Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Tracy’s Christmas Carol Challenge

My friend, Tracy, is a nice Jewish girl who loves Christmas carols. This is her favorite time of year to drive around because she has four Christmas carol stations on her car radio. It all started with her elementary school chorus experience and participating in the annual Christmas concerts. Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree and the Peanuts gang singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing sealed it.

Every so often, Tracy presents me with a Five on Friday Challenge. She picks five thematically related items that don’t appear to have anything to do with mental health. My challenge is to make the link. This week, five Christmas carols appeared in my inbox.

1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This is Tracy’s absolute favorite Christmas song. Originally sung by Judy Garland in the 1945 movie Meet me in St. Louis. It has been recorded by many greats, including a recent version by Kelly Clarkson. The lyrics resonated with the deployed troops and their families in WWII who could not be together in 1945. They are especially poignant once again: “Through the years we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow/ So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” The melancholy is palpable (and these aren’t even the original words, which have been revised several times to make the song more upbeat!). We commonly use music to process emotions, trauma, and grief. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas has been doing this for generations. Since 1945, it has served to remind us that the holidays are complex occasions emotionally and psychologically – some years more than others. It also implores us to find joy in the here and now despite life’s hardships. Sounds like something my therapist would say.

2. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire). Nat King Cole made this one famous. “Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight / They know that Santa’s on his way…to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” A parent of two young children observed to me that this song is full of lies. Her older son has started to ask about Santa and flying reindeer. She wonders why we tell these stories and whether she can really look him in the eye and assure him that Santa will come through the chimney, eat the cookies they baked for him, and fly onward with Rudolph leading Dasher and Dancer and the rest of the flying herd. Why do we do it? Adults create mythical characters like Santa as a way of creating space in the world of reality for imagination and creativity. Stories that are magical and fantastical transcend the daily grind and sharp edges of the world and reconnect adults to the joy of childhood, a developmental window characterized by possibility. Maybe the myths are at least as more for the adults as for the kids – a form of nostalgia that transports us “to a long-lost childhood, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” Some mental health professionals worry about the moral dilemma of lying to our kids and the potential loss of trust that might ensue when kids learn the truth. Of course, lying as a general practice is a problem, but the data are scant that say Santa’s time is up.

3. White Christmas. This one makes Tracy’s list every year, not only because it is beautiful but because it tickles her funny bone that it is written by Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. She especially loves the rendition released by Meghan Trainor this year. White Christmas is another song full of longing and imagining. In an NPR interview, author Jody Rosen explains that a “deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his [three-week old] son” who died on Christmas day in 1928. The potential therapeutic and cathartic role that writing White Christmas may have had for Berlin is striking from a mental health perspective. We know that journaling is a powerful tool for working through trauma and grief. Lyrics are a form of journaling. We also know that music has the therapeutic capacity to impact mood. In Berlin’s personal journey of healing, he created a wistful melody that so effectively speaks to universal longing, imagination and hope that it is a truly quintessential Christmas carol.

4. O Holy Night. Tracy vacillates between O Holy Night and Silent Night as her favorite religious Christmas carol. “O Holy Night” has been winning lately, but she really doesn’t have to choose because Carrie Underwood put both songs on her latest Christmas album. Music has been used to carry cultural narratives since time immemorial. Not a single human society has been found that does not have some form of music. Evidence of the deep biological roots of music and the value of music in psychological development, emotional processing, and transmission of culture abound. Religious Christmas carols are a specific example of leveraging the intrinsic power of music to instruct and reinforce particular narratives and lessons. Used for math, science and foreign language, the same principles apply here.

5. I’ll Be Home for Christmas. This is another WWII era Christmas carol. Recorded in 1943 and made famous by Bing Crosby, the song is told from the view of a soldier stationed overseas during WWII writing a letter to his family. “I’ll be home for Christmas / if only in my dreams.” I was hoping I might get Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as Tracy’s fifth favorite, but clearly this year is not about having all our wishes come true. This is a year where themes of longing and being together dominate. The reminder here for me is that every moment in history is unique and every moment of history has corresponding moments from the past that can teach us about loss, longing, coping, and resilience.

Christmas carols tell and animate stories. They express our emotional experience in ways that help us remember, imagine, and heal. They create and tap into memories seared in our brains that unleash feelings of hope, magic and wonder. This holiday season presents us with particular strains and longing. Tracy’s favorite Christmas carols invite us to put our experience in the context of history, to embrace the bitter and the sweet, and to take inspiration from Kelly Clarkson and reach for some high notes so that next year we can look back and smile.

Next Friday is Christmas Day and the following is New Year’s Day so my next post will be January 8th. Wishing you healthy holidays and a bright new year filled with vaccines! 

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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