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Two Songs for the Holidays: One May Hurt, One May Help

Songs for the holidays

The holidays can be an especially difficult time for those of us who can’t be HOME for Christmas. Sure, home means different things to different people, whether you’re a soldier deployed in Afghanistan, a young worker who can’t afford a plane ticket to mom and dad’s house, or an older woman in assisted living whose home was sold years ago. Wherever home is, though, if you can’t be there for the holidays, it hurts.

Today, I spotlight two songs about being home for the holidays. The lyrics have a similar message – that home is the best place to be for Christmastime – but the emotional underpinnings and context for each song are very different. Let’s compare and contrast these two songs:

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Written in 1943 with lyrics by Kim Gannon and music by Walter Kent, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was a top ten hit for Bing Crosby. It’s sung from the point of view of a solider fighting overseas for World War II. The listener imagines this soldier writing a letter home to his family, painting the picture of  a cozy, traditional family celebration complete with snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree. It’s in the very last line that the soldier admits to his reality: “I’ll be home for Christmas/if only in my dreams.”

The tone of this song is melancholy and wistful. Even if the lyrics seem optimistic on their surface, the music acknowledges what was true for the soldier in the original context, and what is true now for anyone else who can’t get home for Christmas: Sometimes all you can do is imagine the beautiful and perfect holiday that’s happening too far away.

(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays

Wreath on fence in snowBy contrast, the 1954 song “Home for the Holidays” is pretty darn chipper. With music by Robert Allen and lyrics by Al Stillman, the song first was a hit for Perry Como. Later, The Carpenters and Barry Manilow recorded popular cover versions of this song.

The lyrics of this song focus on traveling home for a holiday celebration. The singer tells us about people traveling from all corners of the U.S. to get home. The song urges the listener to take a bus, a train, an airplane, or even the family car to get there, saying, “for the pleasure that you bring/when you make that doorbell ring/no trip could be too far.” The musical context is upbeat, too. It starts with a sentimental tone in Bing Crosby’s version, then takes on a jaunty and cheerful spirit. There is no mistaking the message here: Home is the best place to be, and if you want to be happy, you’d better get on your way.

Both songs anticipate a picture-perfect holiday celebration to come, but only one expects you to be there for the experience.

Certainly, there is a place for both songs. When you’re in a cheery, holiday mood, it’s wonderful to have cheery music to play and sing. “Home for the Holidays” is on my playlist for decorating the Christmas tree and driving to relatives’ house for holiday celebrations.

If, however, you’re caring for someone who can’t get home to the holiday celebrations they want, or if you can’t get home yourself, it’s worth considering which of these songs may provide comfort and which may cause heartache this year. Perhaps the message of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” can provide some solace.

As the seasons of life come and go, each of us will have times to be home, and times when we are very far away. I hope that we all can find peace wherever we are this year.

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3 comments… add one
  • Karen DeBraal

    Sometimes home is a disaster of dysfunction. I’d steer clear of homing songs, period.

    • That’s true, Karen. I used to default to that option, of avoiding home songs in general, and I still do so in music therapy groups, where I might not know everyone well enough to know how these songs would affect them or where it usually isn’t the time to help someone process that. I don’t think we should avoid these songs entirely, though, for two reasons. One, many people have fond memories of being at home, and we should honor that. Sharing memories does not necessarily lead to grief or sadness. Two, some people really DO need to process grief or other feelings about not being at home for the holidays, or over dysfunctional family disasters of the past, and these songs can provide a catalyst and container for that kind of therapeutic process.

      For entertainment or recreation purposes, yes, I would avoid these songs. In the hands of a music therapist or other professional, though, these songs could be powerful in a good way.

      • Karen DeBraal

        Thank you for your insightful reply. I like how you took this deeper.

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