My Favorite Christmas Songs

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Today we bought our Christmas tree; but more about that later. I’ve found that in the past couple of years I’ve usually switched over from my Advent playlist to my Christmas playlist at the time we get our tree. Somehow it feels fitting. I don’t totally eschew Christmas songs in Advent; but I do have many Advent songs I love listening to so I tend to focus on them in the first couple of weeks of the season when it still feels indecently early to be listening to Christmas music.

A few days ago a friend on Facebook was inquiring about people’s most hated Christmas songs. Then to balance it out he asked about their favorite song. At the time I had no opinion so didn’t respond to the question; but the prompt has been percolating through my subconscious and came back tot he fore when I decided to put on some Christmas music. I don’t think I could pick a favorite song; but perhaps a top ten list (in no particular order, because trying to order them would drive me crazy) . . . or maybe I can’t quite confine myself to ten. . . I’ve got list creep.

I’ve noticed as I compiled this list that my favorite songs are the ones that lead me deeper into contemplation of the mysteries of the Nativity. As I made up my list I started include a few notes on my favorite lines and what the song means to me, why each is on my favorite list. And then I noticed that it was becoming sort of series of mini meditations for the Advent season. A useful exercise to stop and reflect.

1. O Holy Night

Don’t you just get the shivers at the line “fall on your knees”? This is the proper response—the only response—to the mystery of Incarnation. It reminds me of the canticle from Philippians 2: At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth.

And here in the original French version, which I love just as much as the English translation.

2. What Child is This

Especially verse two:

Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

It seems essential to me that contemplation of the baby in the manger should bring me to contemplation of the cross. It seems to me that in some ways the popular image of the peaceful scene of gentle Mary, strong St Joseph, and innocent baby can in some ways become a stumbling block. If the contrast between that image and the brutal violence of the nails and and spear piercing that tender baby flesh seems too gruesome… well, the Church has always reminded us of this reality via the liturgical calendar as the feast of the Nativity is followed immediately by the feast of St Stephen, the first martyr and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the babies whose tender flesh was speared in Herod’s brutal rejection of the Christ Child.

3. In the Bleak Midwinter

I loved this song, based on Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem, even before I moved to New England; but now the “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow” has a deeper feeling for me than when I lived in Texas where I’d only seen snow a handful of times. As I’ve been reading Idoya Munn’s reflections on celebrating Christmas in the summer, I can hardly grasp it, though I know she is right that “light in the midst of darkness isn’t the only story to celebrate.” Still, to me it is the story that speaks to where I am now. Living in this cold place where the days leading up to Christmas get colder and shorter and my heart longs for light and warmth and I am led to a hunger for Emmanuel the Light of the World.

And that final “give him my heart”… another of those lines I can hardly sing for getting so choked up.

4. Silent Night

Classic, beautiful, but I don’t have much to say about it except that it speaks to me so much more now that I am a mother. During the Advent and Christmas season this becomes a part of my nightly lullaby repertoire. (In part because its the my favorite song that I can sing. As much as I love 1-3, they aren’t easy for me to belt out.) It’s now one the girls recognize and call out for when they hear it come up on my playlist. Sophie’s eyes light up as she hears it, “Oh Christmas song!”

5. Good King Wenceslas

As my sister points out, St. Wenceslas is such an icon of Christ in this song:

Sire the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart I know not how
I can go no longer.

Mark my footsteps my good page,
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.

Yes, the page boy is me. My heart fails and I can go no further and then suddenly I am reminded that all I have to do is keep my feet in my Master’s steps and tread boldly and I find the ability to move forward.

This is one of the girls’ favorite songs. Mostly because of Tim Ladwig’s beautifully illustrated book.

6. Joy to the World

It isn’t the song itself so much as the associations and memories connected with it. I associate this song with the lights suddenly ablaze in a church which had previously been dark and hushed. Then voices sing at full joyful volume. Belting this out at Christmas Mass always brings tears to my eyes and a feeling like my heart will burst: “The Lord is come!”

7. I Wonder as I Wander

A song that begins with wondering about how Jesus came to die, reminds me of the fullest meaning of Christmas is not a baby in a manger but God become Man to die for us. I can’t remember where I read it; but the image has lingered: the wood of the manger is the wood of the cross. This song leads me to ponder that the image of God in a feeding trough is a Eucharistic image. He was laid in a manger because he comes to invite us to eat of his very flesh, this Word become flesh who made his dwelling with us.

The song also reminds me of the centuries of longing of the prophets and patriarchs. Israel longing for her savior: “The Promise of the Ages men then did recall.” Oh if only I had more of that longing in my own heart!

8. Adam Lay i-bounden

I first heard this at the program of lessons and carols that preceded Midnight Mass at St Louis in Austin, my parents’ parish where I grew up. I didn’t really appreciate it until I’d taken a class in Medieval poetry in college and read this and other early poems on the theme of the “happy fall”. The Church invites us to contemplate Genesis at Christmas, Mary as the Second Eve, Christ as the New Adam:

Blessed be the time

  That apple taken was,

Therefore we moun singen.

  Deo gracias!

9. O Little Town of Bethlehem

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. . .

. . . No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

10.  Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming

The story Christ hidden within the metaphor of a rose that blooms in the dead of winter. Again, the narrative of life hidden within the cold, light hidden in the darkness. Listening to this one I think about how these hymns taken all together are really almost enough by themselves to teach the Christmas story to children: So many of the elements are here if you just listen: Jesse’s stem, Isaiah’s prophecy, Mary the mother, the angels message to the shepherds. How the greatest things are hidden in simplicity:

This Flower, whose fragrance tender
with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendor
the darkness everywhere;
true man, yet very God,
from sin and death he saves us,
and lightens every load.

11. Of the Father’s Love Begotten

I thought I was done with my ten; but this one came up in the queue and I couldn’t leave it off. Nor could I remove any of the songs I’d already written about. So who needs a neat list of ten?

Of the Father�s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

In searching for the lyrics to this, I learned that it is a translation of an ancient Latin hymn (no wonder I love it). There are several versions in English but the one I love is by J M Neale, who also penned Good King Wenceslas.

I don’t know that I have a specific commentary for this one. Just that this one is haunting. It gets into my head and wont leave; but it is a most pleasant and welcome guest there. It speaks to me of peace and certainty and when I hear it I come closer to being able to really rest in Him.

Updated 12/19:

I just figured out that You Tube has a nifty feature where I can embed the whole playlist. So if you want to listen to all the videos at once and not have to click on each individual video, here’s all of the videos together:

You can also find the playlist here at You Tube: Christmas playlist. How cool is that?

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