The holidays bring with them a lot of, well, everything – a lot of activity, a lot of emotions, a lot of gatherings, a lot of expectations.
Life doesn’t always understand this. Oftentimes, life brings its own demands to the table, hectic yuletide season be damned. And sometimes, to phrase it for printing on the world’s saddest ugly Christmas sweater, life makes the holidays sort of suck.
This past weekend, while scrolling on my phone for last-minute gift ideas and Christmas Day recipes as my son played nearby with multicolored globs of Play-Doh, I received word that an old friend had very suddenly and unexpectedly died.
His name was Jim. He sang and danced – so well. He traveled the world, and ran over 100 marathons. In fact, he’d recently finished one in Hawaii, and marked its completion with a photo of himself doing a headstand, the way he celebrated every finish line he crossed. The sadness and sheer confusion over his loss have been constants in the days that have passed since – it makes no sense to me that someone so full of life is no longer living, and my heart hurts at the reality of it.
I’m writing this post while looking ahead at the week leading up to Christmas, and while there’s much that I’m genuinely excited for, the idea of getting from one end to the other also feels like a Herculean task. Carrying near-tangible weights of grief and anxiety along with me to errands and choir rehearsals and the office. Grappling with existential musings while getting my brows shaped or making sure the cold weather doesn’t send my son’s screen time total into the stratosphere. Trying to be a part of others’ “merry and bright” while at the moment, I’m neither.
My hope is that many of those reading this are in lighter places. But whether that’s the case or not – and, there’s no need to pretend, should you fall in the latter category – good holiday music can meet you where you are. At least, that’s what I’m largely turning to, to see myself through.
Below is a short list of songs by some stellar women performers that span a range of moods and genres, and stay (largely) secular. Play it while en route to meet loved ones, or wrapping gifts, or driving to the grocery store (a trip I’ll be making at least three times this week). Play it from start to finish, or skip to the songs that speak to the sort of holiday season you’re having.
Play it while being kind to yourselves and others, as we get to the end of this ridiculous year.
Performed by The Carpenters – Karen’s silky, effervescent voice is an essential part of the holidays, and this jaunty cover captures the light that can shine through in dark winter months.
“What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
Performed by Ella Fitzgerald – Speaking of perfect voices… This song falls on the more melancholic end of the seasonal music spectrum, to be sure – though it’s not without hope.
By Joni Mitchell – “Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Whew. For those experiencing holiday heartbreak, this song is an absolute must-listen.
Performed by Sjaella – Composer Ola Gjeilo sought to capture the awe-inspiring wintertime phenomenon that is the aurora borealis with this work. This version is a wonder all its own.
“White Winter Hymnal”
Performed by ARORA (formerly SONOS) – I’m including this soft, near-ethereal cover as an a cappella nerd, but also in honor of Jim, with whom my husband, friends and I sang for a decade.
“Jingle Bell Rock”
Performed by Brenda Lee – Okay, let’s have a little more fun, huh? This track is a holiday staple, and perfect for mingling, for driving in mittens, and for enjoying a spiked cider at home.
“All I Want for Christmas is You”
By Mariah Carey – I promised in my introduction to stay “largely” secular. But there’s no way one can make a holiday playlist without including, as the kids would call it, the GOAT of songs.