What would Christmas be without the music?
Somehow, every December, something happens to all the pop hits that we’ve heard way too often. Suddenly, all the music is transformed into merry songs of joy and cheer – and often cheesy silliness. It’s wonderful! I didn’t realize how much I actually like those classics – “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” even good old “Rudolf” and “Frosty the Snowman” – until last month’s craft fair. They played a list of them, and it put me in a jolly spirit a few weeks early.
But a couple of days of that nonstop is more than enough!
What I mean by Christmas music is different than those cheery, holly-jolly holiday tunes – as you shall see! Growing up, we were never content with music for simple nostalgia’s sake: Being a musical family, we got into not only a wide range of music, but also the meanings behind it. So here (in no particular order) are 10 of my favorite pieces of Christmas music:
- The Nutcracker Suite. Tchaikovsky is such fun to listen to! And some of the pieces of this are also transcendent and beautiful (like the “Pas de deux” and the “Waltz of the Snowflakes”). Our traditional experience of the ballet is not a staged version, but this one by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
- Carols. I could go on and on about the old songs of the Christmas season! In fact, I could probably make a separate list of 10 favorites and why each is so great – like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Holy Night,” “The Carol of the Bells…” But even the not-so-great songs get their really good versions (like this, and this). There is such beauty and depth in even the simplest “Silent Night” – so much to rediscover and love each year!
- “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Take this carol, for instance. Put the comma in the right place, and what a statement it is! Not simply “merry” but also more: “Gentlemen, rest in the peace of God, despite the darkness of life. Do not be dismayed. Remember, Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas day…”
- “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.” This haunting, beautiful carol is from an early medieval liturgy; it’s over 1500 years old! (That is so cool.) It is a contemplation of the incarnation, with words taken from the prophet Habakkuk. Looking for a good version to listen to, I discovered this amazing album, which has many other lovely songs too!
- “Carol of the Kings.” A modern song from the album “Christmas in Diverse City,” this mixes “Carol of the Bells” and “We Three Kings” into something extraordinary. It’s a song about Black Friday, of all things, and shoppers suddenly confronted by the real reason for Christmas.
- Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Fun to listen to, a totally different take on holiday music from the usual, and really rocky. I don’t like everything they do, but sometimes one of their songs crosses from good to incredible: “The Prince of Peace,” “The Lost Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Canon Rock…”
- Mannheim Steamroller. Again, everything they’ve done isn’t wonderful; but the televised live show from who knows how long ago was a tradition in our house for a long time. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is wonderful, “Messengers of Christmas” is inspiring, “Pat-a-Pan” and “Fum Fum Fum” are really cool.
- “Christmas” by Michael W. Smith. I grew up on this album, and it gets better every time you listen to it. Only a couple of traditional carols appear and then in unusual form; the rest is original, chorale songs contemplating the mystery and grace that is Christmas. Look for “No Eye Has Seen” and “Anthem for Christmas,” but it’s all good! Especially the grand finale, and –
- “All is Well.” This deserves a mention of its own. The most haunting and beautiful song of the album, it starts soft and simple with a boys’ choir, like a lullaby, and mounts into a symphony! Frank Peretti wrote a story of the same name (well worth a listen if you can find it!), which explains the song: Much is wrong with the world – there is so much that is hard. But just this once every year we remember that all is well, “for tonight darkness fell into the light of God’s grace…”
- “One Small Child” by David Meece. A simple and popular modern carol, fairly often done. But the original, sung by David Meece himself and sadly hard to find, takes the simplicity and transforms it so that it’s fierce and heartbreaking: This is a song about the least and last, a tiny fragile hope buried in obscurity in the darkness of a forgotten night. “One small dream of a savior tonight…”
And there you go! 10 of my favorites. A little strange; but there is a theme: The music that I find best at Christmas deals with the reason why we need a Christmas at all – that the world is filled with pain and difficulty. And yet…
“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Happy 5th day of Christmas!