They say depression spikes at the holidays.
If that’s true, we all know exactly where to lay the blame. Christmas music.
Consider the case against these seasonal strains …
EXHIBIT A: “The Christmas Shoes,” sung by the Christian vocal group NewSong.
These one-hit wonders were certainly aptly named, since every time this song comes on the radio I find myself screaming “New song! New song!” as I stab at buttons in an attempt to change stations.
As if this aural assault weren’t enough, the song also inspired both a book and a made-for-television movie starring Rob Lowe.
In case you’re one of the lucky few who haven’t heard it, “The Christmas Shoes” is told from the perspective of an impatient man buying a few last-minute gifts on Christmas Eve. In line ahead of him is a little boy holding a pair of women’s shoes. Fortuitously, this boy reaches the front of the line just as the chorus arrives, and he basically tells the cashier that he wants to buy the shoes for his dying mother, because he wants her to look good in case she meets Jesus that night.
Now personally, if I’m the Rob Lowe character in this song, I’m encouraging the kid to buy a couple of oversize oven mitts to wear over those new shoes — you know, just in case heaven doesn’t turn out to be Mom’s final destination. (Hey, we don’t know the mother’s backstory. She could have been a really horrible person ...)
But what bothers me most about “The Christmas Shoes” is the line where the narrator sings: “I knew that God had sent that little boy/ To remind me what Christmas is all about.” Implying that God set everything in motion — giving the kid’s mom a terminal illness, making the family so dirt poor that they couldn’t even afford a pair of shoes — just to teach some rich guy in a checkout line the true meaning of Christmas.
I find the song’s cloying premise to be particularly sad and depressing at this time of year. But I also know there are plenty of you out there who love “The Christmas Shoes.” So we proceed to …
EXHIBIT B: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” sung by countless Christian congregations this time of year.
The lyrics for this famous Christmas carol were borrowed from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a popular 19th-century poet. The “Christmas Bells” piece was penned in 1863, during the upbeat, carefree days of the American Civil War. It was also just two years after Longfellow had lost the love of his life in a tragic dress fire. (His first wife died in 1835, following a miscarriage.)
Frankly, considering all Longfellow had been through, the guy probably shouldn’t have been writing poetry — at least, not the kind that would later be borrowed for catchy Christmas tunes.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is, hands down, one of the two most depressing holiday offerings in the Christian hymnal. The other, of course, being the New Year-themed “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” based on the Alfred Tennyson downer of a poem. (What’s with all these 19th-century poets and their melancholy holiday musings? Did they not know about antidepressants?)
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” doesn’t have any of the dream-like imagery of silent nights and soft-focus virgins and babes sleeping peacefully in immaculately clean mangers. Oh, the song begins Christmassy enough, but things take a decidedly dark turn in the third verse:
“And in despair I bowed my head/ There is no peace on earth, I said/ For hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Although the carol features two more verses that help peace and good will make a last-minute rally, it’s hard to shake the bleak imagery. And for Mormons of a certain age, the effect was much more pronounced — all because of a curious tradition in singing church hymns.
In the LDS hymnal, songs generally feature three or four verses sandwiched between the treble and bass clefs of the written music. For longer songs, the additional verses are printed in smaller type at the bottom of the page, outside the body of the musical score.
In pre-1985 LDS hymn books, the fourth and fifth verses of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” were relegated to that smaller typeface at the bottom of the page. And only the boldest of choristers would try to get their congregations to sing beyond the three “required” verses. As a result, during all my Decembers growing up in the Mormon church, our congregation invariably ended that hymn right after the dystopian third verse.
Merry. Freakin’. Christmas.
When the church’s current hymnal finally came out in 1985, leaders wisely folded the last two verses into the musical score. But for some, the damage had already been done. Even with the more hopeful verses tacked on, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is still my least-favorite carol.
To the point where, when the congregation sings the hymn these days, I defiantly hum a different holiday tune under my breath.
Usually something like “The Christmas Shoes.”