The O’Jays, James Brown, and The Emotions all made some of the best sad Christmas songs ever.
I love Christmas music, particularly the Christmas music of my people. But while I can listen to Boyz || Men’s “Silent Night” or “Let it Snow” on repeat, there’s something special about the subgenre Black artists made within Christmas music–the sad Christmas song.
Perhaps it’s because African Americans like W.C. Handy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented blues and rock & roll. Maybe it’s because Black people have a way of turning the mountain of problems we face–economic inequality, police brutality, gaslighting, and other micro and macro racial aggressions–into art to deal with the pressure and grief. Whatever the reason, Black artists poured their souls into the saddest, yet most sonically pleasing, Christmas music ever heard.
Some of the songs are speaking directly to inequalities facing Black Americans. “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” by James Brown spells out the song’s purpose right from the title. It’s a song that is so specific to its viewers with its allusions to Black-centered economic strife and housing inequality that it would sound ridiculous or offensive coming from, say, a white singer. You might think I sound discriminatory for saying some singers can’t sing certain songs. But, to illustrate my point, one of my biggest pet peeves is when white singers would sing some of Stevie Wonder’s more serious songs, like “Living’ For The City,” on reality singing competitions as if it’s a feel-good song. To sing it as such robs it of its commentary on the racism Black people faced whether you were poor or trying to make it big in New York.
“Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” is, in fact, a FUBU song–for us, by us. It’s a song that connects to the feelings Black people have regardless of social status. Feelings of being left behind in a white world, in which its imagination only creates white superheroes, white princes and princesses, and jolly white elves. In this world, no one would think to ask Santa to visit poor Black children because poor Black children wouldn’t matter. But James Brown’s song made those Black children visible to everyone who heard the song. In his way, he put these children’s issues right in the faces of everyone who claimed to be Brown’s fan.
Like “Christmas in Vietnam” by Johnny and Jon, other songs focused on how Black soldiers felt while deployed in the Vietnam War.
“The song balances the fear and sadness of the soldiers’ plight in the war with the unrest of the Civil Rights movement back home,” according to Groovy History. “For the African American community, the War highlighted many of the racial inequalities that the Civil Rights era was trying to erase. For example, there were disproportionately higher percentages of African American draftees and casualties. ‘Christmas in Vietnam’ ends with the ominous line, ‘It won’t be merry this Christmastime, there’s Vietcong all around me.'”
There are then songs that are just plain sad, like Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Brown is begging for his loved one to come back to him. As he says in the song, “My baby’s gone, I have no friends to send me greetings once again.” He’s alone, his friends have all left him, and now he’s ruined things with his relationship, leaving him no choice but to beg for things to go back to normal profusely, if not by Christmas, then by New Year’s.
Similarly, The Emotions’ “What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas” and The O’Jays’ “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (Without The One You Love)” are about feeling alone and sullen at the holidays. If you’re feeling low, it’s probably best to listen to The O’Jays’ song before The Emotions’ since The Emotions’ song will make you cry into your egg nog. Lines such as “A silent night I know it’s gonna be, joy to the world, but it’s gonna be sad for me,” are enough to make you feel depressed.
At least with The O’Jays, you get a jaunty, danceable tune with your depression. The lyrics, like “Going shopping for presents together, making vows to leave each other never, it was a waste of time,” seem flippant and cynical when juxtaposed with the festive music. But it’s that attitude, plus the song’s fun musical quality, that makes the song a staple even at happy Christmas celebrations.
These songs are just a sample of Black musicians’ focus on the more difficult feelings that could spring up during Christmas. Of course, many Black singers have created some of our happier Christmas staples, such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” But, as someone that loves songs that aren’t always happy, I have an extraordinary place in my heart for the Christmas songs that touch on some of the negative feelings the season can bring.
I think I love these songs because they express our humanity. Life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, even at holiday time. These songs give their listeners the courage to be sad, even when everyone else is annoying them into happiness. These songs say it’s okay to cry about lost love, estranged family, and friends who might not know the meaning of friendship during vulnerable times such as Christmas. It’s okay to wallow, since usually after expressing your feelings, you will feel better. You might even find a way to have a good Christmas, after all.
But if you don’t feel better and need help to get through, there are people to help you. If you are feeling down during this holiday season and want someone to talk to, text HOME to 741741 for a Crisis Textline Crisis Counselor. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s National Helpline is also available for those with mental and/or substance use disorders at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). The Veterans Crisis Line is also available for U.S. veterans, which can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. If you are thinking about suicide or are concerned a loved one might be, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-888-628-9454 for a Spanish speaker.