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3 ways Christmas can be the saddest holiday, as told through pop culture

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas” isn’t always easy.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has one of the worst, weirdest Christmases of all.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has one of the worst, weirdest Christmases of all.

Not every Christmas is a merry one.

At the core of the almost manically upbeat whirlwind that is the Christmas season, there is often a quiet melancholy. Christmas is supposed to be a time to gather your loved ones close, appreciate what you have, and revel in the spirit of giving. But sometimes being confronted with such aggressive cheer can leave you languishing in the eye of the festive hurricane, wondering why you don't — or can't — connect to the holly jolliness of it all.

Thankfully, pop culture will always be there to commiserate.

Here are three types of blue Christmases, as expressed through movies, television, and music.

1) The "learn to love people — and yourself" Christmas

Scrooge (Michael Caine) learns how to love again, thanks to some persistent Muppets.
Walt Disney Pictures

This brand of Christmas blues is perhaps the most traditional, or at least the most often depicted in pop culture. And the most famous example is Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which tells the story of how one miserly man goes from being the worst kind of withholding jerk to being the world's most generous person, literally overnight — and his transformation just so happens to occur on Christmas Eve.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted so many times — in movies, television episodes, plays — that it's become its own subset of Christmas special. Ebenezer Scrooge, whose coal heart cracks apart and melts into gold, is Christmas's most recognizable transformative story.

It's no coincidence that you can draw a straight line from A Christmas Carol to It's a Wonderful Life, which uses the same structure and wouldn't have nearly the same resonance if Scrooge hadn't set a precedent for George Bailey. (See also: the title character in Dr. Seuss's The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.)

Sure, Bailey is a well-meaning guy — in contrast to Scrooge's aggressively mean spendthrift — but their trajectory is the same: A man who used to be full of optimism and vigor strays into bitterness, and requires the assistance of an otherworldly being to guide him back.

The reason Scrooge and Bailey back away from their respective brinks is because they realize that the world is bigger than themselves — that there are people they can help, and people who love and believe in them, even when they haven't always deserved it.

2) The "going solo" Christmas

There are a couple different catalysts for the solo Christmas.

It can be unintentional, brought about by weather or work obligations. The Mary Tyler Moore Show memorably dipped into this subcategory, mining humor tinged with sadness from Mary having to work the news desk on Christmas Eve.

However, the solo Christmas more often belongs to the recently brokenhearted.

The solo Christmases caused by a breakup are overtly indulgent, luxuriating in their own self-pity — or whichever warm seasonal drink they've opted to drown themselves in. Music is especially prone to wallowing in the aftermath of a breakup during the holiday season. Maybe this is because, for as true-to-life as movies and television can be, there's just something so satisfying about being able to wail along with someone else's pain, not absorbing it so much as reflecting it back.

The go-to Christmas breakup song is Wham's "Last Christmas," which wraps a broken heart with a tinsel bow. Bubblegum pop royalty Carly Rae Jepsen put out a cover of the song just this year, using breathy vocals and a throwback saxophone lick to skate over the breakup with daring optimism.

But not all holiday breakup songs like to pretend everything's dandy. More often than not, they tend to go for the gut punch of trying to make you feel just as depressed as the newly single singer, in five minutes or less.

One of the most devastating breakup entries comes from Rilo Kiley. Frontwoman Jenny Lewis is a master at pinpointing heartbreak and laying it bare for everyone to see — defiant, but destroyed.

"Xmas Cake," a song she wrote with fellow band member Blake Sennett, plucks a mournful, threadbare guitar. Lewis's usually powerful voice lilts through the brokenhearted verses, as if she's too depressed to fully commit. "Xmas Cake" tackles the deep hurt you can hardly express in words, but Lewis and Sennett give it their best, anyway:

When I take off my makeup I look old and defeated,

I'm not so dangerous.

Cry into my Christmas cake

Starin' holes into me all night

You should just give up,

'cause our love's become selling secrets to the Russians they don't need;

the Cold War is on between you and me.

By the song's end, though, Lewis and the band burst into a fuller chorus, jingle bells and backup singers wailing "fa la la" in the background like cruel teases. "Xmas Cake" is one of the purest expressions of Christmas heartbreak, distilled into five bruising minutes.

3) The "grasping for meaning" Christmas

As Christmas draws ever closer, so does the pressure to celebrate it in the "right" or "appropriate" way. Depending on your personal beliefs, this could mean endless combinations of church, family, friends, shopping, and/or just gritting your teeth and trying to get through it all. It can be comforting to know that you can celebrate Christmas many different ways — or it can be completely overwhelming.

From Miracle on 34th Street to Home Alone, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to A Charlie Brown Christmas to The Family Stone, pop culture has always tried to parse what, exactly, the true meaning of Christmas is.

One of my personal favorite explorations, though, is Community's deeply bittersweet claymation adventure "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas."

community christmas episode
Community's study group gathers to watch a Christmas movie.

The NBC-turned-Yahoo sitcom is known for putting its own spin on established genres, but this episode from its second season is particularly good, aping the style of the classic Rankin/Bass TV specials and letting the show's deeply flawed, fucked-up characters play in the brightly lit, candy-colored world without taking any of the edge off their prickly personalities. Even among the gumdrops, everyone in the Community cast is still conflicted, still trying to find some connection, still desperately lonely.

Led by dysfunctional psychology professor Duncan (John Oliver), the Community study group embarks on a Christmas-themed adventure to help their friend Abed (Danny Pudi), who's reimagined them as inhabitants of a stop-motion winter wonderland to help himself avoid harsher realities about his year. While Abed cooks up quite an idyllic world for them — and merry new Christmas personas like a jack-in-the-box and teddy bear for each of his friends — their willingness to come along on this journey and help him on his own terms makes him realize the meaning of Christmas.

The claymation is meticulous (with direction from Anomalisa's Duke Johnson), and with help from the cast's sharp voiceover work, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" becomes a tenderhearted meditation on the fragile but profound power of friendship.

"I get it," Abed says. "The meaning of Christmas is, the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever you want. ... Now, it means being with you guys."

And inevitably, "Christmas can mean whatever you want" is always at the heart of every piece of pop culture that "celebrates" the holiday, in any of its forms (blue or otherwise). Whether it's defined by family, friends, Jesus, heartbreak, or those crazy sales, Christmas is what you make of it.