Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Carol Countdown


If you’re like me, one of your favorite things about the Christmas season is the Christmas music. As a traditional person and a Christian, I love classic Christmas carols, but there are many new Christmas songs that I also enjoy.

Christmas songs range from the sublime to the awful (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” I’m looking in your direction). Almost any singer who has recorded more than two albums has also released a Christmas album. When it comes to Christmas, there is no shortage of variations to choose from, even though you might not be able to tell this from the Christmas Top 40 repeated ad infinitum on the department store muzak.

To celebrate this Christmas, I have put together a list of ten Christmas songs that are among my all-time favorites. Some are religious, some are not. Some are old, some are new. Feel free to disagree and list your own favorite Christmas songs in the comments.

10. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles. I like many kinds of music, but, first and foremost, I’m a classic rock fan and The Eagles are the one of the greatest classic rock groups of all time. Their Christmas song is in the vein of “Blue Christmas,” but The Eagles version is a more bluesy, personal plea that resonates with anyone who has ever spent a Christmas away from their loved ones. The Christmas season can be a very lonely one for some people. “Please Come Home for Christmas” isn’t as well known or as oft-covered as “Blue Christmas,” but, for my money, it’s a much better song.

9. “Christmas 1915,” Celtic Thunder. This song combines my love of classic Christmas carols with my love of history. “Christmas 1915” tells the story of the World War I Christmas Truce when Christmas-loving German and British soldiers very nearly derailed the war. The sampling of “Silent Night” to underscore a temporary lull in the brutal trench warfare is tear-inducing. The song represents both the best and worst instincts of man as soldiers cease fighting in celebration of the birth of the Savior only to kill their fellow revelers in hand-to-hand fighting the next day. If you can listen without getting choked up, you’re a better man than I am.

8. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Burl Ives. Like “Christmas 1915,” this carol laments how far man has strayed from God’s ideal. In this world, “hate is strong and mocks the song of ‘peace on Earth, good will to men.’” The song was written in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as he pondered how his son, a Union soldier, was severely wounded and almost paralyzed during the Civil War. The song ends with the stirring promise of the bells that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

This version is performed by Burl Ives, a singer and actor most popular in the 1950s and 1960s. You may recognize Ives’ voice from other classic Christmas songs such as “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

7. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Bing Crosby. Many popular Christmas songs seem rooted in war when families were ripped apart by fighting. This is also the case for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Written in 1943, the song represents a letter home from an American soldier fighting overseas in World War II. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was a fervent desire that would not be fulfilled for most soldiers for another two years, but they would be present with their families “if only in my dreams.” The song is an anthem for those who are separated from their families at Christmas.

The song was originally recorded by crooner Bing Crosby, who also had popular versions of many other Christmas songs that were destined to become Christmas classics. A bit of trivia is that the B-side of the original single of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was “Danny Boy,” a ballad now associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

6. “Mary Did You Know?” Pentatonix. “Mary Did You Know?” is a new classic written by Christian comedian, Mark Lowry. The song asks Mary a rhetorical question. Yes, she knew that she was giving birth to the Son of God because the angel told her, but did she really understand the impact of that her son would have on the world. Could any mortal have comprehended that “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” Unlike many contemporary Christian songs, the theology is deep here. This beautiful version of the song is by acapella group, Pentatonix.

5. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Elvis Presley. No list of Christmas songs would be complete without an entry from The King. Elvis Presley is more known for “Blue Christmas,” but the song is so ubiquitous that it has become a parody of itself. There is even a cover performed by Porky Pig (it’s worth a listen). I prefer my Christmas blues by the Eagles, but I like to hear the velvet voice of Elvis praise the King of Kings in traditional Christmas carols.  

4. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Johnny Cash. This is another traditional carol with many great versions. The song is a hymn by Charles Wesley that mixes an explanation of Christian theology with the joyous news that Jesus was “born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” This is the ultimate meaning of Christmas: That Jesus, “our Emmanuel” (literally, “our God with us”), was born to die for our sins. The Christmas nativity points directly to the cross of Easter.

This version of the song is performed by Johnny Cash, the country music singer with one of the most distinctive voices in the world. Cash was not just singing a song. His belief in Christ changed his life and saved his marriage and career. When he sang about the joy of Christ’s birth, Cash meant every word.

3. “Joy to the World,” Celtic Woman. It’s easy to see the angelic chorus above Bethlehem on a dark night two thousand years ago when you close your eyes and listen to this song. The song, which is based on verses of the Bible (Psalm 98, 96:11-12 and Genesis 3:17-18), is a heavenly birth announcement. Celtic Woman is a world-renowned Irish ensemble.

2. “Silent Night,” Michael Bublé’ and the Trinity Boys Choir. “Silent Night” was originally an Austrian carol, written in German by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr in 1818. The soft, tender song paints a picture of the sleeping town of Bethlehem where “shepherds quake at the sight” of angels attending to the newborn King of Kings. Unlike the boisterous celebration of “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald,” “Silent Night” is quietly worshipful. It is almost as if the singers want to avoid waking the sleeping infant or inhabitants of the town. This is the perfect song to end a Christmas Eve candle service on a reverent note.

Michael Bublé, who performs this version, has recorded one of the most popular Christmas albums of recent years. The German lyrics are performed here by German singer Adaliz von Goltz.

1.“O Holy Night,” Josh Groban. This is my favorite Christmas carol. The song seems to sum up the meaning of Christmas in a moving, solemn song. “O Holy Night” was originally written as a poem based on the Gospel of Luke by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant, in 1847. Adolphe Adam set the poem to music soon after.

This beautiful song is a serene moment in the tumultuous Christmas season. It is pause for reflection on the holiness of the moment. The final stanza hints at the ultimate promise of Christmas that will be fulfilled on Christ’s return: “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

This version is performed by Josh Groban, an American singer and songwriter. You can hear the original French lyrics performed by famed tenor, Enrico Caruso, here.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
-Luke 2:14

Merry Christmas to all!


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