“Joy to the world” isn’t a sentiment everybody shares when Christmas comes around each year. Festivities aren’t everyone’s foremost thought when there’s a magnifying glass on the loved ones people have lost, the lonely hearts, or those among us who are just generally subdued amidst the merriment.
For many, Christmas is a time of reflection, so we’ve compiled a list of Christmas songs for those feeling more melancholy than merry. That said, here are ten of the saddest Christmas songs to soundtrack your blues:
Nat King Cole – ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’
Nat King Cole’s syrupy voice can usually warm the coldest of hearts like a chestnut roasting on an open fire, a singer synonymous with Christmas. But ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’ is sheer savagery, emphasising how Christmas is just another day for this poor, young, fatherless little boy who seems to be forgotten about by loved ones and his local community, and even Santa Claus. Don’t let the swooning jazz distract you. It’s bleak.
Julia Jacklin – ‘baby jesus is nobody’s baby know’
Australian indie artist Julia Jacklin can make you ugly cry even when she’s singing the more hopeful, buoyant songs in her sad girl oeuvre. So when she regretfully sings, “Watch me go to bed alone this year, There was someone I wanted, but they’re no longer here”, we’ve got no chance.
Released in 2020, the gentle, stripped-back ‘Baby Jesus Is Nobody’s Baby Now’ was inspired by the disruption caused by the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires. “Melbourne was blanketed in smoke from the fires, the sun was this menacing red, it felt apocalyptic and pretty hopeless,” she explained in the single’s accompanying press statement, which says it all, really.
Johnny Cash – ‘Ringing The Bells For Jim’
Featuring on Johnny Cash’s 1963 festive album, The Christmas Spirit, you could always rely on the ‘Man in Black’ to inject some macabre imagery into the holiday season. Narrating a story of a priest overhearing church bells ringing, they find out it’s a young girl announcing the death knell of her brother Jim, who has only been given days to live. She’s anticipating his passing before it’s even happened, having lost all hope.
Low – ‘Blue Christmas’
Taking on an Elvis Presley classic and doubling down on its pensive qualities was a bold move by indie slowcore band Low, and they certainly darkened the hue of ‘Blue Christmas’. Their 1999 EP of Christmas standards, entwined with a few originals, is a perennial festive favourite for indie heads, Mimi Parker’s quivering, heart-wrenching delivery sounding even more devastating since her tragic passing in 2022.
Marvin Gaye – ‘I Want To Come Home For Christmas’
Writing a Christmas song from the point of view of a prisoner of war is a sure-fire way to tug heart-strings. Especially when the catalyst for Marvin Gaye and his co-writer Forest Hairston penning the solemn soul song was seeing images of people tying yellow ribbons to trees in tribute to their loved ones who were forced POWs in Vietnam. Coupled with Gaye’s pining vocal delivery, the 1972 track hits hard.
The Everly Brothers – ‘Christmas Eve Can Kill You’
The Everly Brother’s foreboding ‘Christmas Eve Can Kill You’ narrates the story of someone trying to return home to his family, yet can’t catch a break in the winter frost as nobody is accepting hitchers on the highway, it being only a matter of time before they freeze to death.
Truly encapsulating Christmas cheer, the brothers admit they’d do the same if the shoe was on the other foot: “The saddest part of all is knowing if I switched with him, I’d leave him stumblin’ ragged by the road.”
Kacey Musgraves – ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’
“I cried when we wrote it, and I cried singing it,” country star Kacey Musgraves said about her 2016 ballad ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. But why? Well, when you write a festive song that channels the mortality of your own parents and the subsequent loneliness you’ll feel, that’s rather sad.
She explained during the release of A Very Kacey Christmas: “We see our parents getting older and the passage of time and nostalgia is a very, it can be kind of a sad subject for me.”
Prince – ‘Another Lonely Christmas’
It’s hard to fathom The Purple One ever being lonely at Christmas, given the bevvy of beauties he consistently had pawing at his high heels. Typically, Prince still had the dramatic chops to pen a remorseful song about a previous lover of his dying on Christmas Day of all days, accepting that the festive season will never be the same without her.
The only ever Christmas song Prince wrote, in 1997, he said, “that song is a work of fiction”. But the lyrical details hint at a more isolated Prince than his bravado suggested.
Phoebe Bridgers (featuring Fiona Apple and The National’s Matt Berninger) – ‘7 O’Clock News / Silent Night’
Rather than a straight-up cover of the Christmas carol Bing Crosby turned into a festive staple, Phoebe Bridgers borrowed the concept for her rendition from Simon & Garfunkel’s 1967 version. Enlisting the help of Fiona Apple and The National’s Matt Berninger, Bridgers collaged the hymnal song with news clippings from the year, replacing headlines from the 1960s with the abortion debate, sexting, and Trump as POTUS. The poignant protestation sternly points the finger at the sad state of affairs in the US in 2019 that even Christmas couldn’t veil.
Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
You couldn’t write a sad Christmas song list without including Joni’s now-standard ‘River’. Though the intro alludes to the ‘Jingle Bells’ theme, that’s where the joy ends. Predicting the impending break-up between her and Graham Nash, Mitchell sings of spending Christmas separated, dreaming of ice-skating away in isolation when she should be feeling the warmth of being in love. But she can’t do it, and she blames herself. Its emotional complexity is likely with the tragic ‘River’ endures as one of the saddest ever Christmas songs still.