A friend of mine recently attended a music concert during the Christmas season at a Christian college, and the set list was almost entirely devoid of religiously inspired songs. By now, we’re accustomed to zealous secularists trying to prevent the spread of religious ideas, even words, in venues like public schools. But this was at a Christian college.
Perhaps the musicians he heard are among those worried about appearing too Christian or as the wrong type of insensitive Christian in what they say and sing during this month. Sadly, this only encourages the worst of the worst “Christmas music” to proliferate—songs about Santa or snow or romance or “the season.”
But I really don’t want to make this about “Christmas wars.” By now, these have become predictable and tiresome (and in some cases also fabricated). We all know the drill. During the Christmas season, should we encourage people to say the words “Merry Christmas” to honor old-time civil religion? Or should we instead signal our pluralist values and progressive civic righteousness by insisting on “Happy Holidays”? It’s all become quite repetitive and depressing.
I certainly don’t have the solution to all this, but if you need an antidote to vanilla and dumbed-down Christmas music at this time of year and don’t feel like confronting your school, choir, or town official, there’s a solution. Listen to good Christmas music of your own choosing. It’s as close as your music streaming service and local library’s CD collection.
For classical music fans, nothing surpasses J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and George Fredric Handel’s “Messiah” during the Christmas season. Beyond these grand works, there are countless wonderful anthems and carols on Christmas themes. You can find a list of some of them here.
If your tastes run more to popular, folk, or jazz music, there are still plenty of beautiful, creative, and moving interpretations of classic Christmas songs in a Christian vein to listen to. Here are some favorites that can serve as an antidote for unsatisfying Christmas music concerts (as well as various other sad and troubling things in our world).
1. Mahalia Jackson, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” on “Christmas with Mahalia”
The opening notes bathe you in the piano-electric organ gospel sound that Mahalia Jackson made legendary. Her big voice that earned her the title “Queen of Gospel” is certainly here too. But so too is Mahalia at her most sensitive. She’s drops down to almost quarter-voice (no less soulful or intense) on “from tender stem hath sprung.”
2. Nana Mouskouri, “Minuit, Chrétiens” on “Christmas with Nana Mouskouri”
The song we know as “O Holy Night” began its life as a French carol. The familiar English translation subtly recasts the song’s tone. Nana Mouskouri’s recording in the original French powerfully reminds us of the demands of the Christ-child born in a humble manger.
Because she sings so sweetly and so clearly, it’s a delight to draw on your high school or college French and try to translate at least a few snatches of the song, including the first refrain: “It is to your pride that God preaches. Bow your heads before the Redeemer!”
3. Sting, “Gabriel’s Message” on “A Very Special Christmas”
We sometimes forget that angel visitations in biblical accounts often produced fear and dread. Why, after all, would so many angels in the Bible need to announce, “Fear not”? It’s because they’re messengers of almighty God. Sting’s recording of “Gabriel’s Message” captures this. This isn’t a sweet choirboy performance, but a pulsing, energetic take on the song, suitable for singing about a supernatural being with “eyes like flame.”
4. Pete Seeger, “Masters in This Hall” on “Traditional Christmas Carols by Pete Seeger”
There once was a time when even old lefties sang Christian Christmas songs. No one has sung the refrain of “Masters in This Hall” with more gusto than Pete Seeger: “Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! Nowell, sing we loud! God today hath rais-ed up the poor and cast-ed down the proud.” Listeners today don’t have to adopt the politics of either Seeger or composer William Morris to ponder what Jesus’ arrival means for status and position in this world and the next.
5. Bruce Cockburn, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” on “Christmas by Bruce Cockburn”
Bruce Cockburn’s name isn’t often mentioned with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and other legendary guitarists, but it should be. His driving, toe-tapping guitar playing is perfectly suited for this traditional Christmas carol.
6. Dave Brubeck, “O Tannenbaum” on “A Dave Brubeck Christmas”
Jazz also has its share of wonderful Christmas recordings. If “O Tannenbaum” (or “O Christmas Tree”) has been ruined for you by too many strident, shouty performances, listen to Dave Brubeck’s interpretation. It’s just what the doctor ordered, perfect music for Christmas contemplation.
7. Oscar Peterson, “What Child Is This?” on “An Oscar Peterson Christmas”
This is a rich, lush jazz treatment of a Christmas classic with brushed cymbals, massed strings, and a beautifully dragged beat. All this, plus Oscar Peterson’s legendary piano-playing: both delicate and ornate.
8. Sufjan Stevens, “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” on “Silver & Gold”
One of the most creative and talented musicians today, Sufjan Stevens also clearly loves Christmas music. He packed 100 Christmas songs onto two multi-CD Christmas collections, “Songs for Christmas” and “Silver & Gold.” The songs are all over the spectrum in mood and tone—sweet and funky and raucous and dissident—but they’re almost all brilliant.
Who can choose just one? I’ll go with a recording of a group of his friends singing the first verse of this Bach chorale over spare piano accompaniment. The voices aren’t classically beautiful, but they’re full of emotion. Listen for Sufjan’s voice wavering and cracking on “Our peace eternal making.”
So what do we make of a playlist like this? Some of these artists made recording choices in part because of their religious beliefs. Jackson was shaped by the black church and was a particularly huge of “Dr.” Isaac Watts’ hymns. She loved both their message and the way they could be “lined out” for congregational and choir singing.
Although Stevens has been reluctant to take up the label of “Christian musician,” he’s a thoughtful believer who has led Christmas sing-alongs at some of his shows. Fans here are given songbooks with John Wesley’s advice to “sing lustily and with good courage” printed on the cover. Brubeck was and Cockburn is a Christian believer. The rest of the performers on this playlist have either said nothing publicly about religion or distanced themselves from it.
Yet all of these musicians chose to record these and many other traditional religiously inspired Christmas songs seemingly without concern or worry about listeners’ sensitivities. What a contrast to what many of us experience today. Whatever these artists’ beliefs, they weren’t going to let Christian lyrics get in the way of making great music. May their number increase.