My Go-To Tunes Christmas Edition Volume 2

One of my most successful posts last year was this one featuring ten of my favorite Christmas carols. Selecting just ten was a difficult process. I thought it would be fun to feature an additional ten this year. Consider it part of my present to you.

The songs are not “ranked” or listed in a particular order. I have done my best to search YouTube for videos so you can hear the songs if you wish. For “classic” songs not performed by the songwriter, I have indicated the artist.

Silent Night/Night of Silence

Silent Night was composed by Franz Gruber to lyrics written by a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr. It was originally performed in 1818 on Christmas Eve. Fitting, as it is often sung slowly as a beautiful lullaby, even though Gruber’s notes indicate it is to be played in 6/8 time instead of 3/4. I included the link to this video of his original version performed by Innsbrucker Capellknaben so you can hear the difference. Gruber did not write the song for harp, but I did not find any good videos with guitar. It is always interesting to hear how music changes as more people interpret a song over time.

I first heard Night of Silence when I performed it with a choir in college as part of our yearly festival of songs. Written by Daniel Kantor, this song is what is known as a quodlibet – a partner song that can be sung simultaneously with another song (you can thank me for that Scrabble word later). This version, by St. Olaf’s Choir, illustrates how this is achieved. Whenever I sing Silent Night out loud, I am hearing Night of Silence in my head; and when I am alone I usually choose to sing the latter.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

When I was growing up, attending St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church with my parents and older sisters, I knew it was Advent when this song was the opening hymn at mass. In the Catholic Church, Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It is a season of expectation and waiting in preparation of the birth of Christ at Christmas. As a child, singing this song at the start of mass meant Christmas was really coming – in less than five weeks! I associated it with many secular activities such as baking cookies, decorating and shopping for presents. Once I was older and took the time to really listen to the words of the hymn, I recognized the hope and promise included within them. Not only do we ask for God’s presence here among us, but we celebrate in the certainty that He will come. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I first heard The Piano Guys while my sister Mary Jane, a talented violinist and dedicated music teacher, was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. I sent her a video, asking if she had seen them. She replied saying she had, and she was hoping they would do a Christmas album. In 2013, two years after her death, they did release a Christmas album, and every time I listen to it I think of her.

Ding! Dong! Merrily on High

This carol, with English words by George Ratcliffe Woodward set to a French dance tune from the 1500’s, was new to me when my piano teacher, Roberta, gave me a book of Christmas carols as a present in seventh grade. It quickly became a favorite and I asked her if I could play it the following year when she coordinated a Christmas recital for her students. The piano at my parents’ house shared space in “the piano room” with my mother’s sewing machine. Most of the time, Mom did not work if I was practicing. But there were times when she was busy with her sewing jobs and needed to be in the room while I was practicing. Mom is a singer, like me, and would hum or sing along with the music as I played. She liked the melismatic nature of the tune – with the “oh” syllable in “Gloria” being stretched across several notes in succession. I always think of her and I together in the piano room when I hear this song. To me, it sounds best when sung by a choir with an organ accompanying. Enjoy this version by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Do They Know It’s Christmas?

This song, written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, makes my list this year because of my best friend Stephanie. This is one of those songs that makes me think of her, no matter where or when I hear it. We were not quite teenagers when this song was released in 1984, and MTV had just come to our hometown. In addition, we had Friday Night Videos and USA Up All Night. This meant we never actually slept at “sleep-overs.” We stayed up in front of the television all night watching music videos. This video was excellent because in one clip we got to see all the music stars we liked – Wham!, Duran Duran, Sting, Paul Young and more. We would remind ourselves who was coming up in the next frame, making comments as we ate chips or popcorn in our pajamas. “Do you think they ever let Phil Collins out from behind the drum kit to sing?” “Do you think Sting asked to sing the lyric with his name in it?”

It has been years since I’ve actually watched the video, which I did repeatedly last week with much laughter. Who told Simon LeBon those contrasting stripes were a good idea? And I’m fairly certain that at one point in the early 80’s I had all three haircuts sported by the members of Bananrama in this video. While the song has been rerecorded several times, this is still the best version. It’s not Christmas until both Stephanie and I have heard this song in its entirety on the radio. This year it happened at 1:49 PM on Stephanie’s birthday, December 4.

Celebrate Me Home

Jazz pianist Bob James and Kenny Loggins wrote this song which appeared on Loggins’ debut solo album of the same name in 1977. It was never intended to be a Christmas song. I heard the song from time to time growing up, but it wasn’t until I was an exchange student in 1990 that the song began to have meaning. I was living with my second host parents, Kathy and Jack, for Christmas that year. Kathy and Jack were Americans who had decided to immigrate to Australia. Although they had been in Australia for more than fifteen years at the time I lived with them, and Jack had become an Australian citizen, most times it still felt like I was living with an American family. Kathy had this album, and listened to this song as we made cookies and popcorn balls because she said it reminded her of “home.” Now when I hear it I think not only of home here in the United States, but also my “home” in Tasmania and that wonderful Christmas in Australia.

Christmas Time is Here

In 1965, when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on television, many of the creators thought it would be a flop. Of course the special, featuring music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, went on to become one of the most-loved Christmas shows. I have always loved Peanuts and especially look forward to this show every year. The plot remains relevant, even though aluminum trees are no longer made. For me, the music is part of what makes this show so remarkable. If you take away the great score, with three original songs written by Vince Guaraldi, the film looses something. Yes, it is still a story of children learning what Christmas is all about, but some of the magic is missing.

This song in particular makes me think of the real meaning of the holiday. Lee Mendelson, the show’s producer, wrote the lyrics himself. Their simplicity matches the story told by the Linus and the entire Peanuts gang, and for me is best summed up in the final line:  Oh that we could always see, such spirit through the year.

I Wonder As I Wander

I first learned of this tune in the sixth grade when I read the novel Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. The novel describes the sibling rivalry between two twins, Sara Louise (“Wheezy”) and the beautiful, talented and favored Caroline. I don’t know if I was mature enough to fully understand the book in sixth grade but Mom said I could read it, so I did. She also read it while I was reading it. It is the only novel I remember us reading at the same time. I thought she was reading it because her given name is Caroline. Looking back on it now, I think she was reading it so she could answer my questions when we talked about it.

In the novel, Caroline performs this song as a solo at the Christmas pageant to great acclaim. I had never heard the song. Roberta, my piano teacher, found sheet music for me but told me she felt the song was best if performed acappella. This version, performed by The Blenders, is one of my favorites. I first saw the group years ago on The Arsenio Hall Show and didn’t realize they were still making music. Thankfully, they are. If you don’t know more of their music, please take some time to acquaint yourself. After you finish this post. You might enjoy their version of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. 

White Christmas

Bing Crosby debuted this wonderful song written by Irving Berlin on the radio in 1941. It has been featured in movies, television shows, and advertisements. Hundreds of artists have recorded it – it is the most recorded Christmas song according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).  And although I hate bitter cold winters and snow, even I enjoy a white Christmas. Yes, I know Christmas is not about weather, or where you are. But, there is something magical when snow drapes the pine branches and covers the lights on the trees, and crunches under your feet (or wheels). When the snow falls softly all around you as you look up at the sky to catch flakes on your tongue, it just feels like Christmas.

Gabriel’s Message

This song is a Basque Christmas carol. It describes the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would become Jesus’ mother. I first heard it performed by Sting when it was included in A Very Special Christmas, an album produced to benefit the Special Olympics. Sting also recorded it in 2009 for his On a Winter’s Night album. I included a link to that version below so you can hear the comparison.

Last year when I wrote this list, I mentioned how I find Mary’s story fascinating. Mary was asked to perform a monumental task, and accepted her role in God’s plan with grace. I often find myself struggling to accept those things I cannot change, so I doubt I could have said yes with such humility without asking a million questions first. No wonder she is referred to as the most highly favored lady.

We Need a Little Christmas

You may know the song, but did you know it first appeared in the Jerry Herman musical Mame. Angela Lansbury starred in the original Broadway production as Mame Dennis, a wealthy and eccentric bohemian living in New York City during the Great Depression. Mame’s motto (which I thought included scandalous language when I first heard it in elementary school), “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death,” has been quoted by many. In the musical, Mame’s nephew Patrick is entrusted to her after Patrick’s father, Mame’s brother, passes away. In the first half of the musical, Mame loses her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. She sings this song when she decides Patrick and her servants need some cheering up. I have included a recording of the original Broadway cast so you can hear the song as Jerry Herman intended us to hear it. If you only know Angela Lansbury as the voice of Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, you may be surprised to see her in the great costumes from Mame.

Right now, I feel we do need a little Christmas. Each day as I listen to stories of death, war and tragedy on the news, I silently pray for some holiday peace and goodwill to hurry up and get here. I know I can’t be the only one to feel this way. Maybe if we all think it, Christmas will come to those who need it most.

 

What songs are your favorite Christmas carols? Share them in the comments!

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My Go-To Tunes Christmas Edition

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!