When inquiring of my favorite writers and artists about the Christmas music that means the most to them, I turned habitually to someone I tend to ask about “the best” in almost everything.
I run into Alissa Wilkinson everywhere I go, it seems — so it’s hard to remember how we first met. I think I first noticed her work when she and I were both writing film reviews for Paste Magazine. I didn’t know many women who were writing film reviews at the time (still don’t), much less women who were writing about film with an interest in the faith-related questions at the heart of them.
In time, she would join me and other reviewers on the team at Christianity Today, and now she is the chief film and TV critic there, writing, managing, and editing coverage of art and entertainment, and running a blog called “Watch This Way.” She is also an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, and during my first visit there she introduced my at an International Arts Movement event, IAM Encounter 10… which felt funny, because it seemed like I should be introducing her. (So I’m finally paying back some of what I owe her.)
I should also note that she preceded me into Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, and earned that degree a little over a year ago, so now I’m also grateful for her good counsel as I chart my own path through those waters.
Alissa and her husband Tom, an art photographer and filmmaker, have become two of my dearest friends, and I’ve learned that it’s good to pay attention to their discoveries and preferences in everything from books to bakeries, from apps to appetizers, from movies to microbrews. This summer, Alissa will lead a seminar on faith and food at Glen West, the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I am jealous of anyone who has the privilege of attending that.
Check in at Christianity Today to see just how Alissa continues to cause great civil unrest by telling the truth and standing up for the redemptive power of excellence and integrity in a time when Christians need that challenge. She’s one of my heroes.
And now here she is with her own recommendations of music that has become significant for her and for Tom during the Christmas season. Feel free to update your own playlists accordingly.
(And if you’ve missed them, don’t miss last week’s contributions to this series from Joe Henry, Ashley Cleveland, and Sara Zarr.)
Of course Christmas music is all about the nostalgia for me, and like many people, I think, I don’t like most Christmas music all that much. There are a few songs I can’t seem to like no matter who covers them: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Blue Christmas,” “Santa Baby.” (“Jingle Bell Rock” would make the list as well, if Mean Girls hadn’t saved it for me.)
So then, I’ve ordered my list roughly chronologically, to coincide with Christmases I’ve known and people I’ve loved.
Amy Grant — “Emmanuel”
My parents played Amy Grant’s 1983 record A Christmas Album during the season when I was a child; I don’t know how exactly it escaped the period of the Evangelical Purge of All Things Amy Grant after her divorce, but I’m glad it did. The album’s release coincides with my first Christmas; this song (written, I’m pretty sure, by Michael W. Smith) is lodged firmly in my brain, in all its ’80s production glory. But the lyrics are so simple, pulled straight from Isaiah 9:6, and even though I’m musically more familiar with Handel’s setting of that passage in The Messiah, whenever that verse is read in church on Christmas Eve, this is still the earworm that results.
Michael Card — “Shepherd’s Watch”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aMJU-OtEeE
When I was a teenager, maybe 14, my father and I were asked to sing a song at one of our church’s two Christmas Eve services. I was determined to sing this one, from Card’s 1991 album The Promise. I was by then a fairly accomplished pianist, but I was classically trained, and playing contemporary music plus singing at the same time was difficult. I practiced, and practiced, and practiced and it finally worked, and we did it. I was so proud. The song is still in my fingers.
Jars of Clay — “Little Drummer Boy”
I first heard this song back in the days of Napster, when I was 16 and trying to expand my musical vocabulary so as to catch up with my peers who had not spent their entire teenage musical life listening to classical music. This 1995 recording was the first Jars of Clay track I found, and though it wasn’t Christmas yet, I listened, mesmerized by Dan Haseltine’s voice and the understated style. Years later, I would meet the guys from Jars and discover they were far cooler and more thoughtful about faith and art than I’d ever suspected. And at a gathering one night a few years ago, standing around with Dan, drinking single malt scotch and discussing our Enneagram types, well: I knew my 16 year old self was very impressed.
Vince Guaraldi — “Christmas Time is Here”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alQBDEEVjI8
Somehow the Charlie Brown Christmas tradition had entirely skipped my family and I never consciously heard this track till, sometime in college, I bought a Starbucks Christmas compilation CD. I know, right? The entire soundtrack is still one of my favorite anytime albums, and I love this one especially for its mournfulness and its unresolved ending. The older I get, the more I understand how Christmas can sometimes feel like that: lovely and warm, but also a bit mournful and unresolved.
Jill Phillips — “Labor of Love”
Andrew Peterson — “Gather Round Ye Children Come”
Nine Novembers ago, my husband and I started dating, and by December we were already pretty sure we were going to get married (we did, the following September). Tom is the reason I know most of the people, organizations, books, music, and movies that I know today, and Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God was one of the first albums he made me listen to. It is a remarkable album, especially among Christmas albums, in that it starts at the very beginning of time and traces the remarkable mystery through to the great hope we look toward in this season. On that album is possibly the loveliest I know about Mary (“It was not a silent night / There was blood on the ground”), and also the song that bookends the album, which bids us to “sing out with joy for the brave little boy who was God, but he made himself nothing / He gave up his pride and he came here to die like a man.”
Sufjan Stevens — “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Zz53Rwp3ME
Sufjan Stevens has made a lot of really wonderfully whimsical Christmas albums—five, in fact—that include everything from properly mournful renderings of Advent songs and ancient hymns to weird Sufjanesque ditties (“Get Behind Me, Santa” is one of my favorites). This, though: this is the one to listen to. Those flutes. It makes me think I’m around a campfire with shepherds through the silent years, waiting, and waiting.
Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson — “Winter Song”
Tom found this on a Christmas compilation that, yes, he’d also picked up at Starbucks (we’re not in the habit of this, I swear) and sent it to me—”You’ll like it,” he said. Over the years it’s held different meanings for me, depending on who I was missing most that December, but lately it makes me think of my father, who died eight years ago, and whose presence is always palpably missing from our family celebrations even though my brother and I have both gotten married since then: “This is my winter song / December never felt so wrong / ‘Cause you’re not where you belong / Inside my arms.”
Rosie Thomas — “River”
Mostly, of course, because of that line from You’ve Got Mail, in which Meg Ryan tells her mysterious Internet friend in an email that Joni Mitchell’s “River” isn’t properly a Christmas song, but she thinks of it that way, and it always makes her miss her mother, who died years earlier. I love Joni Mitchell’s version, but Rosie’s voice is a perfect match for a soulful cover. As a kid, I could never fathom how Christmas could be melancholy. I still am happy at Christmas, but now I get how sometimes, you just aren’t ready to be merry on cue: “It’s coming on Christmas / They’re cutting down trees / They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace / Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
John Legend and Stephen Colbert — “Nutmeg”
One fateful Thanksgiving in 2008, Tom and I found ourselves back at our hotel room, flipping channels (they have cable, a rare luxury for us) to find something to watch before bed. And behold, an angel appeared in the form of Stephen Colbert, whose A Colbert Christmas! special was airing. We chuckled our way through all of its twee and irreverence, but the standout was certainly John Legend singing about nutmeg, except totally not about nutmeg. Now we sing it whenever I put nutmeg in something. Or sometimes just because it’s awesome.
Bob Dylan — “Must Be Santa”
Okay, world: I have no idea what to make of this song. Do you? I have gone back and forth on it since I first heard it, when Tom popped it on during one of our annual post-Thanksgiving road trips from Virginia back to our home in Brooklyn. I sat gaping in the back seat, and without the music video to shed a little light. But just a little. Has Bob Dylan finally gone nuts? Is he just trolling us all? You decide.
The Killers – “Joseph, Better You Than Me”
The Killers have written a few excellent, overly catchy Christmas spoof songs (including the immortal “Don’t Shoot Me, Santa”), but this one includes a guest appearance from, of all people, Elton John (!). It’s a little irreverent, but actually, once you get to the soaring chorus bits, it starts getting real orthodox, real fast, and actually winds up singing to Jesus himself. Joseph sometimes gets short shrift in the Christmas story. This song gets it.
Over the Rhine — “New Redemption Song”
I cheated a little and saved this for the end, because this year feels like one where we definitely—all of us—need a new redemption song, and Karin Bergquist’s voice is the one that can sing the prayer best: “Lord, we need a new redemption song / Lord, we’ve tried, it just seems to come out wrong / Won’t You help us please, help us just to sing along / A new redemption song, a new redemption song.” I think we ought to make this the Christmas song we all sing this year. Don’t you?