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.
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