Holiday Music Out of Key: When Songs Become Sad

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

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My Christmas season starts with a quiet tradition; it’s one I picked up from my mother although it was never officially passed down. It doesn’t commence after devouring my last piece of Thanksgiving pie or walking through the doors of Target at midnight on Black Friday; it starts when I get out my tattered copy of The Big Book of Christmas Songs and sit down at the piano and play from Angels We Have Heard on High to Silent Night and every carol in between.

This piano book is my favorite to play; partly because I’m not all that good and most of the songs are so familiar I can fake my way through. But mostly because playing the piano soothes me and allows me to reflect on the past, present, and future: Christmas songs, which are ingrained with nostalgia and memory, are especially prone to send me back to a time when my heart truly seemed light.

have yourself a merry little christmas lyrics

‘The first Noel the angels did say..,’ and I’m standing in our church one December morning. My family is spread out over two pews, singing the hymn's harmonies just a bit too loud. My overly concerned and self-aware family is cautious to never do anything that might be considered showy or obnoxious, except where a harmony line is involved.

‘Away in a manger no crib for a bed...,’ and I’m listening to the timid and slightly off-pitch crooning of a child’s Christmas pageant. My mother, the director of the children's choir, is sitting in front of the singers mouthing the words as a sea of charmed parents sit behind her smiling lovingly.

‘There’s a song in the air! There’s a star in the sky!’ and I’m surrounded by my mother and her teary-eyed siblings as they sing their deceased mother’s favorite Christmas song. I’m unsure of the words or why my aunts and uncles are sad, but I know the moment is important.

Silent night, holy night..,' and I’m choking my way through the song's familiar words at our church candlelight service the year we found out my mother was sick. Fast forward a year and I'm singing with my family in a dim room around a brightly lit Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, each of us wondering how the absence of someone could be felt so fully.

I had a hard time with Christmas songs in the year or two after my mother died. A few notes of Judy Garland's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or Bing Crosby's Silent Night and I was done; a grief side-effect that hardly seemed fair because these were the songs closest to my heart.  

Sometimes the only way I can conceptualize the holidays in a year or two after the death of a loved one is to think of it like a film negative: Everything is opposite. Happy is sad. Where we're used to being filled up with the love and warmth of the holidays, we're now filled with a well of sadness that bubbles over and erupts into tears at the most unexpected and inconvenient of times.

When you're grieving, small yet tender reminders like I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas and Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah can shock you and rub you where you're already raw. As if death hasn't stolen enough from you already, it greedily takes your ability to enjoy a song you've loved for years... and sadly I don't have anything constructive to offer about this other than to say, I understand.

I see you paralyzed in the middle of your shopping because 'O Holy Night' has begun playing over the stereo. I see you crying in the church because you've just turned to this morning's hymns and realized it's 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'.  I see you looking sullen at the office holiday party because 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' is playing. I get it. Actually, a lot of people get it. You aren't alone.

In the 8 years since my mother's death, these songs have recovered many of their positive qualities... but catch me on a wrong day and they still have the potential to grip my heart and bring me to tears. Except, years later the tears are a mix of happy and sad emotion; they are happy with a twist. My hope is that at the very least you will someday feel this melancholy fondness (if you don't already) and as the song goes, until then you'll, "…have to muddle through somehow."

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14 Comments on "Holiday Music Out of Key: When Songs Become Sad"

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  1. Mary  December 9, 2019 at 10:06 am Reply

    Thank you for this post and for the comments. This is my first Christmas since my spouse , who loved Christmas, died. I love Christmas music, and when I hear my spouses favorite carols, I cry from both joy and sorrow at the same time. I sang with my chorus at our local tree lighting event, and I just stopped and cried during O Little Town of Bethlehem. That’s how it is this year. I keep plenty of Kleenex and water with me, knowing tears and waves of grief are the price of a great love.

  2. Tammy Rider  December 4, 2019 at 6:34 pm Reply

    I have found comfort in singing this year, as music was so important to both my mom and my dad. My mom raised me single handedly, but I saw my dad regularly throughout my life, and respected them for the way they never let their divorce get in the way of my love for both. My dad died two years ago, and my mom just a year ago November 14th. But I’m finding Christmas songs to be really difficult this year — perhaps I was just in shock yet last year. I sing with a group that entertains patients and families at the Mayo Clinic once a week, and I don’t know if I can handle doing the Christmas songs without crying. I may have to sit this one out.

  3. Robert Toth  December 3, 2019 at 11:50 pm Reply

    I lost my wife Claudia to stage 4 colon cancer June 26th 2019. It’s to painful to bear!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Cam  February 21, 2019 at 11:32 pm Reply

    Just before Christmas my friend and neighbor that I’ve known my entire life was killed, along with her mother very tragically. My school held a candlelight vigil and the choir sang silent night. Now I can’t listen to that song without crying. Same with Christmas Eve service. I went in, and it got to the part where the church choir sings silent night while everyone holds candles. I wasn’t in a chruch,then. I was standing on school bleachers in the bitter cold, with my friend, family, and tons of other people, with news cameras documenting the whole thing. Catching people trying to light candles and then getting blown out by the cold wind, and hearing the girls singing break down. I wasn’t thinking about Christmas, I was thinking about an entire community mourning the loss of a 12 year old girl

  5. Gillian Wen  December 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm Reply

    There are many songs that I can no longer enjoy, sing or even listen to. My Mum died 2 years ago and it is just too painful. Hopefully one day I will be able to enjoy them again and smile at the memories they envoke. But not yet.

  6. Karen Marez  December 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm Reply

    My mom and music have gone together since my very first memories of her. Music provided us some of the best moments in her last year battling Alzheimer’s disease. So many things her brain wouldn’t recall, including many normal physical functions that many people don’t think about, and yet somehow the music stayed with her the longest. Grief with Alzheimer’s comes before your loved one dies, so when you find moments of grace and joy you cherish them and try to make as many as you can. Though Mom couldn’t recall how to do some of the most basic daily functions like how to use a toothbrush or go to the bathroom, she was able to play the piano—some by heart and some reading sheet music—for several months while in the later stage of the disease. When she suffered a stroke, we surrounded her with music as much as possible knowing it ministered to her soul even if she didn’t seem to be “awake” and intellectually aware of it. The only (half) smile we ever got after the stroke was when my dad serenaded her with “Moon River” while we were at the hospital. One time when she seemed to be sleeping, I caught her good hand playing the keys to the piano part of a classical song that we were listening to at the time. When I asked her if that was what she was doing, she moved her fingers in a joyous flourish as if answering yes. Whenever my daughter visited her grandma in the last weeks of her life, even though it was early October, she would bring her laptop and play Christmas music she had downloaded and Mom always opened her eyes for a bit. My daughter wanted to make sure her grandma had one more chance to hear her favorite songs. Now that Mom has passed, we feel we honor her love by engaging in and surrounding us with music constantly but it sure seems hardest during the holidays. The funeral home that helped with Mom’s service holds a special remembrance service every year at the start of December for any families who’ve lost loved ones that year or years past, and we went to it for the second time this year. Being surrounded by others who understand grief somehow brings a supportive bolster to entering the holiday season. I can’t get through Silent Night in that service as that was the song that we always sang during the candlelight service as long as I can remember and Mom would always smile at me at the end of each verse, but somehow I made it through the song at church on our first Christmas Eve without her last year. I don’t know how well I will do this year. Last year we seemed to hit a numb zone and we were able to “muddle through somehow” but this second year feels much more overwhelming. I am spending as much time with my dad as I sense it is the same for him. They were married for over 57 years. She passed 6 days before their 58th anniversary which is the day he insisted we have her service. Her bridal portrait hangs beside him in his spot in the kitchen, placed there by him the day we had to move her into her memory care facility. I guess we’ll just embrace the holidays with the unconditional love that was such a huge part of their lives and we’ll not only muddle through but we’ll love each other through it. this grief road is quite a journey. Grace and peace to all who travel it.

    • Eleanor  December 21, 2015 at 9:31 am Reply


      Thank you so much for your comment. I have to admit, it brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful that your mother still had her music – the music that connected you in the past could still connect you even in the fog of her illness and now continues to connect you with her memory and with your family members in your grief. I think your sentiment, that you can to love one another through grief and the holidays, is just so wise.


  7. Joanie Ruppel  December 1, 2015 at 9:23 am Reply

    Exactly how I feel about music at this time of year. It’s good to know someone understands how music works in our sometimes fragile souls. Thank you.

  8. Teresa Bruce  December 3, 2014 at 9:18 am Reply

    Eleanor, thank you for sharing this. Some people assume that once “the first” holiday season passes after a death, bereaved family members no longer mourn their way through subsequent holidays. Music has a special way of connecting emotion, memory, and tradition. This was the first year I could bring myself to join a Christmas choir since my husband’s death in 2010, and as much I’ve loved being able to sing beloved songs again, it hasn’t been easy.

    • Linda Rubano  December 3, 2014 at 11:43 am Reply

      I wish I could listen to music but it’s too painful for me. My relationship with the man I loved is very complicated and although he wasn’t my husband I have loved him for 50 years. His death is slowly destroying me. Music makes it worse so I don’t listen any more.

  9. Linda Rubano  December 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm Reply

    Music was an integral part of the relationship I had with the love of my life. I am unable to listen to any music as it makes me so very unhappy. Music should lift our spirits but all it does for me is drag me to the depths of despair.

  10. Andria  December 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm Reply

    How timely this post as this morning I was tearing up with yet another happy Christmas song. This is the first Christmas without my son. (And a second one is overseas for the next 2 years). It will be a year since he died one month from today. Christmas was the last time he stayed at our house so this is particularly painful this coming up month. And it was a crummy one at that! Not a whole lot of gifts or anything -makes me feel even worse.
    Whadda do? Just cry, maybe every day, and move on

  11. Elaine Ferguson  December 2, 2014 at 10:18 am Reply

    Oh my Eleanor, this speaks to me big time. After your Mom’s death I could not sit down at the piano and play, just couldn’t. The piano was her spot. And it’s just in the last few years that I have been finally able to. I also stopped singing and haven’t really picked that up again yet, but am trying. Your posts on this site mean a lot to me Eleanor because you often mention your family. On an emotional level I need to stay connected to all of you. I am sure your mother would have wanted it, well expected it. There is “A Song In the Air” now and it’s your Mom’s and your Grandmother Eleanor’s.

    • Eleanor  December 2, 2014 at 10:54 am Reply

      Aunt Elaine,

      I’m so glad you read these posts and that they connect with you. Of course they do though because when they are about my mom, they are also about you. I’m not a good piano player by any stretch of the imagination, but because of my mother I stuck with it long enough to be able to really enjoy playing. I’m so grateful for this because sitting down and playing always brings me closer to my mother. Mom stopped playing too when she was sick….I guess sometimes it just seems too unbearable…but I’m glad you started playing again because she would have wanted that as well. I really hope to see you all again soon and that your Christmas is so happy. For the first time in years I get to spend mine with family in NY now that they are back and I couldn’t be more excited! We will be thinking of you all.



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