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E ven after Thanksgiving, I frequently have to turn off the Christmas music. The holiday cheer is just too grating in a bleak world in which darkness seems to reign. More often than not, the slow, somber “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” resonates with me more than the bright “Joy to the World.” It’s hard to sing and partake of great joy when grief and loss are so present. This is what has been described in recent years as a “blue Christmas”—and this refers to something deeper and more sorrowful than Elvis’s song of the same title.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a number of Christmas carols and hymns that fit my melancholic mood, yet do not leave me in despair. In minor keys and with haunting melodies, hymn writers have penned beautiful words of comfort—of the long-promised Christ, who is Prince of Peace and Light of the World. These words are balm to the weary, sorrowing soul. They carry the meaning of Christmas without in-your-face jolliness.

I think of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who penned a poem that became the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” During the American Civil War, in which his eldest son was severely wounded and nearly paralyzed, and two years after the tragic death of his wife, Longfellow wrote words that hit home today:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”1

Doesn’t that resonate? Amid division, darkness, disease, and death, lies and loss, the waiting is rife with yearning.

O come, thou branch of Jesse’s stem,
Unto thine own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.2

Advent is a season marked by waiting. We are waiting for the coming of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, and we wait, too, for his second coming. We yearn for the One who will bring us comfort and make all things new and right.

But waiting is hard. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one that doesn’t come easily to the human race. (The very word “race” suggests something about our all-too-often hurried and harried lives, doesn’t it?)

With the messiness of life all around us, waiting for all things to be made new is a tall order. When the world is topsy-turvy and everything has gone wrong, or when we must mark the holidays with an empty chair where a loved one should be. When promises have been made, but not yet come to fruition. When we’re lonely and longing for companionship. When hurt runs deep, and the heart has been scarred. When families are broken, seemingly beyond repair. When a diagnosis looms, and Christmases together are limited.

Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, it becomes all too easy to grumble, give up, and get lost in gloom. This is a tension of our living in between Christ’s first and second comings. In the midst of the Israelites’ waiting, prophets foretold the promised Christ. I bet the people had moments—even decades—of doubt and depression as they waited for good news.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.3

We certainly experience doubt and depression in our waiting today, but we have the advantage of knowing the full biblical story. We see God’s promises foretold and fulfilled. I won’t equate song writers to prophets, but carols do have the power to call us back to the promises of God—that God is with us and that Jesus will return.

In the middle of his grief, Longfellow wrote of triumph:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Some days, I need this stanza on repeat as a reassurance that God will make all things right. And, I dare say, our weary, broken world could use some pealing bells as a resounding reminder that God is not dead.

On a starlit night in sleepy little Bethlehem, Christ entered into our darkness—a tender shoot of life and hope. The Lord Jesus lay in a makeshift cradle, wrapped in swaddling cloths, to be with us in the darkness and to save us from it.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death he saves us
And lightens every load.4

In the darkness, the Light shines brilliantly—a solitary match blazing in a dark realm. Indeed, Christ dispels the darkness and lightens every load. And that’s a tiding of comfort and, yes, joy, that keeps this often-weary heart afloat with hope.

I may not be jingling with merriment this year, but I can still celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way. The Christ child brings comfort and calmness that blankets our cries and chaos. Like the carol writers, I have confidence that, as promised, Christ will return and his reign of peace and light will prevail. In the meantime, I borrow these words written long ago and pray them over my own life—and yours, too, if you find yourself in a blue Christmas season:

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.5


1 “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain.
2 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” stanza 4. Public domain.
3 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” stanza 1. Public domain.
4 “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” stanza 3. Public domain.
5 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” stanza 6 and refrain. Public domain.

Becky Getz is a writer and editor for the Reformed Church in America's communication team. You can contact Becky at