Fruit cake and cookies and mince pie, oh my. Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Sinatra let’s cry. Holiday music is like egg nog: They’re both great in small doses, but too much of either can make you sick. And when it comes to holiday tunes, a study shows that this is scientifically true.
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair — no relation to the demon-possessed, projectile vomiting character from The Exorcist… blechhh — notes that listening to Christmas music can trigger stressful feelings.
“Christmas music is likely to irritate people if it’s played too loudly and too early,” Blair told Healthline. “It might make us feel that we’re trapped. It’s a reminder that we have to buy presents, cater for people, organize celebrations. Some people will react to that by making impulse purchases, which the retailer likes. Others might just walk out of the shop. It’s a risk.”
Licensed social worker Scott Dehorty concurs. “Instead of feeling warm feelings of family and giving,” he said, Christmas music “can trigger thoughts of how many people we need to shop for, party planning, traveling, seeing relatives we may not want to see, and all sort of negative feelings.”
Some big-box stores have been cranking the Christmas music since the day after Halloween. Many of us who are bipolar work retail, where Christmas music is ubiquitous. When I worked at the grocery store, the songs were repeated so often that I had the playlist memorized. It ruined Christmas music for me — but luckily only for that year.
But for those of us with mental illness, holiday music can have even more detrimental effects. Although I personally love classics such as Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and its cool ’60s jazz vibes and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, some of my bipolar brethren find even the jauntiest of jingles to be a bummer. (For those that enjoy holiday tunes, check out a Spotify mix of new classics that I sent out a couple years ago as a Christmas card.)
Yuletide tunes can trigger loneliness or depression if what’s supposed to be a merry time only reminds you of what you don’t have, like when you’re far away from your family or estranged from them altogether. If so, what’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year” can instead be the most miserable. And while it may be a myth that there are more suicides that take place during the holidays than in other times of year, loneliness and despair still occur.
For one thing, the days of the holiday season are literally some of the darkest. The sun sets earlier and earlier until the winter solstice on Dec. 21, when it starts to gradually get lighter by one minute each day. So if you are prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as I am, it’s a depressing time. (I have the benefit of being able to escape the SADness of Chicago to visit my parents in Hawaii. But others aren’t so lucky.)
Social worker Dehorty emphasizes that if we hear Christmas music, we’re not required to like it.
“One issue is that we all feel like we should be enjoying the music and atmosphere,” Dehorty says. But as my doc says, “There is no should. So heed Dehorty’s advice: “Make the holiday what you want and enjoy it. Make it about giving or volunteering for those in need. Start new traditions you look forward to.”
To that end, I want to recommend you flip the idea of holiday music on its head and go in the opposite direction: Find deliberately dreary or silly songs and revel in their inanity.
If you’re going for merrily morose, one Christmas song that shows the B-side of holiday cheer is Joni Mitchell’s “River,” off her masterpiece 1971 album Blue. Its inverted-“Jingle-Bells” piano melody in a minor key feels sad. And so do its lyrics:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
“We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” Mitchell told NPR with a giggle in 2014. “In the ‘bah-humbug’ of it all.” Since 1971, “River” has been covered by a multitude of artists from Sam Smith to Travis to Beth Orton.
But as the saying goes, misery loves company. So if you find yourself with a bad case of “Blue Christmas,” find comfort in “River.” And the rest of these songs I’ve collected on a new Spotify mix linked to below. Everything doesn’t have to be jolly 24/7.