Christmas music: a gateway to emotions of the season

by Sarah Pearson

The music of the holidays is one of the most emotional parts of this season for many people. As a music therapist, many clients I see right now express a desire to sing and play Christmas music. Though I do not come from a Christian faith background, twenty-two years of singing in choirs – many of them church choirs – has given me a thorough understanding of Christian liturgy and musical traditions.  The music of the Christmas season is nostalgic, meaningful, and mysterious to me.  Much of this music, in my opinion, evokes the magic of the solstice season that transcends faiths and cultural backgrounds.

In a recent session with a client, we sang and discussed music for the Advent season (the liturgical season in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day). The client was explaining his thoughts on what Advent means to him, discussing in particular the Biblical quote from Isaiah: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” What does it mean to walk in darkness, only to suddenly experience light? The client shared his insight on this: it’s the absence of hope, he said, that makes the sudden appearance of hope so meaningful. That tension between hopelessness and hope is, for him, at the heart of this season. We then sang “Oh Come, Emmanuel” together – a classic advent hymn that evokes feelings of joyous longing with its minor, chant-like melody.

Advent music traditionally can be quite haunting, mournful, and mysterious. In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, masses during Advent are always sung in plainchant, rather than in full joyous polyphony (the only other liturgical season where the mass is chanted is Lent). That simple chant line evokes a sense of barrenness and longing – much like the barrenness of the earth during these dark days, as we fill our windows and homes with lights in anticipation of festivity.

The client and I ended our session singing through the popular Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” This is another minor melody that, by contrast, sends a message about joy and happiness. The chorus, in a sad, almost urgent minor, wishes its listeners “glad tidings of comfort and joy.” We closed our session discussing the oddness of wishing tidings of “comfort” and “joy” with a melancholy-sounding melody. Again, the tension between hopelessness and hope rose to the surface. Wishing our loved ones “comfort and joy” has the shadow of joy’s absence. In the wishing of these blessings, we acknowledge the fragility of these experiences.

Those of us in caregiving roles may experience the fleetingness of comfort and joy on a daily basis. Discomfort, pain, loss, grief, and despair are some of the most common reasons people may reach out to Room 217’s resources. This joyous season, for all its merriness, carries with it also the recognition of suffering and sadness in the world, and often in our own lives (recently-bereaved people often speak of the holidays as being some of the most difficult times in their grief). Christmas music can be one of the most powerful gateways into the many emotions of the season. It can acknowledge the darkness, pain, and hopelessness when the holidays are evoking strong emotions. And through those emotions, the music of the season – like all music - can also bring us true comfort and true joy.