The Bleak Midwinter: Why Sad Music at this Time of the Year?

Photo "Stark" by Daniel Luby is courtesy of

Photo “Stark” by Daniel Luby is courtesy of

I wrote this column last year and it turned out to be a huge hit on this blog, so decided to run it again this year.

Dear Christmas Advice-Giver,

Why are some of the religious Christmas Carols so sad when this is the season of happiness?  I mean, really, “In the Bleak Midwinter?” Nothing like a downer.  Aren’t we all supposed to be just super joyful right now?  And what does “bleak” mean anyway?

Signed, “Bleakless”

Dear Bleakless,

Here’s the situation:  For much of Christian church history (i.e., before advertising took over the world), the four weeks before Christmas Day were weeks of soul-searching, fasting, and preparation.  The formal name for this time is Advent, which simply means “coming toward.”  So, we are “coming toward” the entrance of Jesus into the world.  The question before the people is this:  “Why?  Why does the world need a Savior?”

Let us think about it and take a few minutes to intentionally enter the suffering of the world.  As a starter, consider the untold millions who are what is called “food insecure.” They really don’t know if there is adequate food even for the day to keep them from gnawing, weakness-inducing, muscle-wasting hunger.

Next, notice the pockets of extreme political instability. We see people sitting on their spark-ready tinderboxes, just waiting for the next provocation, imagined or real, to appear.

Finally, we might look at economic and climate uncertainties. With a tightly interconnected world economy and a fragile and vulnerable infrastructure, the relative comfort experienced by many could realistically disappear within hours.

Now, does the world need redeeming?

Do we need to be set free from the binding chains of darkness?

Do we need healing?

Do we need to connect with people across the divide of intractable differences?

Do we need to use our creative minds for the larger good rather than mutual destruction?

Do we need to relearn the rhythms of life, work, play and worship that nourish and fill us rather than overly-stimulate us and then squeeze the last drop of life-moisture from us?

If we can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then music that reflects the deep longings of the soul makes a lot more sense.  Seriously, most of us really do want world peace for Christmas.

So, let’s think a bit about the push to be “super joyful” right now.  Where do you primarily see that message?  Mostly from businesses who want you to buy their stuff, the more expensive the better and, lots and lots of it.  They hold out promises that if you do, you will find utter bliss upon either giving or receiving that stuff.

Certainly gift-giving is a great idea. I don’t want to dismiss that custom. We need celebrations, and we especially need them as the days become shorter and the nights become longer. We need lights and music and festivities. We need Christmas Day.

But a world with only lights, and never the darkness to appreciate them, quickly turns dull and unappreciated.

Many churches hold a service this time of year called a “Blue Christmas” services (ours is at 7:00 pm Friday Dec. 20; check churches near you for their schedules). A “Blue Christmas” service intentionally moves into the melancholy of the season, and is especially geared to those whose lives are a bit bleak and who have suffered great loss in the past year or so.

The song, “In The Bleak Midwinter,” originally written as a Christmas poem by Christina Rosetti in 1872, was set to music in the early 1900’s.  The words beautifully show both the loneliness (bleakness, empty, hard, cold) of Jesus’ birth and our human incapacity to give adequately in response to such a great gift given to us.

By entering into the sorrow of the season, we gain greater capacity to find the delight and joy in it as well.

Merry Christmas,

Your friendly Christmas Advice-Giver

In The Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed  the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;  but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can ; I give him:  give my heart.

2 thoughts on “The Bleak Midwinter: Why Sad Music at this Time of the Year?

  1. I find it hard to see how anyone could find Rossetti’s poem “bleak”. It has a glorious image of Jesus divine and human, and I find “give my heart” a transformative gift, full of potential. Sticking with the minor key, “ransom captive Israel”- acknowledging difficulty- changes to “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

    In the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

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