There are holy days that come around to close off our year because of the Holy One that came to close off all our darkness. To me the most joyous part of our celebration of this ultimate occasion is our music of proclamation: the refrains that are as old as grave cathedrals; the declarations that are as new as last year; the carols that were written to announce the wonderful news through the wet streets, and in fire-lit homes.
Christmas has always been one of the highlights of life in my family. We have longstanding traditions for these holy days and one of these is music that has been part of our festivity for as long as I can remember.
Sadly, much that passes for Christmas music in our bewildered culture is nothing more than unsubstantial noise. Even our traditions center more around chestnuts and open fires, reindeer, mistletoe and snow than around the arrival of the Great Light. It can be hard to find artists who incorporate the mystery into their music. This is why I want to share a little list of some of my favorite Christmas music, in hopes that you will find something here you’ve never heard before, and that it will perhaps make the miracle settle a little deeper into you.
Christmas Album (Michael W. Smith) – The one word this album brings to mind is glory. It came out on cassette in 1989 and has played in our home since I was a child. It may be my favorite Christmas album of all time and I was tickled to find that Amazon reviewers seem to share my love for it: it earned a solid five stars on Amazon with fifty out of fifty-five reviewers giving it five stars. The album plays like one magnificent composition, with each track flowing into the next, and boasts splendid boys’ choir arrangements and beautiful lyrics. My favorite track is Lux Venit.
A Christmas Cornucopia (Annie Lennox) – This is a new discovery of mine this year. Annie Lennox is the owner of the powerful voice that croons Into The West on the Return of the King soundtrack, and although I don’t listen to any of her other music, I decided to try this out when I saw it on a clearance rack earlier this year. I ended up being very pleased with it. All of the tracks, with the exception of the last one, are traditional carols, including several lesser-known pieces like As Joseph Was A-Walking, See Amid the Winter Snow, Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant and Angels From The Realms of Glory. The album also features particularly haunting renditions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The Coventry Carol (Lullay Lullay). However, to my mind, the song which is really shown at its very best here is In The Bleak Midwinter, which happens to be a song I don’t usually care for. The difference on this album is that Annie has included the second verse of the original poem – a verse which is seldom sung in contemporary arrangements, but which is truly breathtaking.
A Christmas Carol (James Galway) – This is a rich and lengthy collection of beautiful classical Christmas music with great choral back-ups and trilling flutes and four tracks of Bach (which are worth the whole album to me!) It has a very tranquil, 18th century feel about it.
Christmas (Bruce Cockburn) – This album has a jubilant, folksy feel about it and several unique tracks. Some favorites at my house include Early On One Christmas Morn (we usually have this turned up loud on Christmas morning while we are collecting everybody!) Shepherds, I Saw Three Ships, and Mary Had a Baby
A Winter Garden (by Loreena McKennit) – It may only be five tracks, but A Winter Garden is a carefully compiled group of beautiful songs. This is an album that has probably been in my house since about the time I was born. It is one of the sounds of Christmas to me.
Hark The Herald Angels Sing (Carola) – The traditional carol is sung to a background of heartbreaking middle-eastern vocals. One of my favorite Christmas singles.
Angels We Have Heard On High (Andrea Bocelli) – Andrea delivers this song as it ought to be sung: powerfully and passionately
O Come O Come Emmanuel (by Enya) – Enya sings this mournfully in both English and Latin
The Little Drummer Boy (Celtic Woman) – I believe this is the mightiest rendition of this classic that I have ever had the great pleasure of listening to.
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (Helma Sawatzky) – It isn’t really a Christmas song, but a hymn celebrating the Eucharist. However, my family learned it at Christmastime several years ago and we think of it as such. Helma also seems to sing it like a Christmas song, interposing a little snatch of another carol into the end of her arrangement.
Do you have a favorite Christmas album? Is there one song that has really just made your heart stop this year? I can’t wait to hear about it!