Right now, every Starbucks on every street corner in every city is piping Christmas music into your daily dose of caffeine. Cities appear to be alive and teeming with holiday cheer: Christmas tree lots are appearing, Salvation Army bell ringers are greeting you outside of Macy’s, and Fifth Avenue in New York City is sparkling with holiday displays. While the weather is unseasonably warm (nearly 70 degrees in D.C. at the end of November! ), now is still the time to curl up in front of a fireplace (or the TV Yule Log channel) and sip hot chocolate as you wait for rain, hail or snow to fall from the sky.
Tinsel and candy canes aside, December for me is more about the end of a year—the end
of 12-months of laughter and tears, of dreams and failures. It’s a time to reflect on both
the good and the bad, and to embrace all that we’ve endured as struggling, imperfect
Perhaps it’s depressing or morbid to be drawn to sad winter songs, but there’s something
beautiful about the raw, emotional honesty in these songs and the way the artists dare to
reveal such sadness during a time when we don’t want to think about sad things.
“River” by Joni Mitchell
Despite only minor references to the Christmas season (and a “Jingle Bell”
intro), “River” has grown into one of the most popular songs you might hear at this time
of year. It is largely a song about heartbreak and angst, and what better way to weather
emotional turmoil during the holidays than with a little Joni? “River” is also one of
Mitchell’s most covered tunes, with artists from Barry Manilow to Michelle Branch
performing their own versions. The appeal of “River” lies in the melancholy imagery its
lyrics evoke, with wishes of “a river I could skate away on” and trees being cut down
from their natural homes to be taken indoors and loved in a new way.
“Winter Song” by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles
If the song doesn’t make you think of snow and peppermint hot chocolate, then the music
video will be enough to warm your heart. It’s a sweet and simple collaboration, with
distinct harmonies and a sad story. “Winter Song,” like “River,” is another song about
heartbreak around the holidays.
“Winter Bones” by Stars
The simple repetition of the instrumentals behind Amy Millan’s airy vocals strips away
the traditional holiday cacophony of sleigh bells, carols and the “Auld Lang Syne”
fanfare of the season. “The sun settles hard in the south, winter lives in my bones,”
Millan sings. It’s as if Stars is begging us to embrace the hardships we’ve endured
throughout the year so that we can prepare to begin anew.
“Winter” by Tori Amos
“Winter” is a nostalgic dedication to a father figure, and it’s something that I’m sure
everyone can relate to (the desire to make somebody in their lives proud)—especially
during the holidays, when everybody is taking the time to catch up with loved ones
who’ve spent the year running around busy with work and school and life in general. But
for me, there’s just something about Tori Amos’s voice that makes me want to curl up in
bed with my unicorn PillowPet and read Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. That’s really
all I have to say about this song.