I used to be more of a purist about Christmas music, and specifically about Advent erasure in the culture (of course) and the church (for shame!) Now, I’m basically pro-joy — listen to whatever makes you happy.
In a previous post, I defined and critiqued four categories of people on the Advent/Christmas music spectrum: the Holly-Jollies, the Semi-Purists, the Purists, and the Liturgical Purists.
Due to my background and aesthetic preferences, I tend to prefer sacred Christmas music. I spent a lot of time in church (and church choirs) grown up, and I certainly associate Advent and Christmas music more with churches than with, say, shopping malls.
Here is some good Advent music.
“O Come! O Come Emmanuel”
This one is, of course, a classic. I like the Latin here, a good reminder for secularists and Protestants alike that folks were singing about the Advent of Christ long before our kind of people came along.
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”
A Wesley classic. In my biased opinion, this is probably the best Advent hymn in the Anglophone world in the past several centuries.
“Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates”
Point of personal privilege here: I love this Advent hymn, at #213 in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal that I grew up with. I think it is a great congregational hymn, and one of the most underrated. The recording here is poor quality, but I love that it is just regular church people who love to sing and play instruments — no professionals, probably very few classically trained. But so beautiful to see and listen to.
1 Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
behold, the King of glory waits;
the King of kings is drawing near;
the Savior of the world is here!
2 Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple, set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy.
3 Redeemer, come, with us abide;
our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel;
thy grace and love in us reveal.
4 Thy Holy Spirit lead us on
until our glorious goal is won;
eternal praise, eternal fame
be offered, Savior, to thy name!
Handel’s Messiah, Part I
Here is a very good recording of “Comfort ye, my people” and “Every valley shall be exalted.” I like the fast tempo and the soloist’s (Paul Elliott) perfectly controlled vibrato. But listen to the words, taken straight from Isaiah 40:1-4.
Followed, of course, by “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” performed here by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
I also love the alto aria and chorus, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” performed here by Marilyn Horne and the Vienna Cantata Orchestra.
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy”
I love this African-American spiritual and this Mahalia Jackson recording (1961).
“I Wonder As I Wander”
A lot of people don’t know the story behind this Appalachian folk song.
Then, as now, poor, ordinary people beheld him. There are many great recordings of this classic American carol. Here’s an instrumental rendition with hammered dulcimer and guitar, performed by a couple in North Carolina, not far from where the song was first discovered.
“O Holy Night!”
This is the perfect Christmas hymn, and the only song that must be sung on Christmas Eve. There are many fine solo performances of this classic, but I favor choir ones, like this from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.