Anyone who’s listened to a Christmas playlist knows that most popular Christmas songs are joyful tunes. However, it’s important to remember that joy and happiness are by no means the only emotions someone might feel around this time of year. Many also struggle with feelings of sadness during the holidays.
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This may be particularly true if you lost a loved one. Knowing you can no longer spend Christmas with them is naturally very painful. While no one can bring your loved one back, sad songs can potentially help you feel less alone.
Not all Christmas songs are cheerful. The following Christmas songs about death prove it. They might help you cope if you’re struggling this holiday season.
Traditional Christmas Songs About Death or Grief
Many well-known traditional songs about Christmas focus on the birth of Jesus. Because of this, not many are about death, but there is a small handful of carols and classics that explore grief and similar themes.
1. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne
Although some might argue this qualifies more as a contemporary Christmas song about death, it’s become a traditional favorite over the years.
The way it relates to death is somewhat unique when compared to the other songs on this list. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” isn’t about one specific loss. Instead, it’s about the potential loss the world was facing during the Cuban Missile Crisis, using the story of Jesus’ birth as a metaphor.
2. “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst
Although this traditional Christmas carol doesn’t specifically mention death, it does describe the idea of Jesus coming to grant peace during a troubling time. It could be a comforting song for a Christian struggling with grief on Christmas.
3. “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin
This is another song that, while technically contemporary, many now consider to be a traditional Christmas classic.
It also isn’t strictly about death. However, anyone familiar with its use in the movie of the same name, in which soldiers who’ve lost friends sing it as a way of escaping the horrors of war, knows it can certainly offer comfort to someone grieving during the holidays.
4. “Coventry Carol” by Unknown
It’s not clear who the original writer of this 16th century English Christmas carol is. Regardless, its basis is a story from the Bible, in which King Herod ordered that all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two be killed in an attempt to prevent the rise of Christ.
5. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Edmund Sears
Like most traditional Christmas songs, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” emphasizes the joy some find in religious beliefs this time of year, but also addresses the pain we experience as a result of war and death.
Contemporary Christmas Songs About Death or Grief
It’s worth noting that many songs about death (whether they’re Christmas songs or not) are open to a range of interpretations. The artists who wrote these tunes may not have always been thinking about death, but they did release tracks that anyone feeling the pain of a loss during the holidays can probably relate to.
6. “Ringing the Bells for Jim” by Johnny Cash
As is the case with many Johnny Cash songs, this particular Christmas song about death tells a uniquely sad story in a fairly short amount of time. “Ringing the Bells for Jim” describes a priest who finds a little girl ringing the church bell to ask the priest to pray for her sick and dying brother on Christmas.
7. “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas” by The Emotions
This song is ideal when the holidays feel hard because it directly addresses how so much of the way we celebrate this season involves a strong emphasis on happy experiences. While there’s nothing wrong with this, we also shouldn’t overlook how those who’ve lost loved ones may not get to have those same experiences during the holidays.
8. “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince
Again, not all Christmas songs about death approach the topic directly. However, that’s not the case with “Another Lonely Christmas,” in which Prince sings about cherished memories he had with a lover who “died on the twenty-fifth day of December.” How the lyrics describe very specific and personal memories lends the song a strongly authentic quality.
9. “Cold December Nights” by Boyz II Men
This song very honestly addresses the feelings of confusion and despair you might experience when you’re forced to spend Christmas without a loved one with whom you once shared the holiday. If you’re experiencing this, you could probably appreciate the bare emotion in such lyrics as “Why aren’t you next to me celebrating Christmas? Why can’t you see what hurts so bad?”
10. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by U2
Darlene Love first recorded this Christmas classic. However, today’s audiences are more likely to recognize U2’s iconic cover.
Musically, the song is fairly upbeat. That said, the lyrics are deeply sad, describing how the Christmas season simply can’t feel the same without lost loved ones beside us.
12. “7 O’clock News / Silent Night” by Simon & Garfunkel
Before starting a fairly traditional take on “Silent Night,” Simon & Garfunkel put an interesting spin on the song by reciting newspaper headlines, many of which describe murder and other dark topics. The track is a powerful reminder that, while the Christmas season may be joyful for many, the darkness of the world doesn’t simply go away this time of year.
13. “Get Me Through December” by Alison Krauss and Natalie MacMaster
Struggling with grief after losing a loved one is always a painful experience. However, some feel this experience is uniquely painful during the holidays. Thus, while December may be a joyous month for many, for others, it may simply be a month they need to endure. This song describes that idea perfectly.
14. “Just a Lonely Christmas” by The Supremes
This song’s lyrics may be simple and short, but they have plenty of emotional depth, expressing the basic desire for a lost loved one to return at Christmas.
15. “Christmases When You Were Mine” by Taylor Swift
While many could argue that this isn’t necessarily a Christmas song about death, but instead a Christmas song about a breakup, the lyrics never specifically say one way or the other. The lyrics do, however, explore the way someone mourning a loss on Christmas might feel they’re supposed to smile and pretend they’re as happy and cheerful as everyone around them, although that may not actually be the case.
16. “Merry Christmas Darling” by The Carpenters
Not all Christmas songs about death need to be sad! Consider this example, in which the lyrics describe someone missing a lost loved one at Christmas, while also overcoming those sad feelings by knowing they can still be with them in their dreams. It’s a reminder that the holidays can offer hope and joy in even the darkest of times.
17. “Hard Candy Christmas” by Dolly Parton
“Hard Candy Christmas” explores feelings some know all too well during the holidays. The speaker in this song lists all the ways she’s considering spending Christmas, eventually revealing that she’s simply considering what she can do this year to escape from the “sorrow” that haunts her.
18. “Christmas Lights” by Coldplay
“Christmas Lights” is a song you may want to listen to if, for example, you’re facing your first holiday season without a loved one.
Many people feel the need to put on a brave face through this type of experience. That’s an understandable impulse, but giving in to it can prevent you from addressing and managing the negative feelings you have. Christmas songs about death like this one provide an outlet for those emotions. Luckily, although this song is undeniably sad, it ends with a glimmer of hope: “May all your troubles soon be gone, those Christmas lights keep shining on.”
19. “Christmas Won’t Be the Same Without You” by Plain White T’s
Although this Christmas song is also most likely about a breakup, its lyrics never explicitly confirm this. Instead, they cover the way a loved one’s presence can make the holidays even brighter, and how coping with their absence during the holidays can be even more challenging than it already is.
Christmas Songs About Death: Combining Pain & Joy
Cheerful Christmas songs will always have their place. However, as these songs prove, some of the best Christmas songs are those which touch on more painful emotional experiences.