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December 8, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Music | December 8, 2008 |

We all need an antidote to the over-the-top forced jollity of holiday songs, most of which are better known for their ability to become lodged in your brain than for their quality. For every song as beautiful and sweet as “Silent Night” or “Christmas Must Be Tonight” there are seemingly 20 versions of “Jingle Bells” blasting from every available speaker this time of year. It’s enough to make you want to join Grandma underneath those reindeer hooves. And as much as I love a rousing “Good King Wencenslaus,” I realize that a) I am in the minority on that one, and b) sometimes the intensity of holiday cheer in these songs collides headlong with the reality of challenging family members, exhausting social obligations, and impossible-to-execute recipes. I find it helpful to remember that northern Europeans celebrate holidays at this time of the year because it is incredibly cold and dark. So while you may be contending with a sense of postmodern ennui as you brace yourself for another round of festivities, keep in mind that many of our forebears spent this time of year in mortal terror that the sun was never going to return.

So in that spirit, here are my favorite songs to remind you that the holidays aren’t uniformly pleasant for anyone, and that if you’re feeling ambivalent this season, you’re not alone.

Honorable Mention: “Fairytale of New York” — The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl

5. “Christmas Time Is Here” (Theme from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”): A lot of people find the holidays difficult precisely because there is such pressure to be happy, and for everything to go perfectly. That stress, combined with the sense that everyone else is having more fun than you, can make the holiday season feel interminable. This song describes the joys of the season, but to me the children’s voices sound somewhat world-weary, and the downbeat tempo seems almost unnaturally slowed-down. A great song to keep it all in perspective and to remind you of the profundity of Charlie’s forlorn little tree.

4. “Not Dark Yet” — Bob Dylan: My least literal of the bunch — yes, I realize this isn’t a Christmas song. At all. But it makes me feel like I’m trudging along some sidewalk at twilight, facing the wind, watching the twinkling of colored lights on the snow.

3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — Traditional: This is kind of a sleeper — it’s not one people think of as sad, but listen to the words and delivery and trust me: If you’ve left the house on some pretext involving replenishing the nutmeg just to get away from the flaming turkey/drunken houseguest/horror that your family has become, when this song comes on at the Quik-Mart, you may find yourself in tears before you know quite what’s going on.

2. “A Long December” — Counting Crows: This song totally captures that strange mix of hope and regret that can accompany the end of another year. I remember driving around in the snow with a good friend singing it at the top of our lungs when it first came out. Makes me want to go smoke a cigarette outside in the cold.

1. “River” — Joni Mitchell: Incredibly gorgeous, evocative and painful, this is so good that it’s become a kind of alternative standard, finding its way onto holiday albums by artists from James Taylor to Aimee Mann. I still love Joni’s original, but my first year in college I listened to it so much that its actually tough for me to hear now. If you’re up for some thoughtful wallowing, pour yourself a drink and listen to Robert Downey, Jr.’s uniquely devastating version.

Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate is a lady lawyer in Portland, Maine.

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Music | December 8, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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