A dark holiday playlist – and one man's melancholy war with childhood

There is beauty in the darkness. This is all I have ever known.

Beauty doesn’t work the same for me as it does for most people. I first started realizing this in Mr. Booth’s (excuse me, Dr. Booth’s) English V class at Ledford High School in 1978 and 1979. I remember two moments distinctly. First, we read “The Eve of St. Agnes,” by Keats. I recall being overwhelmed by a) its darkness, and b) its beauty. This was not a traditional sunny pastoral. It’s a poem of the night, one of mystery and compelling seductive splendor.

Later we read Tennyson’s equally marvelous “The Lady of Shalott.” Again, I was struck by the way in which beauty was interwoven with dark, even sinister themes.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my reactions to these masterworks, but something was afoot, and when I started writing poetry on my own (as long as we’re on the subject of darkness and doom) it began with a piece called “Octoberfaust,” which I tried to infuse with as much mystery and passionate nocturne as I could muster.

Of course, looking back, my melancholy aesthetic didn’t begin in high school. It began much earlier, in church, with the one thing that truly spoke to my soul: music.

The best time of year was December, when we’d begin turning to the Christmas section of the hymnal. There was a grandeur to most of these songs, but some were grand above all the others, and when I think back I understand that even as a child the ones I loved the most were the ones that were minor key, and perhaps a bit haunted even, songs penned by tunesmiths so overcome with the gravity of the Nativity they had to impart as much reverence and solemnity as possible in their tributes to the birth of their king. It was as though major-chord joyousness was somehow irreverent.

The one song I loved above all others was “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and I remember opening the bulletin as soon as I hit the pews to see if we were singing it that Sunday. It was always a disappointment if we weren’t, especially if instead we were doing something that I subconsciously felt was a tad too chirpy for the majesty of the occasion.

Once a year, though, I got to reach back and let go with the “Gloria” chorus. Church was never, ever better than that three minutes a year.

This probably sounds like an odd reflection coming from me. Depending on the circumstances, “what do you believe?” or “what religion are you?” will be met with anything from atheist (which means I don’t trust you to get it, please go away) to “atheo-pagan” (which is relatively true and a few people even know what it is) to “Jungian pagan,” which is very true, albeit confusing as hell if you aren’t really smart. In any case, it has been a long time since I was remotely Christian, and my journey away from that mythos was conflicted in more ways than I can easily describe. If you’re a pagan or an atheist or, well, something other than a Christian, indulging in Christmas music can feel like a betrayal of self. How can you revel in the emotional power of music that you do not believe in – especially if that music emanates from a religion that has been patently oppressive in your life and in the lives of your friends?

It took a couple decades, but finally I have made peace with the ambivalence. I can’t pretend I don’t love the music I love. Denying its voice in my soul – well, that’s the betrayal of self. There is simply no way around the way these songs resonate at the core of my being and I would be less in every way if I slammed the door on them.

So yes, I have embraced the music of my youth, even though I don’t believe a word of what they celebrate. Not literally, anyway. But Joseph Campbell explained to us that one can believe the mythology and its lessons without thinking the teachings of a religion are journalism. I have arrived at a place where I understand the difference between fact and truth. After all, how much of our greatest art is literally fiction, chocked full of wisdom and insight? The Lord of the Rings is no less true simply because there’s no such thing as a hobbit.

I have been trying to compile a playlist of Christmas music that sounds like the feelings I have around the holidays, and it hasn’t been easy. When I think of the things that made the holiday special, I suppose I recall what most of us do. The agonizing wait for Christmas morning. Tearing into presents. The beauty of a lit and decorated tree. The food – gods, the food – the ham and turkey and yams and canned cranberry sauce and corn and potatoes and gravy and pumpkin pie and apple pie for dessert. Family. The people, the ones who were really at the center of it all, because without family there was no tree, there were no presents, there was no food. No magic. No memories.

For me, though, because I was raised by my grandparents, a lot of the special people were gone from my life sooner than I’d hoped. As such, the holiday season has, for a very long time, been populated by reminders of death, by a palpable sense of loss. We never feel absence quite so keenly as we do in moments defined by love and presence.

I have spent a lot of Christmas Eves and Christmas Days alone in my life, and in those times there have always been songs that wanted singing. But perhaps it’s inevitable that those songs were less happy than the ones many people adore. I’m not much of a “Jingle Bells” guy. Instead I’m a “Carol of the Bells” guy.

So I set out to make a “dark Christmas” playlist. Something full of songs that speak to my experience, to my 50-plus (sometimes uneasy) year journey with the most wonderful tunes of my youth. Something that captured the melancholy that sets in about this time every year.

I don’t know that I have it expressed perfectly, but I’m getting there. My Dark Christmas Melancholy playlist on Spotify features some traditional chorales, some orchestra, some Gaelic, some Medieval, some Victorian, and some contemporary artists who seem to find beauty in the darkness the way I do. There are multiple versions of several songs, because why should there only be one take on “Adeste Fideles” and “Carol of the Bells”?

I hope you enjoy it. If you have additions to recommend I’d love to hear them.

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  • Pingback: Greg Lake, RIP | Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

  • “How can you revel in the emotional power of music that you do not believe in” Don’t worry too much about listening to music you don’t believe in. I always turn up Running with the Devil, but I find that an appalling thought myself.

  • You are not alone in the embrace of dark beauty. Hound beat me to the punch a bit here, but one of your statements made me pause: “How can you revel in the emotional power of music that you do not believe in – especially if that music emanates from a religion that has been patently oppressive in your life and in the lives of your friends?” It took me down two paths.

    First, reveling in music you do not believe in. That brought to mind how many people enjoy rap music, despite some disgust with the message the lyrics send. And I wonder how many feel the same betrayal of self you mentioned when they find themselves mouthing the words to the beat of the tune. In the end, perhaps we resign ourselves to accept the thorns with the bloom, which are different for each of us.

    Second, the idea of Christianity being oppressive in your life and in the lives of your friends. I guess that made me curious as much as anything. Do you feel the oppression was more of cognitive development or physical inhibition? I say this because I suspect many practicing Christians don’t necessarily believe the Bible word-for-word, but more so believe in the life principles it teaches, some perceived historical truths, and ultimately in God. Maybe they even find some of it metaphorical: a means of conveying complexities to people across the full spectrum of intelligence. Analogous to your music quandary, they accept the thorns with the bloom.

    • Hi Charlie, and thanks for responding. The Christian oppression thing is mainly political. We live in a society where too many people – many of whom hold elected office – think religious freedom means making sure you act on what they believe. That they themselves don’t act on those principles is another issue entirely.

      I share a great deal of Christianity’s core values on things like how we ought to treat others, but the political control machine I have serious issues with.

  • Have you heard Adam Again’s version of Angels We Have Heard On High? I love, love, love it. https://open.spotify.com/track/7obkW9qODLekQIApUpEmj5

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