Arranging and sharing a Christmas playlist of the best faith-based Christmas songs in hopes they delights readers, brought me joy. I appreciated the challenge because I am picky about music, especially Christmas music! So here goes.
Silent Night—Taylor Swift
I begin with the inimitable Ms. Swift. Though she ranks at the top of pop artists, this song conjures her Americana days (think slide and acoustic guitar), with vocal stylings wholly Swift. “Silent Night” is among the most familiar Christmas songs, but Taylor Swift’s version employs creative license in the tune. Acoustic guitar picking gets me every time—and it does here. Some orchestral crescendo builds in the mix, but nothing too cloying. The vocal tapestry of “hallelujahs” at the end make for a lovely conclusion.
The traditional lyrics of “Silent Night” beckon one into Christmas eve quietness, and to the wonder of a mother and child gazing at one another. It is about a love that both embodies and transcends universal love. The gentleness and simplicity of the song are almost incongruent with shepherds quaking and angels singing. But we find magic in this jarring juxtaposition. Grace dawns beside a cradle.
Next, Happy Xmas (War is Over)—Celine Dion
For me, few voices evoke Christmas like that of Celine Dion. The opening instrumentation of this song includes sleighbells and strings. But the John Lennon/Yoko Ono tune is anything but traditional. The songwriters invite the listener to reflect on how we make Christmas less trite and more impacting in human lives, reminding us: “And so this is Christmas/ For weak and for strong/ For rich and the poor ones/ The war is so long (ooh)./ And so happy Christmas (war is over)/ For black and for white (if you want it)/ For yellow and red ones (war is over) /Let’s stop all the fight (now).” The faith in this song is the “hope for things not seen.”
Dion’s arrangement of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” transitions from traditional to contemporary as synthesizers come in. Then a fulsome rhythm section and gospel backup choir lend a Black Church vibe, with Celine Dion doing the vocal riff. The song ends on a gentle note—quiet voices, spare synthesizer, sleighbells.
Cantique de Noël—Whitney Houston
“O Holy Night” may be my favorite of the Christmas hymns because its theology encapsulates exquisitely what Christmas is about: “Truly He taught us to love one another/ His law is love and His gospel is peace/ Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother/ And in His name all oppression shall cease.” The Christmas good news in a few short lines. Despite her affiliation with pop, Houston’s arrangement is among the most traditional on this list, with mostly symphonic orchestration. But then comes Whitney Houston, making the song completely distinctive. In this song, her voice is at the height of its phenomenal power. When Houston sings “hear the angel’s voices,” we can imagine how sweet this sounds. The crescendo of the orchestration feels overwrought to me, but these sections are brief. “Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we/ Let all within us praise His holy name/ Christ is the Lord/ Then ever! Ever praise we/ Noel, Noel. Oh night, o night divine.” And divine this song is.
Christmas Without Crying —Lori McKenna
Pleased to share this tune by my longtime favorite, singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, about how hard it is to make it through “Christmas Without Crying.” Honestly, I have a hard time making it through this song without tears. Knowing McKenna’s mother died when she was young moves me, but also the resonances with Christmases of my own past: the ‘Wish Book’ catalog, the polyester Christmas outfits, my mother selling crafts at the holiday bazaar. When it comes to evoking family, regret, and longing, McKenna’s lyricism are always unparalleled, but in a way that is uplifting and never dirge-y. The strumming guitar in the chorus builds but never overwhelms. The orchestration, mostly Americana/acoustic-folk, packages McKenna’s lyrics like beautiful wrapping. “You can sing all of the Sunday hymns/ Cause you’ve known the words all your life/ You can roll past that old high school and smile/ At the glory days long gone by/ You’ll be thinking about Grandpa/ When you’re stringing up those lights/ And that will be why/ You can’t make it through Christmas without crying.”
Joy to the World—Sufjan Stevens
Next, I offer Sufjan Stevens, who along with Vince Guaraldi, comprised my own daughter’s Christmas soundtrack as she grew up. “Joy to the World” is a traditional Christmas carol I love, but it’s generally too overproduced for my taste. Stevens’ pared-down arrangement perfectly compliments the simplicity of the tune, which is simple enough for common carolers. Two picked electric guitars feature in the instrumentation. This arrangement of “Joy to the World” is the kind of song one wants to hear when alone—all lights off but the tree, wishing for peace and restoration in the lives of those known and unknown. When we come to doubt that ‘all shall be well,’ even the rocks will cry out. “While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains/ Repeat the sounding joy.” During this current time, marked by so much suffering, we long that the nations might “prove/ The glories of His righteousness/ And wonders of His love.”
Do They Know It’s Christmas—Band Aid
When I listen to this song, my mind still conjures the MTV music video. Goodness, I loved this group, which featured the likes of Bono, Sting, Boy George, Jody Watley, Duran Duran, Lisa Stansfield, and many others. They formed to sell a record to fight hunger, but the sentiments of the song are timeless. Lyrics now conjure for me people and animals threatened by climate change: “There’s a world outside your window/And it’s a world of dread and fear/ Where the only water flowing/ Is the bitter sting of tears. And the Christmas bells that ring/ There are the clanging chimes of doom/ Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you./ …Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
This is a most non-traditional Christmas song, with distinctive 80s pop sounds—heavy on synthesizer. Yet hand bells also ring in the mix. This song sounds an imperative to reach out and help others as part of Christmas (some might find it preachy): “You ain’t gotta feel guilt just selfless/ Give a little help to the helpless/ Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?/ Feed the world/ Let them know it’s Christmas time….”
This Joni Mitchell holiday tune is not faith-based unless poetry is part of your religion (as it is of mine). The season is full of grief for some, as well as sacred meaning and nostalgia and joy. Many wish they could escape the losses and regrets magnified during the holidays (“made my baby say goodbye”). Few songs express this as iconically as “River”: “It’s coming on Christmas/ They’re cutting down trees/ They’re putting up reindeer/ Singing songs of joy and peace/ I wish I had a river/ I could skate away on.” The simplicity of the arrangement compliments the poetry—a foreground of piano against faint orchestration. And Rodrigo’s voice is characteristically expressive and rich.
O Little Town of Bethlehem—Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand may be the least pop on this list. But no voice measures up to hers, in my opinion. I’ve been immersed in her lately as I enjoy her mammoth, recently published memoir. The arrangement of this old hymn is traditional, bringing to mind Perry Como tunes my family listened to at Christmas when I was young. The familiar carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” stirs me when sung by Jewish artist Streisand. An acapella choir is the main back up instrumentation, if voices count as instruments. Streisand’s crystalline voice evokes a cold, clear, starry night so laden with hope that it bowls you over: “O little town of Bethlehem/ How still we see thee lie/ Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/ The silent stars go by/ Yet in thy dark streets shineth/ The everlasting light/ The hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in thee tonight.”
You can find this Christmas playlist here. Enjoy!
Winner of the 2022 Independent Publisher Awards Bronze Medal for Regional Fiction; Finalist for the 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. (2021) Paperback publication of Wren , a novel. “Insightful novel tackles questions of parenthood, marriage, and friendship with finesse and empathy … with striking descriptions of Oregon topography.” —Kirkus Reviews (2018) Audiobook publication of Wren.