I live my life with music. I particularly love Christmas and holiday music. I know some who don’t wait until December to listen to Christmas carols (yes Susan, I’m talking about you), but Thanksgiving has to be over before I start listening.
Christmas music evokes memories, causes laughter and tears, and makes me want to bake cookies. This time of year, there is an abundance of amazing music – and some awful crap we thankfully only have to endure for about a month until next year when it returns. As one of my gifts to you this holiday season, I share (in no particular order) my go-to tunes, Christmas edition. I have done my best to search YouTube for videos so you can hear the songs too if you wish. For “classic” songs not performed by the songwriter, I have indicated the artist.
Star of Wonder – The Roches
I first heard this song when the assistant director of Campus Ministry at college suggested my friends and I should sing it at our annual festival of carols. I sang the bottom part, which is still the part I sing whenever I hear it. Ten years ago my sister Sandy and I went to see The Roches and this song was one of the highlights of the show. “I am just a lowly shepherd…why do you appear to me?” We are all lowly individuals, who seek purpose. What is it we are meant to do? Why would the Divine bother to appear to us? Yet, every day we are able to witness Divine beauty if we open our eyes to the world around us. It’s visible in the sunrise, a flower’s symmetry, a perfect snowflake, a twinkling star. I hope I never lose that wonder.
You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch – Dr. Seuss & Albert Hague, performed by Thurl Ravenscroft
How can you go wrong with Dr. Seuss?! I love this book, this film, and this message. “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” It’s easy to get caught up in the consumerism, the materialism, the rush and stress of needing to “do it all.” Take a moment to remember there is more to this season. And laugh a little.
O Holy Night – performed by Kings College Choir
Did you know this song was written by a French composer based on a poem by a wine merchant? You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate the harmonic structure of this gem. I think this is one of those carols best performed by a choir, probably because the version I grew up listening to was recorded by a male choir. My mother once told me this is one of her favorite carols, so I think of her when I hear it.
Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth – performed by David Bowie & Bing Crosby
Everyone, no matter how small or how poor, has something to offer someone else. The Little Drummer Boy had nothing of value to offer, but he did have his drum. He did not walk away, he did the one thing he could – he played his drum. “I played my best for him…Then he smiled at me…Me and my drum.” Often we feel we have nothing to give, but each of us has a unique ability we can offer to someone else. This song reminds me there is always something I can do, and it doesn’t have to be big or fancy. It just has to be genuine, from the heart, and given without expectation of anything in return.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – performed by Judy Garland
This song, written by Ralph Blane with lyrics by Hugh Martin, was not always one of joyful anticipation. The original lyrics were more fatalistic. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, It may be your last.” Judy Garland asked Martin to change them for the musical “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Others have further changed the lyrics over the years, but I like Judy’s version best. If you have never seen this movie, what is wrong with you? It is on my list of best movie musicals ever made, and has some wonderful songs, including “The Trolley Song” (which won an Academy Award), “The Boy Next Door,” and of course the title song. Go watch it. As soon as you finish reading this post.
Mary, Did You Know? – performed by Pentatonix
Written by Buddy Greene with lyrics by Mark Lowry, this song is receiving a great deal of exposure this year courtesy of an amazing version by Pentatonix. Those of us who have performed in a cappella groups (and hopefully those of you who haven’t) can appreciate the challenge of making it look easy. Trust me, it’s not. I like this song because it looks at Mary, and I feel her story is worth some attention. I am not, and will never be, a mother. I can only imagine what it is like to have hopes and dreams for your infant, wondering what the future will bring for this bundle who is still dependent on you for everything. Even if you don’t believe the biblical story of Christ and his birth, perhaps you can relate to Mary as a woman and a mother, holding her newborn baby not knowing all of the events to come. Maybe she did know this baby would change the course of history. Or maybe she just knew he was a precious gift sleeping in her arms who would need to be fed and changed soon. Either way, Mary had to raise her son and let him face his own destiny like every mother. I appreciate the strength required for this.
Still, Still, Still – performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra
I go back and forth between this song and “Silent Night” as the perfect lullaby carol. This one is Austrian, the other is German. Both have lovely harmonic structure. In the end I picked this one because I live in a part of the world where Christmas is celebrated in winter, and the image of falling snow makes me think of home. I chose this video not for religious reasons, but because my friend Becca is a violinist with the orchestra and I saw her face in the clip as I was searching YouTube. If you ever find yourself in Salt Lake City, and have the chance to go listen to the choir and orchestra, please go. It is one of my favorite memories of an amazing trip to Utah nine years ago.
Last Christmas – Wham!
This song is all about the video and my best friend Stephanie. We LOVED Wham! That’s right – all die hard fans know the band name had an exclamation point. Our bedroom walls were covered with posters. We had calendars, books, and pins. Stephanie had the VCR tapes – both Wham! The Video and Wham! Foreign Skies (about their tour in China). We watched those tapes almost every weekend, memorizing the dance steps and acting out the videos in our living rooms. “Last Christmas” takes me back to being 12, laughing with my best friend, without any cares beyond what we would wear to the dance on Friday night. Each year, it’s a race between us as to who will hear this song on the radio first and call the other one. Both of us own the song in multiple formats. It doesn’t matter. Wham! on the radio is what matters. And we both agree this song is best in the original format, and should never, EVER, be recorded again by anyone else.
Some Children See Him – performed by James Taylor
Written by Alfred Burt with lyrics by Whila Hutson, this gem has been recorded by many but I love this version, arranged by Dave Grusin. You may not think you know of Alfred Burt. I learned about him in high school when our choir sang some of the Alfred Burt Carols for our Christmas concert. The Nat King Cole recording of “Caroling, Caroling?” That’s an Alfred Burt song. But I like this one because it reminds us we all see the Divine in our image. Black, white, bronzed and brown, almond eyed – all are loved and all are precious. After all, …tis love that’s born tonight!
December – Kenny Loggins
Five years ago, I may have selected “Celebrate Me Home” as my favorite Kenny Loggins holiday song but then I found this one. For many, the holidays are a mixture of heartache and happiness and this song expresses both. In 2011, my family spent the Christmas holiday at my sister Mary Jane’s bedside in a local Hospice. I drove home every night sobbing to this song. “Only in December, are hearts so full, or feel more alone.” Mary Jane loved Christmas, and now when I sing the final words I sing them as a promise to her. “I still believe in magic. I still believe in miracles. I still believe in Christmas. I still believe in love.”
How about you? I know I’ve left plenty off my list. Add your favorites below!