What’s the deal with “Carol of the Bells”? Seriously.

The iconic, dramatic, foreboding melody has been adapted into many versions and is featured in Home Alone. The minor-key carol has both secular and religious lyrics, both cheerful and trite. Yet, the melody remains powerful, evocative, and resonates for countless people. It’s so ubiquitous, my local “All Christmas, All the Time” radio station—offering a repetitive selection of Mariah Carey, many grating versions of “Last Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” and Alvin and the Chipmunks singing something I turn off immediately—plays an old-fashioned choral rendition of “Carol of the Bells” with the religious version of the lyrics as part of the standard rotation. 

The melancholy tune is so at odds with the glittering commercial racket, the holly-jolly, syrupy, nostalgic festival. I’m surprised, but I get it. 

I love sad Christmas carols—”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “What Child is This?,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night,” “We Three Kings,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Mary Did You Know”…

I love sad Christmas carols so much I’ve stocked my playlists with the really deep cuts:

“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” “Coventry Carol”, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”…

And it’s not just a nostalgic or pious preference for church songs. “Away in a Manger” ties with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for most overplayed piece of seasonal drivel in my book. Almost all the greatest Christmas bangers are religious, but not all the religious Christmas songs are bangers. 

And most of the best songs are sad. Some of the credit is due to the minor key, of course. But the lyrics, especially in the later verses, are also, often, unflinchingly metal. 

“What Child is This?” crecendos to “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, / the cross be born for me for you. / Hail, hail the Word made flesh…” 

“Bid all our sad divisions cease, / and be Thyself our King of Peace,” pleads “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in authentic lament. 

The haunting fourth verse of “We Three Kings” references burial practices and Christ’s embodied sacrifice: “Myrrh is mine. Its bitter perfume / breathes a life of gathering gloom, / sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / sealed in a stone cold tomb.” 

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is consistently (ironically) slept on in favor of the worn, saccharine “Silent Night.” But I love how tenderly it acknowledges that we bring fear as well as hope to Christmas, comforting us with “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is given, / while God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” 

Perhaps the greatest of all carols, “O Holy Night” demands an end to slavery and oppression. 

“Coventry Carol,” an ancient hymn with a Gregorian sound, is an anxious discussion of how to help and hide a refugee Jesus from Herod. It grieves mass murder.

And while the tune of “I Heard the Bells” is nothing special and its major key doesn’t fit the lyrics, it expresses the despair of a father who has lost his son to war and clings, even while angry and doubting, to the belief that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” 

Doubt, rebellion against a broken world, grief, blood, anguished cries for justice—the sad Christmas songs have it all. And while some of my favorites were foraged off the beaten path, many are popular classics, despite their stark juxtoposition with the warm and bright “traditional” themes of Christmas. 

Maybe sad Christmas songs hit because we’re a little sad at Christmas.

As a little child, I remember slipping into my parents’ bed on more than one occasion as Christmas drew near, almost in tears because I didn’t feel excited enough for Christmas. I dread the letdown from the festivities each year. I relate to Charlie Brown’s experience of just not “feeling it.” 

Now to be clear, I am a Christmas girl. I excitedly plan out gifts months in advance. Every horizontal surface in my small apartment hosts festive decor nestled in drifts of fuzzy batting. Despite my wholehearted commitment to merriment, the steadfast shadow of melancholy remains present. And I have grown to treasure it. There is something real and beautiful in Christmas that makes space for darkness, stillness, and ache. 

That is, I think, the difference between Christmas and Advent. Christmas, the commercial holiday, red and green and shining, is flat and tinny, embodied in the “big, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree,” as Lucy says in the Peanuts Christmas Special. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this sort of Christmas. Advent, though—strange, beautiful, painful—offers something different. Advent is bruise-colored. It is the sky on the edge of dawn, when you are unsure if the light you may see is the sun or a trick of tired eyes. Advent is uncertain, expectant, exhausted, desperate. Advent is for weeping mothers and men who feel like God has made fools of them. Advent is for those of us with burdens and problems and diagnoses. Advent is for people crumpled up at gravesites and on bathroom floors. Advent is for pagans and apostates, their supposed distance from God irrelevant against the reach of his love. Advent is for people who would expect coal from Santa and get eternity, unasked and free. Advent is for us in darkness, for whom the great light dawns. 

Dicken’s opens A Christmas Carol, by insisting that Marley must be dead for the story to seem magical. Likewise, the wonder of Advent comes from the horrible possibility that we are abandoned in an empty, broken universe and the shattering entrance of the truth that we are not. Advent requires darkness and mystery, and we need the sad Christmas carols.

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