My Favorite Mostly-Christmas Songs

I’ve been listening to Christmas and holiday music since November 7 (two guesses why). I started slowly but now I’m listening to little else, so I thought I’d list a few favorites and why I like them. In no particular order:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel—Points to Enya for bringing tears to my eyes every time I hear her version. Double points for an artist/singer/musician friend whose version also brings me to tears. This song is largely responsible for my love of the word “Immanual” (my favorite spelling).

Chiron Beta Prime — This song is special to me because the person who recommended it to me was a bit tortured. He was also a devoted follower of Christ, so when he recommended his favorite Christmas song, I was expecting something just a step sideways from traditional, but something with overt Christian themes, perhaps a re-imagined hymn, perhaps a bit of a downer. Instead, I found an upbeat song shielding a dangerous situation, a sci-fi story full of clever puns and tongue-and-cheek humor. Sometimes we use humor to reach out for help, to subvert expectations, to slip a message to a trusted friend. With everything I know about my friend, this makes a lot of sense, and when I hear the song, I remember him. This year, though, it’s a little hard for me to listen to.

Breath of Heaven — I relate to this song year-round and go to it often when I am struggling spiritually. I pray its words. I close my eyes and let my spirit stretch out toward God, reaching, singing, praying, seeking. I listen to it again and again. Furthermore, I relate to stories, and the honesty with which this one imagines Mary’s feelings and fears and uncertainties impresses upon me that Christ’s birth occurred amongst real people, with lives as complex and emotions as strong as yours or mine.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day — I knew the song before I found the poem that forms the lyrics in my mother’s poetry anthology. I love the structure, the progression of a person’s feelings, and as I age I increasingly relate to a narrator who wants, more than anything, for the promise of “Peace on Earth” to finally come true. The carol ends with hope without diminishing the despair possible when the world’s human inhabitants persist in abusing, torturing, neglecting, frightening, killing, and ignoring one another.

Silent Night — I learned to sign the first verse of this carol when I was no more than twelve, after taking an ASL class with my parents at my church. My signing is stilted and incredibly limited, but like studying any language, what you learn expands your understanding of the world. Furthermore, I love to encounter this song in the privacy of my home or the darkness of a theater or worship event when I can express my worship through the physical movements of signing, essentially singing the song in two languages at once. And I sometimes find my mouth closed up, as I sing through my body alone.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem — Simple, classic, slow, beautiful. Reminiscent of a still, dark night pregnant with promise. The song reminds me of Christmas Eve when I was a child, of the giddy excitement of traveling through the darkness to my grandparents’ house, laying sideways in the seat and staring up at the stars, wondering which one led the wise men to Jesus and hoping for a shooting star to wish on or the glimpse of a dark shadow with a pinprick of red light.

We Three Kings — I’m going to be ornery for a moment and point out that the wise men probably didn’t arrive until Jesus was two, just before the family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murder of all the boys in Bethlehem near Jesus’ age range. Also, there were three gifts and at least two but probably many more wise men. Which contributes to my personal tradition of the nativity set’s wise men traveling through the room during Advent, shelf to shelf and across the mantle, arriving at the rest of the nativity set a few days after Christmas. *clears throat* Now, then, this song resonates with me as a journey story. We are searching in our lives and what we’re searching for often changes. But for Christ-followers, the overall journey of our lives is toward Christ, toward God, toward perfection and light and hope and beauty. We endure varied and strange landscapes, asking questions, holding on to the purpose and worthiness of the journey even when we have no idea how much longer we’ll have to be traveling.

White Winter Hymnal — I find patterns and repetition comforting. If you’ve heard this song, you already know why I like it. If I measure my breath carefully as I sing along with Kirstie of Pentatonix, I can almost just manage to hold out until she takes a breath before the last of nine repetitions of the first line. But I also love that the song is vague and a little weird. It refers to a single moment, the description is open to interpretation, and so the song feels more like a poem than a carol, reminding me to notice. Whether or not I understand what I’m seeing, I should notice as I move through my fellow humans: the color of a scarf, the way a child is bundled against the cold, the feeling in my stomach as my foot slips on ice. (According to my roommate, the song refers to goats in scarves, which is also kind of wonderful.)

Honorable mentions:
Mary, Did You Know? — performed by Pentatonix
Snow in California — Ariana Grande
Feels Like Christmas — Straight No Chaser
Winter Song — Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson
Ding Dong Merrily On High — performed by the Lowcountry Children’s Chorus (which I was a member of as a child)
Christmas Canon — Trans-Siberian Orchestra