One of the most enjoyable things about the Christmas season — for me at least — is the music. I grew up singing in Christmas pageants and continued to do so into my thirties. And I stopped not because I no longer liked singing or liking Christmas music, but just because I found flaws in the whole “big-event” mentality of American Christianity (including pageants). I still love to hear songs about the season, whether church-based or “secular.” Even today, when I took my daughter to the mall so she could do her Christmas shopping (all done in an hour and a half — I’m so proud of her!), I found myself grooving to the latest versions of the holiday tunes I grew up with.
So it got me to thinking: if I were to put together a Christmas playlist — say, a dozen songs — what would be on it? Over lunch and later on, I started scribbling down a few seasonal favorites. Granted, I’m willing to tolerate almost any Christmas tune except “Santa Baby” (the touching ballad of a gold-digging tart asking for all the possessions she can possibly drag off), but I was shooting for the ones that are most special to me, for whatever reason. And here they are:
(Note: links provided when available.)
1. The Magnificat – John Michael Talbot: Only fitting, as the Magnificat (aka the Song of Mary — see Luke 1:46-55) is really the first Christmas song. Mary’s oration at the greeting of Elizabeth is still powerful; our family was reading it just a couple of Sundays ago and it still got me a bit misty. It would be hard, I think, to do a bad version of it, and that of Talbot (one of the founding fathers of contemporary Christian music, and now a Franciscan monastic) is as pure as Mary’s heart.
2. Grown-Up Christmas List – Amy Grant: Granted, I jumped off the Amy bandwagon back in 1998, and haven’t been back since. But for this song (one I once sang as an offertory), I make an exception. Grant and David Foster’s lyrics still ring true regarding my hopes for a season of peace, and the song in general reminds me of why I liked her music in the first place.
3. Silent Night (any acoustic version): I grew up on the story (or at least the urban legend) of how Father Josef Mohr brought the lyrics to his friend Franz Gruber on Christmas Eve 1818 and asked him to compose music for them for guitar, because the church organ was busted and they needed something for the Christmas service. Even the Austria-based Silent Night Society (no joke, there actually is such a group!) isn’t sure of the exact circumstance that led to its creation, but it doesn’t matter — few more beautiful tunes have ever been written, in any language or for any season.
4. Baby, It’s Cold Outside – James Taylor & Natalie Cole: All right, all right — I know it’s not really a Christmas song, and its basic plot (a guy trying to talk a girl into spending the night at his place) frankly makes me uncomfortable. But I do know this version from a Sweet Baby James Christmas album. And I love the fact that you have a Caucasian man and an African-American woman doing a romantic duet, something that could never have happened in this country a generation ago. (Keep in mind that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down laws against interracial marriage, came down in 1967 — barely before I was born.) It’s nice to have a reminder that while our society is far from perfect, there is reason for hope.
5. O Holy Night (any version, EVER, but how about Celine Dion for starters?): I can honestly say that I’ve never heard a bad version of this song, and am not sure one even exists — every one that has fallen on my ears has ranged from very good to magnificent. It really sweeps me up into the heavenlies, figuratively speaking. And it”s a kick to sing, whether by one’s self or in a group.
6. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer – Elmo & Patsy: okay, time for a little humor, courtesy of this particularly goofy novelty classic. I remember my mom taking me to the annual Christmas Craft Faire they held (still hold? I dunno) at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium, and one year Elmo & Patsy — still unknowns at the time; their one hit wouldn’t go nationwide until years later — performed there. Mom was amused enough to buy their album, and it became one of her holiday favorites. And by extension, one of mine. Good memories.
7. The Audition – Steve Roslonek (sorry, couldn’t find a link): Roslonek (aka SteveSongs) does a lot of music for PBS’s Preschool Destination block, of which my son Sean is an avid viewer. Checking Rhapsody, I was able to download five albums’ worth of his music, including this goofy but touching story-song (from Marvelous Day) about Matthew Campbell, whose great ambition is to sing a solo in the Christmas pageant. It ends up being a classic boy-meets-girl (rival for the solo), boy-sabotages-girl, boys-apologizes-and-ends-up-singing-a-duet-with-girl story, all to the tunes of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Take my word for it, it’s really quite sweet.
8. The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie: if I recall correctly, the story behind this one is that Bowie had just signed with RCA in 1977, and the suits (possibly after a twelve-martini lunch) decided they would pair their newest artist with their oldest artist, Der Bingle. You’d think disaster was on the horizon, but these two consummate pros make it work, with a cute background plot line (don’t forget, they’ve both done a little acting) and a version that rivals “Grown Up Christmas List” and U2’s “Peace on Earth” as a heart-cry for God to reach down and stop the madness in this fallen world … at least for a few days.
9. Christmas at Denny’s – Randy Stonehill: Co-written by Uncle Rand and Mark “The Truth Hurts” Heard, this is a six-minute brick to the head — a stark reminder that not everyone is as fortunate in this season as we are, and that some people need the hope of the Incarnation more than we imagine. If you hear this song for the first time, and you don’t tear up, check your pulse.
10. Adeste Fidelis (any version, but preferably one with a choir): Putting in this one for Nina. The original (Latin) version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” was her grandfather’s favorite hymn, and though he died several years ago, she still can’t hear it without a sniffle. I’d hear about it if this wasn’t on the list.
11. You Gotta Get Up – Rich Mullins: remember the sheer joy of waking up on Christmas morning and realizing The Day Was Finally Here? One of my heroes comes closer to capturing that sense in song than anyone else I’ve ever heard. It might be a little silly … but when we receive a gift we could never deserve (especially the greatest Gift of all), it’s only natural to get giddy.
12. God Is with Us/Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again, no link, alas): I’m going to write more about this song later this week (probably Christmas Eve), but it was while singing this medley in a Christmas pageant in the early 1990s that — really for the first time — the reason for and spirit of Christmas hit me full-force. Because it’s all about the God who didn’t stay at a distance, but came down to walk and live with us … Immanuel. Gifts and celebrations and goofy songs about Santa’s reindeer committing vehicular manslaughter are fun and all, but the Incarnation of Jesus is the real point — and the most joyous part — of this season. Only fitting that the list closes with a reminder of it.
So there it is. Enjoy. And Merry Christmas!