I couldn’t have asked for a bigger Christmas surprise, or a more enjoyable Christmas blessing, than the personal, thoughtful, revealing Christmas playlists that so many friends have sent in over the past few weeks. Thank you, one and all.
I sincerely hope to host Round Two next year.
Are you tired of Christmas music yet? I hope not. I have a few favorites of my own to share, some that move me, some that bring back memories, some that mystify me.
I could echo many of those have already shared: It’s never a complete Christmas celebration at Overstreet Headquarters without the Vince Guaraldi music from A Charlie Brown Christmas that so many have already recommended. Over the Rhine’s three Christmas albums are in regular rotation here as well, as is Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas. But I think I’ll only share two of those Over the Rhine tracks here, and somebody else has already taken the Cockburn song I was going to share: “Lord of the Starfields.”
Also, my brother Jason’s singing group Rescue has recorded Christmas albums, but I can’t find any band-approved videos of their Christmas music online, so…
… here are a few from a long, long list of favorites.
“God Rest Ye” – Bryan Rust, from his solo guitar album Coventry
In 1997, Anne and I had just celebrated our first anniversary, and we were still establishing what our Christmas traditions would be. One tradition has been to make a Swedish Puff Pancake on Christmas morning, each serving topped with a dollop of sour cream. We wanted to choose something that we would want to cook every day of the year, something easy enough to cook every day of the year… but something that we would wait to enjoy only one day out of the year. Something we would share, just the two of us. Some preserved as sacred.
That’s one of our distinctly personal traditions.
Similarly, we begin our Christmas season with a musical tradition that is distinctly our own: We put on an album called Coventry, by our dear friend Bryan Rust.
Bryan is one of the most consistently inspiring and joyful people in our lives. He’s a musician who never stops applying his talents to bless those around him. He’s a gifted guitarist and songwriter and a spirited performer. He sang Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields” in our wedding ceremony. And when we put on C0ventry, Bryan’s warm, resonant guitar brings familiar carols new life. There is a tender, bell-like quality to these tones, and they fill the room; I can feel them in the hardwood floors.
That’s one of the mysteries of music, especially Christmas music: When you choose a song to play at ceremonial occasions, when it becomes a verse in the liturgy of your life, it carries with it associations and memories of years past. It becomes a sort of time capsule that you open year by year, and on each occasion you find more inside, and new perspective on those treasures.
If you’d like to have a taste of an Overstreet Christmas morning, sleep in, then get up and cook yourself a Swedish puff pancake. Here’s one tip: It’ll taste better if you cook it while you’re still in your bathrobe and slippers. And here’s a recipe similar to ours. No, I’m not sharing our secret ingredients, but I will tell you that it doesn’t hurt to have some thick, crispy bacon on the side. As you enjoy your breakfast. listen to Bryan Rust’s rendition of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”
Tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.
If you’re interested in more of Bryan’s music — Christmas or otherwise — let me know.
“Do You Hear What I Hear” performed by Andy Williams
As I was growing up, the soundtrack of Christmas was a series of LPs that had been collected by my grandfather: “The Great Songs of Christmas.” There’s a whole blog dedicated to this series of records, so if you scroll through the posts, you’ll be scrolling through a world of images and links that bring back tidal waves of memory for me.
Thanks to those records, Andy Williams’ voice is the voice I most associate with Christmas carols.
And this song in particular must have made an impression on me. The lyrics almost sound like a mission statement for the focus of the rest of my life: Looking closely, listening closely, to art, to beauty, to human behavior, to nature, seeking revelation. For some, the discipline of art interpretation is a way to insist on their own opinions. For me, it’s a way of inviting people into conversation, community, and epiphany. If I write in the proper spirit, I’m asking you: “Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see?”
“Frosti” – Bjork
From the old-fashioned to the modern. When I hear this — from Vespertine, my favorite Bjork album* — I think of ice. When I think of winter storms in Portland, Oregon, I think more about ice than snow. I remember how our maple trees, our apple trees, and our cherry tree would shine, encased in suits of crystal armor. I remember taking cautious, sliding steps down the driveway in my boots. I remember crunching across the frozen lawn. I remember that school was out. I remember how the day was twice as vivid, twice as exciting, full of possibility. The coming of ice meant the coming of a day in which I could dive into my own imagination and bring new things into being.
*Please do not misunderstand. Vespertine is not a Christmas album. It really, really isn’t.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – performed by Sam Phillips
Turn out all the lights when you listen to this.
This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols.
But when I heard this arrangement by Sam Phillips — which makes a simple but chillingly effective shift from major to minor, and which first appeared during the end credits of the film A Midnight Clear — it became the one Christmas carol I would need all year round.
I couldn’t recount all of the difficult days, the hard nights, when this song has been a source of comfort. I grew up knowing the opening verse by heart. But it is a later verse — the call for vigilance along the dark, hard roads — that means the most to me now:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
This arrangement was later picked up by Bruce Cockburn for his Christmas album, in which Sam sang a harmony part. But nothing beats Sam’s haunting original.
“All Blues Hail Mary” – Joe Henry
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
“White as Snow” – U2
I recommend that you listen to this song first, before reading about it. See if you can discern why I count this — a song about what passes though the mind of a dying soldier in Afghanistan — among my favorite Christmas songs. Do you hear it? That familiar, haunting melody?
If we don’t sing about the longing for the coming Christ, how will we be ready to receive him at Christmas time, through a Gospel reading, through an act of kindness, through a song?
If you’re still puzzled, read this.
“Apparition” – My Brightest Diamond
Shara Worden introduced me to my new favorite song about snow this year on This Is My Hand.
“Justice Delivers Its Gift” – Sufjan Stevens
“Barcelona (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)”
I have very mixed feelings about the voluminous, schizophrenic Christmas albums by Sufjan Stevens. For every lively carol and every poetic composition there’s something abrasive and obnoxious.
But here are two highlights from that massive library of recordings.
One expresses, through prayer, the dissonance between the true spirit of Christmas and the materialistic madness that too often overwhelms that spirit with our permission. It’s a lament, and a necessary one.
The second is a mysterious testimony of young love, of complicated memories, of how events in our lives tend to take on a starker significance during this season.
“The 12 Days of Christmas” – John Denver and the Muppets (Here’s a clearer recording.)
“Ringing of the Bells” – The Muppets
“Ode to Joy” – Beaker
Because it isn’t an Overstreet Christmas without the Muppets. Puppetry became a part of my childhood Christmases from the time I did a Nativity shadowplay for the Christmas Eve service at my family’s church. It continued with miraculous television specials like John Denver’s collaboration with the Muppets.
Which leads me to this…
“Frosty the Snowman” – performed by Jimmy Durante
“Frosty” fit right in with so many of my favorite childrens’ stories from Pinocchio to The Velveteen Rabbit. It was a story about how something that had been crafted with wit and imagination “came to life one day.” I knew that magic wasn’t “real,” but I wanted it to be. The closest real-world equivalents in my world were Jesus’ miracles — but those always came with a heavy lesson. I never felt like laughing at Jesus’ achievements. Perhaps this had more to do with the solemnity of the storytellers, less to do with the way people might have responded to the feeding of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Whatever the case, I loved the idea that if you put the right pieces together, your creation would speak to you. “It’s aliiiiiiiive.”
More generally, I just wanted snow. Winter storms in Portland could produce snow flurries, but then they froze from the punishing winter winds that rushed through the Columbia Gorge. I became familiar with the experience of rising to the joyous news that schools were closed for winter weather, only to find the fun almost spoiled by the fact that the city was encased in ice, the trees bending under the weight of their crystalline suits of armor, sometimes losing the larger boughs on which I loved to climb.
The snowman I most remember building was not made of snow but paper. Loving the Rankin/Bass animated television special based on the song, I wanted to show that I could work that magic too. So I painstakingly copied each character’s likeness in a variety of expressions — Frosty with his smiling eyes, his corncob pipe, his black top hat; Jack Frost with his jester’s cap, his angular collar, his pointed nose and severe scowl.
And after I had crafted nearly 30 puppets in tribute to that program, I invited two children from next-door to watch me recreate it on a puppet stage built by my grandfather. They stayed in their seats through the whole production — the script, the songs, and even a scene made of shadowplay.
But there had to be something more than the charm of the character, the fun of the animation, and the satisfaction of recreating that on my own. The whole thing was bound together by the power of story.
It never occurred to me, then, that this incarnation — this miracle made of the stuff of the earth — was retelling a familiar story. When he comes to life, he brings joy to all who play with him. And his story seems to come to an abrupt end when his game of “Follow the Leader” brings the stern intervention of a “traffic cop.” This formidable figure, who speaks for The Law, shuts down the joy of imagination and incarnation. The lyrics don’t explain what happens, but Frosty disappears, saying, “I’ll be back again someday”: a second-coming promise if I’ve ever heard one, another assurance of the story that would come to matter most in my life.
There’s an inflatable Frosty the Snowman near the office where I work, and I’ll pass more than one rooftop Christmas-light reindeer on my long drive home. Seeing them, I hear the snark of “culture-war” Christians who see such figures as meaningless, as secular icons that crowd the Christ out of Christmas. But for me, they remain part of a meaningful pageant, and they reflect aspects of the incarnation in ways that acquainted my heart with the truth.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – performed by Burl Ives
Here’s Burl Ives singing the title song to the Rankin/Bass television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Ives’ voice always fills my head with strange little animated characters, and inspires feelings as warm as those caused by the children’ choir of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
But my associations with this song did not start out so well.
Rudolph’s story is an ugly duckling story. His appearance earns taunts and he’s rejected from playing games with “all of the other reindeer.” But then Santa shows up, God-like, giving Rudolph an opportunity to rise above them all, like Joseph with his coat of many colors: After all of that humiliation and trouble, it seems the very thing that made Rudolph a target becomes the thing that makes him a star.
At school, I wanted to be a star. Kind-hearted teachers and my parents assured me that I was. But my classmates convinced me otherwise. I felt awkward. I wasn’t as coordinated as my athletic peers. While my interests lay in books, theirs were caught up in expensive toys and video games. I was jealous that most of them were wealthier. And when I brought to show-and-tell the stories that I spent my evenings writing, the praise of my teachers inspired consternation from my classmates, and increased my unpopularity. The Rudolph tale became a comfort, promising that someday it would all have been worth it. An easy lesson: What others do not understand about you just might a gift that God has given you.
All of that I could appreciate. But for me, the song was secondary to the classic television production. And my first encounter with the show ended abruptly. In a scene when Rudolph and his friends were huddled at the foot of a high snow bank, a distant roar set them to trembling with fear rather than cold. The ground shook, the roar grew fiercer, and I, unable to see the source of the noise, was paralyzed with fear of the unknown. When the Abominable Snowman’s crazy-eyed, hulking form lumbered over the hill, threatening Rudolph and his friends, I burst into tears. And that was that. Mom turned off the TV and I huddled in my room until the fantasy faded and my own safe world became real to me again.
Still, he pursued me, that ferocious snow-devil, his power an irresistible lure back to the show. Terror dissolved into fascination with the monster’s capacity to terrify. I wanted to confront and overcome this threat. Steeling myself for the scare during a second viewing — I must have been six or seven years old — I was stunned by the revelation that the monster’s roar was not an expression of malevolence but a bellow of pain. What I had taken for mere villainy was, in fact, a wound that could be healed with some quick tinkering by Rudolph’s friend Yukon Cornelius, a prospector with a pickaxe. Here was some Christmas magic: Rather than overcoming the monster the way that Disney heroes vanquished Disney foes, these characters resolved their threat by paying attention, exercising compassion, and helping their assailant. It felt right — reconciliation, redemption, rather than victory through violence.
I couldn’t help but notice that this song was absent from all Christmas activities at church. I heard it labeled “secular,” which confused me; I’d been led to believe that secular music was to be viewed with grave suspicion. But everything about this fairy tale — the one in the song and the one in the prime-time special — rang as true as Narnia.
“Away in a Manger” – performed by Mahalia Jackson
For this playlist, I browsed YouTube for 50-year-old recordings of “Away in a Manger.”
Mahalia Jackson’s performance takes me back farthest, so I’m singing with her now; but she doesn’t sing all of the lyrics that my Sunday school class of nose-picking preschoolers performed for beaming parents at the Gateway Baptist Church Christmas Eve service. And since our song about the manger was accompanied by nativity pageantry, I came to associate the carol with every glimpse of a crèche.
From an early age, the wild variety of nativity scenes in homes, churches, and stores fascinated me.
I suspect that my tendency to obsess over artistic excellence may have been inspired by my mother’s selectivity: She gave manger scenes the reverent attention most give their Christmas trees, and she preferred those that were handmade, simple, wood-carved or clay-baked over the plastic, glitter-sprinkled K-Mart decorations.
I also assume that manger scenes gave me an early appreciation for abstraction: Some comprised silhouettes or geometric figures, representational as chess pieces. And, as with a chess board, a crèche was not complete without the full cast of characters: the burrito-wrapped savior (I remember how appealing it sounded to be so peacefully “asleep on the hay”); Mary, kneeling (an impressive feat, as she’s just given birth) and praying to or cradling the Christ; Joseph, standing dutifully by, entirely uninteresting; bathrobed shepherds, smiling like trick-or-treaters hoping for candy; the solemn wise men in their crowns, holding ornate gift boxes. And then, of course, the animals. I came to think that having a manger-side seat must have been like sitting at a campsite where there wasn’t actually a campfire — just a warmly glowing baby.
Still, it isn’t the light of the world that has always drawn my attention, but a character at the edge of the glow. I can’t find him in the lyrics, but he is there for me faithfully, quietly mysterious, since my earliest memories.
I’m four years old, maybe younger. I’m uncomfortable. Bundled up in heavy winter layers. Surrounded by boots, jeans, women’s long coats and men’s puffy jackets, like I’m stuck in a crowded walk-in closet. My mother’s hand is a life-line in this slow, stumbling trudge of pedestrians through a shadowy, sheltered space. Carols fall from heaven — or, rather, from speakers hung at intervals along this chilly labyrinth. I hear jingle bells. I catch glimpses through the crowd of tiny, make-believe Christmas cottages where animatronic elves repetitively prepare packages and sleighs. And then it happens: Immediately to my left, winter coats separate like curtains, revealing the low, rough rails of a wooden fence. Between the rails, a face comes into sharp, startling focus. A long and gentle face regarding me up close.
Email to Mom:
Mom, do you remember taking me to a crowded Christmas maze of some kind when I was little? I remember a narrow path through a variety of Christmas-related sights and sounds. I think it was outdoors, or in an open-air structure, because I seem to remember we were wearing heavy coats. Ring any bells? It’s been forty years. I think we might have been there for a nativity scene.
What you are remembering is the Alpenrose Storybook Lane. When you were little, it was set up outside the Lloyd Center shopping mall, under cover but still open air. One year we hesitated to go because you had a cold, and that so often went into bronchitis. But we knew how you loved things like that, so we did go. It was a real fairyland, and yes, it was a maze. And there was a donkey.
The donkey. The burro that bore Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, that stood silently in that stable, probably exhausted and uncertain, trying to make some sense of his new surroundings and unfamiliar animals.
I had learned to recognize animals from the elephant to the pelican to the duck-billed platypus; to name them by the simplest sketch; to imitate the sounds they made; to list what they ate and what kind of environment they called home. And Christmas came with its own zoo of whimsical creatures: flying reindeer, cinnamon bears, festive mice. Still, this ordinary animal struck me speechless, froze me at the edge of the fence.
I suspect it had to do with Eeyore. I knew the Hundred Acre Wood as well as I knew my own backyard. Bouncy Tigger and honey-hungry Pooh were like kindred spirits. Fretting Rabbit reminded me of worry-prone relatives, and wise old Owl reminded me of the elders at church. And the droopy, depressed, kind-hearted donkey filled me with pity. But none of them had ever stepped off the page into my world. This may have been the first non-human entity I had encountered aside from the neighborhood’s yapping dogs and sneaky felines.
But I think it had more to do with nativity scenes. When I reached out — I did, I reached out, my hand moving like a metal plate to a magnet, my palm coming to rest against his forehead — what I was doing was learning that, yes, there was such a thing as donkey. Something from the Bible stood breathing before me.
He surprised my fingers as much as my eyes: the coarse stiffness of the hair on his head, dry as the sawdust of my grandfather’s workshop. My cold hand on his warm brow. He seemed resigned, withdrawn. A gust of indifference may have burst from his nose. Having been petted by a thousand people pushing through the labyrinth that day — teased, perhaps; ears probably tugged — he had retreated to that place that livestock go when conditions are harsh, relentless, and must merely be endured.
The thoughts and feelings I presume about those who are foreign to me often come to tell me more about myself than the others. And I think what I found in the burro’s silence was a truth for which I had no words yet: a state of suspension steeped in sadness and loneliness. I wanted to tell this glum Eeyore that he was a good donkey and that everything would be okay. That he would be returned soon the place he belonged, where he would be happier. Maybe, sick as I was, a little claustrophobic, I just wanted to go home. Or maybe my sense that he disliked this confined space, even though all was provided for him, was a glimpse of what would become my life’s most persistent challenge: answering a call to care about the world beyond my comfortable home — my stable stable, if you will.
“Away in a Manger” is a song about safety. “I love thee, Lord Jesus / Look down from the sky / And stay by my cradle….” “Bless all the good children / In thy tender care / And take us to heaven….” As a lullaby for a vulnerable and defenseless baby, it’s a beauty. As a comfort for a frightened child, it’s reassuring. But this Jesus — this no-cry baby — doesn’t that give you pause? It didn’t bother me. As a child, I believed as a child: I accepted what I was taught — by lyrics as much as by scripture. No contradictions occurred to me.
It wouldn’t be until I was 19, reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and then watching Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, that the stained-glass image of a superman shattered, and I came to believe in a struggling human being, capable of frustration and anxiety, a man who probably wanted to sleep near his company’s campfire as the night grew cold. Some crying he made, I suspect. To believe this child never squalled is to deny his mother the pleasure of comforting him, to believe that he was never frustrated, never rebellious. To believe such a thing is to deny the magnitude of his suffering, making him incapable of knowing what we suffer, incapable of mistakes, incapable of learning. It is to deny him his burst of anger and his Gethsemane anguish. It is to deny him his humanity.
(Come to think of it, don’t the Scriptures tell us that the Holy Ghost intercedes for us “in groaning too deep for words?” Even the Spirit can cry.)
I’m no longer the person who desires a direct journey from “tender care” in my “cradle” into the glory of heaven. My faith was cultivated in the comforts of home, but it became true faith — the conviction of things not seen — in hardship, on roads through the wilderness between Point A and Point B. And in retrospect, I can see how moments of doubt and darkness have been times of intimacy with a suffering Christ.
Looking back, I don’t think that Alpenrose animal was as depressed as I presumed. He must have known green grass. Must have known a pasture. An open space. These things made him. But there, in that public exhibition, encroached upon by so much that was foreign to him, so much ignorance and misunderstanding, so much abuse, he draws upon the DNA that makes him donkey and proves sturdy, stalwart, long-suffering, and gentle.
Likewise, the donkey of the nativity fulfilled his purpose not in the comforts of home, but on the road, striving, laden with heavy burdens, without the company of others like himself, and with no promise of relief anytime soon.
He would come to me again — this quiet, willing servant — as I read Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Mule Heart”:
… it will come to your shoulder,
breathe slowly against your bare arm.
If you offer it hay, it will eat.
it will stand as long as you ask.
The little bells of the bridle will hang
beside you quietly,
in the heat and the tree’s thin shade.
In this, the beast of burden becomes a sort of omnipresent spirit, one willing to suffer with me. He reminds me of the donkey who became for me both a witness to and an icon of the suffering Christ.
No wonder Robert Bresson’s film Au hazard Balthasar broke my heart: It’s a profound parable about a donkey who, raised by a tender-hearted girl, is cast into a life of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. It spoke to me of the passion of the Christ more powerfully than, well, The Passion of the Christ.
Perhaps that is what I sensed in my Storybook Lane encounter — a premonition of my future beyond my familiar environment, my community’s closed system, my safety from the wilderness. Maybe I had a sense of the hardships that I would find in an unfriendly world; in seemingly endless waits for liberation from places of tedious work; in my longing among strangers for kindred spirits.
Now, when I hear “Away in a Manger,” I sing some of the lines for vulnerable children: “Stay by my cradle / ’Til morning is nigh….” Others I sing for my own difficult hours on dark roads: “Be near me, Lord Jesus / I ask thee to stay / Close by me be forever….” And he comes to my shoulder, having waited patiently for my call, out here in the storm. I can reach out for him. He can carry me.
“The Feeling Begins” – Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel’s Passion is my favorite musical meditation on the sufferings of Christ, on what it must have been like to walk among such insufferable people as us, to love us so deeply, and to long for reunion with his father. This is the opening track, which seeks to capture the conflict that Christ carried with him every step of the way.
“Little Town” – arranged and performed by Over the Rhine
“Another Christmas” – by Over the Rhine
In The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark writes this:
C.S. Lewis once observed that while many people use art, only a very few receive it. The texts that get called scriptures by various religious traditions are often used by individuals (mostly quoted out of context) to pepper speeches, buttress bad arguments, and, on occasion, to avoid awareness of responsibility for our actions. We read and quote selectively to better justify what we’ve already decided to do. Where is the self-awareness in any of this, the sense that our scriptures can, and should, change the way we think and act? … We only receive art when we let it call our own lives into question.
If I were to map the progress of my stumbling, meandering faith — from the blissful ignorance of childhood to those moments when keys have opened me up and made me ready to receive a redeeming word — I could mark that journey with these songs. In these encounters, I have struggled to discern the difference between the truth and the trappings. Between the gospel and the lingo. Between the “reason for the season” and the false religion that glorifies shopping, wish-fulfillment, and happiness. The farther I lean into them, the less that I need (or want) Christmas to be “the hap-happiest season of all.”
Happiness, in my experience, is based on temporal circumstances. Christmas is about joy — an abiding sense of God’s blessings and promises that endure no matter how I feel, that carry me even when I am the farthest thing from happy. Sometimes a mere melody can wash away the accretion of a year’s troubles and fears, burning like acupuncture needles into injuries, like stars into darkness, to remind me just how far I’ve gone astray on each annual journey back to Bethlehem.
Only when I’ve let go of all that I want will I be ready to receive what I need.
So while I don’t really object to singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” it’s easier these days to sing along with Linford Detweiler:
‘Cause we’ve committed every sin,
And each one leaves a different scar.
It’s just the world we’re living in,
And we could use a guiding star.
I hope that we can still believe
The Christ child holds a gift for us.
Are we able to receive
Peace on earth this Christmas?
“The Christmas Spirit,” by Johnny Cash
I can’t imagine a better way to wrap up this series.
Maybe it would have been more appropriate to post the scene in which Linus shares the Christmas story. After all, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been the most popular choice by my special guests throughout this playlist adventure.
But I like Johnny Cash.
Here’s a shining example of what the Gospel can do in a life that seems hopeless and wrecked. “Look,” says the Lord, “what I can do with broken things.” When I remember Johnny Cash, I remember a restless spirit, and one that remained restless even after he embraced the Gospel. But ever after, he wandered with faith and hope in his heart. He still hadn’t found what he was looking for, but his heart was in the highlands, and he was making his way there, album by album, song by song, singing until he was welcomed home.
Whether you’re in a palace or a barn, safe and warm or out on a dangerous road, I hope some of the songs in this playlist series have blessed you this season.
I wish you a joyous Christmas.
Grace and peace to you.