The Melancholy Before the Merry

The holiday lights are twinkling, the mailbox is full of Christmas cards, and my Americano-with-extra-room-for-cream is in a cheery red cup. Yet, as usual, I am struggling to join in the yuletide joy.

I’m not depressed. I don’t have Seasonal Affective Disorder (though really, must the sun disappear so soon after tea time?). I’m not having a dark night of the soul. I’m simply… sad.

My heart aches for grieving friends and suffering strangers alike. The horrors of war and terrorism and racism and poverty weigh heavily on me, and the ever-present possibility of random violence haunts me. Things are not as they should be.

I learned a long time ago that before I can engage in Christmas celebrations, I first need to clear some space for the melancholy before the merry. My faith tradition helps with this. Advent unfolds slowly over many weeks, beginning with the slender candle of hope and growing one flame at a time. In recent years, my church has offered Blue Christmas services around the solstice—a time of prayer and contemplation set aside to bless and comfort those who mourn.

Another way I clear space for melancholy is by listening to the saddest Christmas music I can find. It’s not that I don’t like the festive tunes on the radio, or the sound of my own daughters singing about Santa Claus at the top of their lungs. I do, very much. I just need time with the sorrowful Christmas songs of Sufjan Stevens and Beta Radio and Over the Rhine, too.

I can imagine, if you have more of a jingle bell kind of soul, the mournful Folksy Christmas playlist on Spotify might be the wrong soundtrack for your season. Sad Christmas music doesn’t make me feel worse, but it doesn’t exactly make me feel better, either. It simply echoes and amplifies the melancholy I am already feeling. It fends off numbness, which is a lot more dangerous than sadness.

Linford Detweiler, one of the songwriters from Over the Rhine who has penned some of my favorite Christmas songs, once wrote in a letter to fans, “It’s a beautiful heartbreaking imperfect world. And it’s a gift to be alive in it.” I believe this. I want to rejoice in the beauty of this world, but I can’t do this without beholding the heartbreaking imperfection of this world.

For me, feeling December sadness is part of my preparation for the holidays, just as necessary as decking the halls and wrapping the gifts and baking the cookies. I walk in darkness. I hope for the light. Weeping may linger for a night—sometimes for the very longest night—but joy comes Christmas morning.

Have a good day,
again and again.

If you feel in your bones the need to simplify so you can live the life you're meant to live...

↓ This is for you.

35 Comments

  1. Rosie

    I was nodding as I read this. I absolutely go through the same thing. Hoping your merry is wonderful when you get to it.

  2. anna

    Oh! This speaks to me so much. I’ve always said my favourite song on any album is likely to be the saddest, and being in Australia, I will never be able to take Frosty the snowman seriously, and there will be no chestnuts roasting (hello, fire bans!). A handful of years ago I came very close to wanting nothing to do with Christmas – even though it’s an important aspect of what I believe. I’ve found Andrew Peterson’s Behold The Lamb of God album very helpful – a musical advent, if you like – and songs with meaning (despite hearing Sufjan’s Come O come Emmanuel lots, it’s only this year that I’ve really *heard* it).

    I get called a grinch every year by one particular member of the family – it’s nice to be reminded that there’s nothing wrong with me, I just have an aversion to things that are all shine, no substance.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      “All shine, no substance” – what a perfect way to put it.

      I’m going to listen to that Andrew Peterson album right now – thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Karen

    Thank you for expressing your eloquent thoughts ( for me ).

    I plan to reference this again as my darkness descends.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Don’t forget that the light overcomes the darkness. Hang in there, Karen.

  4. San

    I can very much relate to your feelings. As much as I love the holiday season, it always makes me a bit melancholy and sad, too. I think it’s good to have that balance, you know? Don’t forget about the world while being wrapped up in the holiday spirit.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to respond.

  5. Betsy

    I feel this myself. I mourn for people that I’ve lost and the state of the world. Then I remind myself that I am lucky to be alive, to have a wonderful husband, children and the gift of grandchildren. I remind myself that there are more good people then bad. People that go about living their life everyday in the right way. People without a racist or terrorist bone in their body. I try to keep faith and hope alive in my soul.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      I think the trick is to hold the tension – both the light and the dark are real, and it’s unwise to neglect either one of them. Thanks for your response.

  6. Susan

    Yes, this! I love the description of the world being both beautiful and broken. Having experienced both great joy and great loss between Thanksgiving and Christmas it is necessary for me to take a few moments to remember and reflect on the pain and suffering in the world. Then I can enter into the celebration of Christ’s birth secure in the knowledge and hope that Jesus does indeed bring “Joy to the World”!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks so much for reading, Susan, and for your thoughtful response. I hope you do have a joyous Christmas.

  7. Wendy

    Thank you for expressing what I couldn’t express. This is me too.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Hoping you get to the merry this Christmas, Wendy. Thank you for reading.

  8. Allison

    Oh yes! You captured exactly how I have been feeling the last few years during the Advent and Christmas seasons. This year, I have been lighting candles and listening to the Spotify Folksy Christmas playlist as I do all of the usual Christmas preparations, and it really has helped.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Isn’t it amazing? There’s just something really powerful about acknowledging your feelings, and something about the power of music to reflect genuine emotion just really moves me.

  9. Stacey

    Loved this article, Katherine. You’ve articulated my feelings in a way I’ve never been able to do. (By the way, I so agree with your Christmas music selections! If you’ve never heard Sleeping at Last’s song, Snow, here’s a link. It’s my very favorite.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSxMqyiVfsM

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks so much for the recommendation – I will listen to it!

  10. Missy Robinson

    I have never heard this articulated in a way that explains my feelings. Thank you for sharing this. I was trying to describe my feelings about a song at dinner last night to my husband and step daughters. “But it’s a sad Christmas song?” one daughter asked. I responded, “Yes, but in the right kind of longing way…” But your post articulates my need to combat numbness, face reality and yet celebrate all at once. Thank you!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. It means a lot to me to read your comment and the others that similarly state that this piece articulated something they hadn’t previously been able to. I hoped it would resonate with people and it’s very heartening to see that it has!

  11. Dee

    Oh, yes. This is my first Christmas without my mother, whom we lost in September. So it’s a very bittersweet season. And there are other things just “out there” itching at my soul. Oh, and I’m having a pretty major crisis of faith so I don’t really have church to lean on either. It’s a rough season.

    • Beth

      Hang in there. Christmas last year I was experiencing my first miscarriage after losing my grandpa and my friend’s daughter in the months before. My faith definitely hit a rough spot. I found C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed to be comforting. Give yourself plenty of time. It was after about a year of grieving (after my friend’s daughter died) that I felt like I was really seeing the light again. His Light again. I hope you can find a good friend or counselor that can support you even in the midst of a crisis of faith. I’ll be thinking about you.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Dee, I will hold you in prayer as you grieve your mother. That is such a significant loss, and first holidays are always especially difficult.

      In my experience, crises of faith have been precursors to deeper experiences of God. I hope this will be the case for you, and that in the absence of a church you will have friends and family to lean on.

  12. Abbie

    A week or so ago one of my daughters commented that O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a sad song and she wondered why. So we talked about how God’s people (the Jews) waited a LONG time for the messiah. And now we celebrate His birth at Christmas, but we are still waiting for the rest of His coming. Still waiting and hoping. Often it’s sad and hard.

    • Lee Ann

      Something interesting a learned at choir practice. as modern listeners we hear minor key and think sad, But Baroque and middle age minor was not heard in the same way, and can actually be meant to be joyful. And profound. It is interesting and more then a little mind bending to think about how time effects how we interpret music. Many of the hymns sang this time of year have roots in this era of music, which is why they sound sad.

  13. John

    All of the discussions so perfectly describe my feelings and the “mood” I slip into as soon as I hear the first Christmas song in a store – usually at Thanksgiving time,! Which means it’s going to be a long four weeks before I get my mind right and find my joyful soul (I know it’s in there!). It’s also a challenge to find or have anyone to talk to about what I’m feeling….so I just keep it to myself and try to work through it.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Unfortunately I think our culture still doesn’t give much leeway for men to express emotions, and that is such a sad reality. Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience here.

  14. Cynthia

    In the same vein:
    Advent Lament and a Brave Merry Christmas
    a spoken word by Amena Brown and Ann Voskamp

    http://youtu.be/kgScscR7230

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thanks! I hadn’t seen this and I’m looking forward to following the link.

  15. ann

    I often listen to little known parts of the Messiah…..it reminds me that God grieved for His people and we are right to grieve all the injustice and battles that Satan seems to win, including loosing loved ones. Then I am really ready for the chorus!!!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Yes, absolutely! One of these years I want to go to a Messiah singalong. 🙂

  16. Stacie

    Beautiful. After losing my dad and walking through loss in a variety of ways, I agree that it is important to take time to mourn. Even now, so many years later, the grief comes back around. I’ve found it to be more circular rather than linear, and sometimes I have to remind myself to sit with it. I’d much rather distract myself than feel sometimes, so this is a good reminder. Thank you.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thank you for your response, Stacie, and prayers for you as you grieve.

  17. Autumn Leopold

    Such a thoughtful post. I get it on all fronts. I’ve been this way too and I know I got it from my mother. Then my mother passed away suddenly November 2014 and I had to face Christmas with a new understanding of loss. I love listening to the sad Christmas music. It takes me to a place where I can remember Jesus’ sacrifice and my mom. I can get all of the sadness out and when it’s time to celebrate the joy I have no regrets. Thank you for putting this into words for us.

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thank you for reading, and responding. I hope that you do have a really joyous Christmas this year. 🙂

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