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A Musical Lament For Those Who Don't Feel The Magic Of Christmas

Kirby Brown says we place too much pressure on Christmas to embody "all of this expectation and hope."
Joseph Robert Krauss
Courtesy Kirby Brown
Kirby Brown says we place too much pressure on Christmas to embody "all of this expectation and hope."

Most Christmas songs are upbeat, such as Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Others are funny or loaded with double entendres, such as the Jackson 5's rendition of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The rest are midnight Mass favorites, such as "Silent Night."

All good. All great.

But for those who suffer from sadness or loneliness during the holidays, singer Kirby Brown saw a need for a different type of song.

Sure, there have been sad Christmas songs.But, he says, none really expressed what Brown experiences during the holiday season — that feeling of missing out.

"I generally do feel emotionally raw during this season," he says.

Brown was born in East Texas. He moved to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas as a boy, and then moved back after his parents split up.

"So, you know, for the last 10 or 15 years there hasn't been much of a hard-and-fast rule for what happens on Christmas with our family," he says.

These days, there's no annual pilgrimage home for Brown. And that makes him similar to many people across the country. Because of work, distance, relationships or hardships, many just stay home during the Christmas season. Others find themselves alone. "You treat Christmas just like the day before," he says.

And yet, even if you count yourself as one of these people, like I do, you can't seem to escape a longing, or maybe yearning, for some holiday magic: That moment when the spirit of the season catches you and you experience the merry feelings best felt in the final scene of Love, Actually.

But therein lies the danger.

"Christmas," Brown says, "becomes this embodiment where we as a people project all of this expectation and hope on this one day, which is not fair. It's not fair of us to expect that out of the holiday season."

It took years for Brown to turn these feelings into a song. And like many creative endeavors, he admits the first version was a mess. Brown wrote a mashup of the Nativity scene and ... Santa Claus.

"Santa being in a holding pattern over Bethlehem," he says. "Like he was looking for somewhere to land a sleigh."

It was a bit of a joke, but not what he wanted the song to be. The idea kept rattling around in his head. While the current song wasn't much, the idea of centering it around a retelling of the Nativity scene had potential.

"I knew that's where I wanted the song to be set," he says. "You know, in Bethlehem or in some imagined version of it."

To tell it well, he needed something more. A character from that era he could relate to. Someone he could embody. A person who might share similar feelings. And if he could find that person, he could tell the story from their perspective.

"I wasn't gonna speak on behalf of the wise men or Mary or Joseph or baby Jesus," he says. "So my imagination kind of got going and I was like, 'Well, what if it was from the perspective of a shepherd?' "

The idea hit him last fall at his home in Nashville, Tenn. Once the idea struck him, he says, the song came to him in half an hour.

Brown was confident he had it. The new version of his song was different. Original. He felt like it was true to his feelings about Christmas. The melody and lyrics gave off plenty of sadness, but maybe, more importantly, they also contained an element of hope:

"I walked down through the village, out past the city lights, up here on a hilltop out of sight. And I hear everybody singing, but I just can't find the tune. If grace is coming, I hope it's coming soon."

"You know, when you're talking about a shepherd who has heard about wise men and heard about a messiah — all the stuff in that original story — like he doesn't know if anything is going to happen," Brown says. "But he's watching and waiting for the payoff, you know, choosing to believe that there still is one even when it doesn't feel like there is."

When he performed "Shepherd's Lament" publicly for the first time in Brooklyn, N.Y., last October, he had no idea how the drunken crowd would react. At first they thought it was a joke, and a couple hecklers did their best to steer him off track. But Brown ignored them. He stepped up to the mic and started strumming the strings of his guitar.

Then, there was complete silence; the audience was totally and completely rapt. His voice sang out through the theater with equal parts melancholy and sweetness.

I know this because I was in the crowd, two beers in and starting to tear up.

As I listened, I found myself imagining what my future held. It wasn't great. I'd be drinking scotch, alone at a bar on Christmas Eve, hoping and wishing that a friend might pop in unexpectedly. But knowing that just wouldn't be the case.

And as Brown reached the chorus, I realized I hadn't felt the holiday spirit in years. I used to cover local and then international news for public radio. That meant working on Christmas. I hadn't spent a holiday back home in nine years. It's not something I'm proud of, and it definitely hurt my mom, a woman who loves Christmas and bakes a near-perfect mint chocolate chip cookie. Being away from family I realized, in a self-imposed exile, contributed to the muted feelings I associated with December.

All this unlocked while listening to his song.

I came out of my thoughts right as Brown strummed a closing chord.

I left the concert early.

Days and weeks passed. Christmas lights went up around Brooklyn. All the while the song stayed with me. I waited for Brown to release it. When he finally did, I played it on a loop. In fact, it's what was playing when my boss came over to my desk this month and told me the project I was working on was in good shape. I could take time off. I finally had the chance to fly home and no excuse not to.

And so a rural Oregon logging town is where I'll be for the holiday. Maybe the spirit will catch me. Maybe it won't. But I'll be there waiting for it with family, knowing I wouldn't be back home had I never heard Kirby Brown sing.

"I guess it's serendipitous that I chose to do it," he tells me. "I was talking to my friend earlier. And he was saying that, you know, he thought it was kind of weird to decide to play a Christmas song in October. But I went for it. I guess I'm glad I did."

I am too, Kirby. I am, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bradley Campbell came to Rhode Island Public Radio from WGBH. In Boston, he worked for The Takeaway as an assistant producer, and as a newswriter for Morning Edition. Before that, he covered the Cape Cod Baseball League for WCAI - The Cape and Island's NPR news station. He's a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME. He completed a fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He got his start writing for the Cleveland Scene and Minneapolis City Pages. Bradley grew up in the rural, logging town of Dallas, Oregon. He likes Stumptown coffee and Bridgestone bikes.