Times Staff Writer
Standing in the baking aisle at Publix, a woman tries to decide which combination of sprinkles and frosting will impress at the Christmas cookie swap while the third version of Jingle Bells in the last hour pumps through the store speakers. She taps her foot and hums along.
The next aisle over, a young man going through divorce listlessly fills his cart, trying mightily to block out the cheerful tune.
It's the same song, but it has a profoundly different effect.
Every November, a virtually unavoidable deluge of happy, upbeat music marks the advent of the holiday season and continues until the arrival of the new year.
For those who have lots of happiness, love, and family and friends in their lives, they welcome carols to their car rides, shopping trips and social gatherings. The merry melodies can enhance their joy and gratitude.
But some folks struggling with loss or depression may find that the constant holiday spirit only exacerbates their pain.
"People who already have diagnosed emotional health conditions are indeed predisposed to worsening mood, anxiety and feelings of social isolation," said Dr. Rahul Mehra, a board-certified psychologist based in Indian Rocks Beach.
MaryFrances Papadakis, a licensed mental health counselor who practices in Largo and St. Petersburg, agrees.
"Holidays can be especially difficult for those experiencing grief and loss of a loved one, or the loss or lack of a relationship or support system," she said.
It's widely believed that depression and suicide rates skyrocket during the holiday season, but research doesn't support the assertion.
In fact, suicide rates are at their lowest in November and December, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
One reason that myth endures is a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which relates to a reduction in sunlight exposure and is most commonly seen in the northeastern U.S.
Numerous research affirms the powerful effects music can have on moods and emotions, whether negative or positive.
"If a person suffered a traumatic event in his life and during the event there was a particular song represented around it, the 'musical memory' can reactivate the feelings and emotions surrounding the trauma," Mehra said. "But music has also been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. It can help relax our tensions, calm our anxieties and distract our minds from our worries."
Music leaning more toward the melancholy can sometimes soothe those who are struggling with loss or depression during "the most wonderful time of the year."
The subject matter of the song — a breakup or a death, for example — can remind holiday sufferers that they're not alone.
Palm Harbor singer Victor Washington will perform Every Year, Every Christmas by Luther Vandross in an upcoming holiday concert.
"It's a well-written story," he said of the 1995 hit. "Songs are always our short stories. This one has themes of happiness, disappointment, and hope — a perfect mix of emotions."
Even the often-haunting timbre, minor chords, and low octaves of the composition itself can be comforting.
Lyrics, of course, are important contributors to the feelings the song is trying to evoke.
For example, the timeliness of Stevie Wonder's classic Someday at Christmas can't be ignored in light of how divisive the country has become,
Someday all our dreams will come to be
Those who are serving overseas can find solace in a variety of songs written just for them.
In Marvin Gaye's Vietnam war tribute I Want To Come Home For Christmas, he worries about his family being without him for the holiday.
I'm a prisoner of war lying here in my cell
Hoping my family is well
Wish they wouldn't worry so much about me
Just try to get us home in time for the Christmas tree
For a new generation of listeners, plenty of popular artists have covered these traditionally somber ballads, putting a new spin on them.
Sam Smith's unmistakable a capella introduces his wistful version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, while easy listening-darling Michael Buble honors his predecessors with a big-band version of I'll Be Home For Christmas.
"It gives people something to relate to," Papadakis said. "People can use music to dwell on emotions or memories."
Local fans of holiday pieces have no shortage of ensemble performances to choose from, including the annual "Tidings of Good Cheer" concert presented by the Florida Wind Band. This year's show will take place on Sunday (Dec. 18) at the University of South Florida's School of Music.
"I believe most people are looking for a happy, warm, peaceful place away from the normal pressures of life -- a way to recall the lovely feelings from the past without any of the pain," said John C. Carmichael, Florida Wind Band conductor and USF director of bands. "Music can help with that."
Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin