a projection of wanting a feeling we don’t currently have leaving us feeling empty and somber.

Today, the sentiment of longing this holiday season could not be more apparent. Comparisons have been made to COVID-19 and wartime. While World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 are very different, the similarities lie in the fear of supply chain production hiccups (ventilators, toilet paper), economic depression, an enemy (beit invisible), and mass deaths. There is an argument to be made that wartime metaphors for today aren’t necessarily helpful, however, a similar wartime dreaming for an experience outside of the current one can be found. In the age of social distancing, our traditions look different this year. We shouldn’t catch a flight across the country to see Grandma in a big family gathering like we’ve traditionally done this time of year. We can’t spend hours in lines at the mall maskless. We can’t mix households inside to open presents without the risk and anxiety of killing someone with a virus.

All we want after nine months into this pandemic  is normalcy, comfort, and love this Christmas. Many of us gave up so much this year and are asked to forgo traditions when we really need it.  It’s not actually wartime and maybe we don’t have a you in mind, but we’re all craving what Christmas music speaks to. Many of us are going to cry a little harder while listening to “White Christmas” and reflect on the people, places and things that we hold dear and have to go without this year. This is another reminder that there is no separation of the moment, music and mind.

Christmas music may be especially heartbreaking this year,  but it’s in the recollection of memories and wishfulness that sad holiday music brings up which enables us to see what we value and take stock of it. I’ll think back on all the shopping my mom and I did and be happy we were able to spend that time together. I’ll be reminded of the people I love making pies for. I’ll be thankful for future holiday seasons when a stranger is touching me as we both reach for  the last eyebrow pencil in Sephora. A little gratitude can’t hurt, right?

Despite how hard and tempting it will be, stay home during this season so you can keep you and your loved ones safe, ensuring you can repeat the traditions next year you long so badly for now. There’s even plenty of music to commiserate in.


This week’s playlist is filled with some of my favorite sad and slightly less sad Christmas music. Find it here.

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