Apologia: Melancholy Christmas Songs

I really enjoy Christmas music. I’m sure you do too. And I often actually enjoy the melancholy Christmas songs the most. I’m talking about the ones usually set in a minor key (though not always), that really have a sadness in them. Sometimes you can find this tone of melancholy or sadness in the song’s lyrics, sometimes in the music itself, and sometimes a combination of the twain.

I want to give an apology, or defense, for appreciating the melancholy Christmas songs just as much as the joyous ones (if not even more, sometimes).

First of all, think of what a minor key does to a song: it often naturally adds dark tones, or a sadness to a tune. A minor key can create not just tones of sorrow, but also of longing. And if the lyrics express sadness or longing, and are reinforced by the minor key of the music, you’ve got a potentially powerful piece of art, developing the content from multiple perspectives.

So take, for example, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The poetry in the song’s verses is full of intense longing, basically crying out, “Come, Savior! How long, O Lord? Rescue Your people from their sins!” The melody reinforces the lyric with its minor key, and a beautifully memorable melody that stirs the affections.

The song also falls into the relative major for the chorus, though, combining the longing with very clear hope. The chorus comes in on a major sound, saying, “Rejoice, for Emmanuel, the Savior has come!” The bright major key sound to the chorus reflects the hope of the lyric, that the longed-for Savior has appeared; the mystery of salvation has been revealed in Jesus.

Now you can give the song a listen.

We live in a world where Christ has appeared to take away our sins, but His kingdom isn’t established for good as it eventually will be. We’re living in the “already-but-not-yet.” So we can sing songs like “Joy to the World,” that proclaim the unspeakable joy of the Christmas season in a bright, major key, because our Savior has redeemed us fully and forever. But we should also sing songs of longing, as we wait expectantly for the final return or advent of Jesus, when sin will finally cease to be. This type of song can give expression to the longings of our hearts. Melancholy Christmas songs are so very appropriate for this reason. We should definitely sing them, and pray together for Christ to come quickly.

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