One of the (many) great things about Christmas is getting the chance (and the social leniency) to listen to Christmas music. Like most Catholics and Christmasphiles and unlike most everyone else, I love Christmas music.
I understand the complaints about Christmas music. I even agree that, for the most part, it sucks. Like, nine out of 10 Christmas songs played on the radio and in malls and other stores are indefensibly terrible.* Nothing promotes lazier “creativity” in music than Christmas, with popular artists knowing that an album of a dozen shoddy covers of public-domain classics will sell tremendously, since everyone knows someone who likes Christmas music and thus thinks buying that person a Christmas CD is a great and thoughtful gift.
*To be fair, this isn’t much different from the usual ratio on the radio these days.
Personally, I don’t want my Christmas music to closely resemble the music I listen to the other 11 months of the calendar. I want songs that musically and thematically (read: more than just lyrically) inform me that this is a special time of year. So, even the radio Christmas music that is generally viewed favorably doesn’t do it for me. I have no warmth in my heart for my contemporaries’ favorite Christmas “classic”—Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—or Christmas collections from acts such as N*Sync, Destiny’s Child, or even the otherwise adorable Taylor Swift. I don’t even like well-regarded Christmas forays such as the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”* These songs deal with Christmas by speaking only of its secular meaning and/or by adding bells to the background. I understand and respect the reasons for liking these songs; they’re not intrinsically bad so much as they’re not what I’m looking for in December.**
*Blasphemous, I know, from a Jersey Guy. It’s just not Christmas-y enough.
**I must acknowledge at this point that I do own Barenaked Ladies’ Christmas album, but I even found that to be a tad disappointing in spots.
Deep down, though, Christmas music isn’t really about quality that much—although it helps, of course. The best Christmas music is that which forges a connection between your youth and your adulthood; it bridges the gap between how you used to celebrate Christmas and how you celebrate it now. This is the reason I still love a song like Amy Grant’s “The Night before Christmas.” It’s my Mom’s favorite Christmas song, and I remember how happy it made her when she played it on cassette when I was younger, and that in turn makes me happy now when it plays on my iTunes. Every time I hear it, regardless of where I am, I think about being six or seven and putting stockings up in my living room with a mug of hot chocolate on the table.
And that’s far from the only song that creates those kinds of feelings for me.* Growing up in a Catholic school, there are a host of Christmas hymns that I still love, from “What Child Is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” to “O Holy Night” and my personal favorite, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (for reasons espoused later). I lean away from more secular classics like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Let It Snow,” which, to me at least, are more about winter than Christmas.
*You may recall me writing along a similar theme this time last year.
My absolute favorites, in no particular order:
“Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Musically, I think this is the gold standard of Christmas music. A merger of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “Carol of the Bells,” “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24” is really Trans-Siberian Orchestra at its perfect balance of bombast and precision (note the cello sustaining the assaults of the other instruments [Sarajevo? Get it?]). It’s a song that captures Christmas’ ability to simultaneously seem chaotic and beautiful.
I like a whole host of other TSO Christmas stuff off their three holiday albums, most notably “What Child Is This?” (where they admittedly veer completely into bombast), “Christmas Canon” (like most soul-possessing human beings, I’m a sucker for children’s choirs), and “Wizards in Winter.”
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman / We Three Kings” by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan
And this is the reason I had to say that BnL holiday CD was disappointing “in spots.” This is a more upbeat interpretation than I generally like, but the harmony between Canada’s greatest band* and Canada’s greatest female singer** in bringing together two great Christmas hymns is excellent.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by David Nevue
I stumbled upon Nevue five years ago while looking for a quality version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (remember: my favorite Christmas hymn), and he’s become one of the staples of my iTunes ever since.* In my opinion, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” does the best job of capturing just how momentous the occasion of Jesus’ birth is to us religious folk, with the desperation of “O come, O come Emmanuel…” in the opening lines juxtaposed with the “Rejoice! Rejoice” of the refrain. Nevue maintains that even without the lyrics in a beautiful and richly layered piano version. I also really like his “We Three Kings.”
*He has a lot of my most-played songs, largely because I used to read/study/sleep to his light piano music.
“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” by Sufjan Stevens
This year at least, Stevens’ Songs for Christmas has earned the majority of my December airplay. Originally conceived as gift EPs for friends, the five-CD collection includes earnest and thought-out interpretations of Christmas classics alongside catchy and/or heartfelt originals such as “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time,” “Sister Winter,” and “Star of Wonder.”
“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” is the best of them, though, an according-to-the-liner-notes-based-on-a-true-story that plunges to the depths of a Christmas where nothing goes right but hope remains. It’s worth noting, of course, that the titular verb is in the past tense. Everyone has bad Christmases, suffered with overbearing family or with uncommonly powerful colds, when the tree falls down and cracks your favorite ornament, the lights don’t stop blinking, the train won’t work, and you can’t find any gifts your family will actually like. But hope always remains, because what Christmas is really about is rewarding hope.