If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, the span of holidays from Thanksgiving to New Year’s can feel like running an emotional gauntlet. You survive the empty chair at one holiday, only to endure the onslaught of joy and festivity at the next. As you see the world intent on keeping celebrations jolly and gay, oblivious to loss, you might suspect that the holidays just aren’t for you this year. Where in this world of white Christmases and elves on the shelves could your grief ever fit anyway?
If you find yourself questioning participation in yet another festive day, consider that Christmas carols might offer you entry into celebration of a different kind this year. Store windows may tell a simplistic story of joy that won’t support you as you grieve, but Christmas carols can orient your sorrow in a hope that lasts. This year, let Christmas carols become your grace in grief.
This year, let Christmas carols become your grace in grief.
A Song in the Air
The Christmas story is filled with suffering. Beneath that star in the sky, God’s people lived with the grief of centuries of unmet hopes and expectations. They sorrowed under poverty and oppression. From shepherds living in subsistence to magi wrestling with spiritual longings, the Christmas story is filled with a cast of characters well-acquainted with grief. And, in that tiny creche, a mother birthed a child in a mixture of grief and joy. Her baby was born to die.
If you’re grieving this holiday season, Christmas carols recall these sorrows and invite you into the universal experience of grief. In the companionship of their lyrics, we find acknowledgment of the world’s brokenness, a pain we know intimately. In “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we “mourn in lonely exile,” awaiting the redemption of all things. In “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we weep over “life’s crushing load.” We cry out in choral rounds, “Dona nobis pacem”—give us peace, give us peace. As we raise our voices in tear-filled song, we discover that carols echo all of the sorrows that fill our hearts. They offer space for our grief to belong at Christmas.
The Harmony of Grief and Hope
In 1535, Martin Luther composed a Christmas carol for his family devotional hour. “Welcome to earth, O noble Guest, through whom this sinful world is blest!” he wrote. “You came to share my misery, that you might share your joy with me.” As the best Christmas carols acknowledge our deep grief, they invite us to see our sorrow in light of the cross. Christmas carols welcome us to mourn with hope.
As the best Christmas carols acknowledge our deep grief, they invite us to see our sorrow in light of the cross.
There’s a fine line between rose-colored-glasses optimism and genuine hope, but tried and true Christmas carols hit the mark every single time. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” repeats the truth of Philippians 2. This One who mildly lays his glory by has been born to give us resurrection life. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” reminds us that Christ’s power dispels earth’s darkness and lightens the burdens that we carry. Charles Wesley assures us in “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” that the fears and sorrows plaguing us now will one day find full consolation in Jesus’s presence.
As we sing into the darkness of our grief, music becomes for us, as Maria von Trapp once said, “a powerful instrument, a mighty weapon” of hope.
All Ye Citizens of Heav’n Above
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one at the holidays, no doubt you long for her presence. You miss his twinkling eyes on Christmas morning as you unwrap gifts. You miss her welcoming hug when you enter the house for Christmas dinner. The absence of our loved ones can loom large. Bittersweet memories can choke the joy from even the best-intentioned festivities.
I remember standing in church to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” after my husband died. I didn’t feel particularly festive, and I mumbled the words quietly as the congregation sang with gusto. The music swelled as we began to sing verse two, and suddenly my eyes clouded with tears. “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation; O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!” The words fell fresh on my heart as I realized with startling clarity: I wasn’t singing alone. Yes, the pew beside me stood empty. The space where my husband sat would not be filled again. But as we gathered to celebrate Jesus’s arrival and the inauguration of God’s good kingdom, as a citizen now of heaven, he was singing too.
Christmas carols welcome our sorrow. They masterfully engage it and contextualize it in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And, for those of us who grieve, Christmas carols remind us that we celebrate this year—and every year until Jesus comes again—with the communion of saints. Though absent in body, our loved ones are present in spirit. Together, we lift our hearts in praise to the resurrected Lord who has promised us the “endless bliss” of “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.” As we grieve, we and those we love who have gone before are together the saints of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” watching long for our full redemption.
Holidays are hard when you are grieving, but carols can offer solace. The pain we know here will not be forever. Christ’s birth assures us that God enters into our sorrow and triumphs over it. Until that day of ultimate consummation, our loved ones are safe in his care, already singing his praises. In anticipation of that great day when we will sing together, may carols tune your heart this Christmas. This holiday, with all the company of heaven, let’s rehearse for our everlasting song.
Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!