What I know from years of blogging (and pastoring) is that people have some FEELINGS about their holiday tunes. We are all attached to our tunes, and that is okay. In fact, the reason I have SO much to say about this topic every year is precisely because good Christmas music can be so meaningful and transformative (for all of us triggered folks). That makes the cringe-worthy, the corny, and the cosmically bad all the more unbearable. I recognize that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is highly subjective, you can have your naughty list and I’ll have mine, etc. But I’m never NOT going to groan when Josh Groban comes on to croon O Holy Night again.
This year, I’ve been thinking less about what I love/hate about holiday playlists, and more about the mystery of what does and doesn’t end up on said list. What gets played on the radio stations and in the malls, what has become popular and what has been obscured by time and the clutter of the airwaves… It’s kind of like the canon. Who knows what authorities elevated some songs and let others fall into the archives, but we somehow wound up with a small collective; variations of the same 12 songs on repeat. And some of them aren’t even Christmas songs.
Case in point: the Leonard Cohen Hallelujah. Just because a song has the word “Hallelujah” in it does not mean it is the same hallelujah as, say, Handel’s Messiah. Cohen’s song is about scripture and sex and love and longing and war and peace–all kinds of holy things– but baby Jesus ain’t it. If anything, it is the very anthem of Holy Week. And miss me with the “Christmas lyrics” to said song. That version just manages to suck all the complexity and nuance out of the original poetry and plop the remaining tune down in the manger. No thanks.
In much the same way, we take any song that mentions ‘winter,’ ‘snow,’ or ‘presents’ and THAT MUST BE A CHRISTMAS SONG. (I’m looking at you, My Favorite Things.) Sure, we’ll play “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” on repeat, starting two weeks before Thanksgiving; but The Band’s Christmas Must Be Tonight dropped off the face of the earth after its initial release. You’ll never hear it on a mainstream loop, but it remains the best commercially recorded Christmas song of all time–come at me.
In fact, some of the best Christmas songs out there are songs you’ll never hear played with the Xmas muzak because they don’t have the word “Christmas” in them at all. Or Jesus. Or Santa. Or even snow. For the most part, they are songs about light; hope in darkness; or joy that comes from unexpected places.
I swear I’m not trying to suck all the fun out of the season. I love a good Mariah Carey/ All I Want For Christmas Is You jam as much as the next person. But I’m more mindful this year of a dull ache as the world hurts, and waits, and wonders. For such a time as this, the mall’s playlist just isn’t going to cut it. Here are seven tunes to add to your seasonal canon; even if the mysterious algorithm never recognizes them as such.
- There’s a Light, Emmylou Harris. Every dang thing on her Light of the Stable album is pure gold, but this one is really something special. It’s got nothing to do with shepherds and wise men… But it’s about waiting for light in the darkness, and waiting for rain in the desert. After spending seven Christmases in Arizona, nothing feels more seasonally appropriate to me than this one.
- Come Darkness, Come Light, Mary Chapin Carpenter. There are years my heart can’t even take this one. I’m not one to get misty during Silent Night on Christmas Eve, but when we sing this for communion somewhere around Advent 3 or 4, I’m done. People are lining up to receive the elements, and I know whose mother just died; and who was just diagnosed with cancer; and whose spouse is dealing with Alzheimer’s even though they haven’t told the kids yet; and who might be about to lose their job; and who’s moving in the new year; and who’s not speaking to their parents this year… and somebody sings “Come any way that you know/come see what love is for,” and if that’s not Christmas then I don’t know what possibly could be.
- Better Days, The Goo Goo Dolls. I was never a huge fan of the Goo Goo Dolls, and “Better Days” had never registered with me as a Christmas song. But a few years ago, one of our worship leaders played it for the prelude on Christmas Eve, and I swear you could feel a collective intake of breath in the sanctuary as people heard it with fresh ears. And then nobody exhaled til it was over. Which is to say, context is everything. Tonight’s the night the world begins again…
- Trumpet Child, Over the Rhine. Slow and bluesy goodness that takes all the power we usually give empire and capitalism, and places it on the head of a child. The lyrics never once say God or Jesus, but the horns tell it all. As they often do.
- Peace Child, the Indigo Girls. Another sleeper hit from a popular Christmas album. If it doesn’t get to you just a little, then your heart is three sizes too small, and no help for it.
- Calling All Angels, The Wailin Jennys. Sure, you could argue they are just singing about a baby being left on a doorstep… But I don’t think that’s just any baby they’re talking about.
- Guiding Light, Mumford and Sons. M&Sons are usually hit or miss for me. Some of their stuff I love, and some of it makes me wish that somebody would just get Marcus a cough drop already. But this new fall release strikes a good chord, pun intended. It was on in the car the other day, and my daughter says “Mom, turn on Christmas music!” And I was all “This IS Christmas music, just listen.”
So often, we don’t listen. To the heavy stories people carry with them through a long season of Jingle Bells; to the voices in the wilderness, reminding us to turn down the noise and be quiet for a hot minute; or to the voices that come from the edges and the margins, just looking for a space to be heard. Let some of these deep cuts move you into a different kind of expectation this year–with a new song to sing, some morning soon.