When I was little, I was pretty familiar with every single children's book that our local library offered. And every year, starting around August, I repeatedly checked out "The Book of Christmas." It was from a Time-Life series (remember those?) about the supernatural world, and it was filled with stories of trolls and ghosts and talking animals. It was about the dark of winter, and how Christmas represents hope for light in the darkness.
When I told people that this was one of my favorites, saying, "It's about the dark parts of Christmas," they would cock their heads and say, "Christmas has a dark side?" And they'd laugh.
But at a very young age, I understood that Christmas isn't all "Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, mistletoe and presents to pretty girls" as Lucy van Pelt put it.
Or, as Todd van der Werff (my pop culture soulmate and critic at the AV Club) put it:
...there's a kind of melancholy that bubbles up around the holidays, a melancholy that unites all of the greatest Christmas stories, from A Charlie Brown Christmas to It's a Wonderful Life to A Christmas Carol. I realize this is such a snobby thing to say, but the people who think Christmas is about unalloyed joy, about smiling until you're gritting your teeth, I don't think they GET IT, not really. Christmas is about another year coming to a close and drawing the people you love closer to you because you don't know what you'd be without them. It's about what you don't have as much as what you do have, about the realization that loneliness is the flip-side of love and happiness only comes easily after you've been through some pain. To me, Christmas and New Year's are all wrapped up in sadness and melancholy and loneliness, and that's what makes the happiness feel that much more earned, that much more essential.
And so I offer four songs that "get it."
"Fairytale of New York," by the Pogues with Kirsty McColl
For many folks, this is the ultimate Christmas song. There are many others who have no idea why any Christmas song would include the words, "You're an old slut on junk." But this is the magic of Christmas... you might be in the drunk tank. But a new year is still right around the corner.
"Christmas Day," by Dido
This story song, like many a Dido ditty, begins with a sweetness, and finishes with devastation.
"I Remember," from Evening Primrose, sung by Theresa McCarthey
In 1966, a teleplay called Evening Primrose aired. The composer for the songs was a young Stephen Sondheim. The play aired only once, and only Sondheim fans know of it - it aired in color, but the color masters have been lost. However, one of the songs "I Remember" (sung, in the play, by a young woman who has been living in a department store for years... don't ask) is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. There are few good recordings of it (Barbra Streisand did it on one of her Christmas albums, but I don't like that version). The one below is my favorite. I love the tune, but the lyrics are true standouts. "And ice, like vinyl, on the streets" is one of my favorite lines. The song reminds me of a lost New York winter, like those described in Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, and the sadness of it's final lines ("and at times I think/I would gladly die/for one day of sky") never seems to lessen for me.
"Calling and Not Calling My Ex" by Okkervil River
Your ex might not be a superstar, but everyone can relate to wondering if you should call old friends or exes over the holidays.