Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but seasons of forced jollity tend to evoke the opposite emotions of sadness and loss. I know I’m not alone. Blue Christmas is a universal phenomenon.
My partner and I were reminded by the season that for the past four years we have lost family members during the holidays: a brother each, a mother, and an ex-brother-in-law. More than a decade ago my father died on Christmas Eve. Loss, though purely coincidental with the festive season, is nonetheless more keenly felt when all about you is supposed to be joyful.
Music is the emotional marker, and everyone has a selection of popular sad-song favorites this time of year. I’ll limit myself to three.
The oldest is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. The lyric represents a letter home, written by a serviceman posted overseas during World War II. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the lyric goes, “if only in my dreams.” Bing’s rendition was a top-ten hit, and the song seems to have been recorded by a new artist or two every year. It probably resonates with me because my father was a serviceman, posted overseas during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Most military families have endured missed Christmases. And because this country is perpetually at war, it seems, there's no end in sight.
“Blue Christmas,” written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, was initially recorded by Doyle O’Dell in 1948 but more memorably by Ernest Tubb a little later. Tubb’s rendition occupied the #1 spot on Billboard magazine’s Most-Played Juke Box (Country and Western) Records for the first week of January in 1950. However, the most popular version came nearly a decade and a half later, when Elvis Presley recorded it for the album, Blue Christmas, which was released in November 1964. The album was among a cluster of “comeback” recordings during the years following Elvis’s stint in the military from March 24, 1958, to March 2, 1960, when he was discharged with the rank of sergeant.
Interestingly, Presley was stationed in Friedburg, Germany, beginning October 1 of 1958. Our family was posted to Butzbach, Germany, that year; I was ten years old when Mom, my brother, my sister, and I arrived to join Dad in what was then West Germany on December 14. While Elvis was in Germany, he met fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would marry after a seven-and-a-half-year courtship.
The last of my three is “Hard Candy Christmas,” written by Carol Hall for the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Who’d have thought that a song sung by the evicted prostitutes of a Texas brothel would become a sad Christmas standard? In the movie version Dolly Parton played the madame and released her version of the song in October 1982. It climbed to #8 on the U.S. country singles chart. The film adaptation also featured some songs added by Dolly, including “I Will Always Love You,” which later became a hit for Whitney Houston, although I’ve always favored Dolly’s rendition.
Others can add their sad favorites for this season, and I could mention a few more. But three are sufficient.