December has come again and brought with it the Christmas season. For whatever the Christmas season means to you, it definitely has its own soundtrack. This is the one time of year that the chart-topping stars at the cutting edge of pop culture take a back seat to tradition. Well-worn songs make their annual show and we are more than content, we are eager to be swamped in nostalgia, kitsch, and schmaltz.
About a decade ago, when I started attending the church at which I’m a member now, I was introduced to the season of Advent. Advent is not less than the celebration of Christmas, but it is more. It’s a specific time set aside to appreciate what has already happened in the Christian faith and to draw near to the anticipation and longing for what is still to come. It’s a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, and enduring December with that tension at the fore of my mind has helped make a lot of sense of Christmastime.
This has, in turn, given me a new lens through which to appreciate the music that pervades this time of year. I have found some new songs, I have rediscovered some old ones from a fresh perspective. If you’re looking for something to listen to in place of the millionth rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock”, here’s a list of my 10 favorite songs for Advent:
10. White Christmas
I don’t understand how anyone could dislike like snow. They’ve officially murdered their sense of wonder. A fresh blanket of snow is the very definition of possibility. It stirs anticipation in my heart—of rest and play and of the creaturely comfort of coming in from the cold to a warm home. Snow, especially in enough quantity, has a knack for bringing things into a state of stillness, whether by canceling work and school or just putting the world on mute. Both anticipation and stillness go perfectly with Christmas morning, and they go just as perfectly with every other morning we’re lucky enough to have some snow.
9. Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child
This is an old church song that might not have been so widely known at more straight-laced white churches until Mariah Carey used it to close her ultra-mainstream ‘Merry Christmas’ album. That’s how I found it. It’s kind of unusual that this song appears on such a commercial blockbuster from a massive pop star like Mariah. And the fact that it’s the closer, the final word, the ‘what it was all about in the end’ song is as striking as it is unexpected.
A history teacher at my high school used to assign his students a paper explaining every reference in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I feel like this song is kind of the Sunday School equivalent. You could make a nice little Advent project explaining all the Jesus references Mariah makes in the middle section.
And then there’s the coda. Just when you think it’s over, the piano picks up with a few chords and then whammo—doubletime madness. It’s a delirious, joyful ending. If your church is fairly presentable, oftentimes reserved if not anxiously brooding over proper reformed theology like I mine (and I can brood with the best of them), sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that delirious joy is an ok response to the birth of Jesus.
8. Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht
Everyone knows ‘Silent Night’. It’s the song that will have your pre-schooler asking what a virgin is. More than that, though, it’s a beautiful piece of music actually about breaking silence. There’s a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. The Christ child broke that silence, reigniting a long story of God’s movement that had seemed to trail off. A host of angels broke the silence in the sky above the shepherds. We are encouraged to break some silence of our own and sing along with those angels. It’s a lovely song. My only question is: have you heard it in German? The crisp, mountainous sonority to the language lends the text an almost crystalline quality.
7. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Culturally, an overwhelming emphasis is put on the birth of Mary’s baby on Christmas. The baby in the manger is an isolated image. Where did that baby come from, though? What’s his story? This song traces the roots of that birth deep into the history of Israel. This baby is the Rod of Jesse. The Key of David. The Ransom of Israel. The answer to a longing that stretched back through 42 generations. Now that’s a Christmas song with some heft. (Brace yourself… this might get loud)
6. What Child Is This?
I had always kind of hated this song, seeing as how the melody conjured images of ye olde Renaissance Faire minstrels moaning about green sleeves. And it seemed to put baby Jesus in a bottle. Then I heard this oft-omitted verse, which offers a sudden flash of what was waiting for this baby:
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.
Again, this verse is sung about a baby. If you need an antidote the the sentimentalizing forces of Christmas, Inc., there you go.
5. Someday At Christmas
This song has really grown on me as I’ve traded the Christmas season in for the season of Advent. The longing in the lyric—for no hungry children, for the end of death and meanness—is, I think, a universal. The Christmas season tries to sentimentalize this longing away, sweeping it under a rug of holly jolly good will. Advent welcomes this longing, which makes this a good time to invite people to consider that maybe there is an answer to their longing that they don’t have to somehow muster from within themselves. And answer that isn’t subject to political bickering, terror, war, or any of the other horrors people resort to when trying to whip the world into their preferred shape. Part of the joy of Advent is the anticipation that yes, someday at Christmas, all of these longings will be fulfilled and then some.
4. All I Want For Christmas Is You
I could dress this song up in some puffery about how Christmas is all about de-commercialized community and relationships and blah blah blah. But, really this one’s on the list for the bass line. And the grooving bedlam that breaks out in my kitchen every time those first twinkling notes ring out. Who can sit still to this song? Not my two boys. Or me.
3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Speaking of bass lines, this is my favorite version of this hymn. The rhythm section is killing it. The entire musical setting is vibrant. And this is definitely another one of those hymns with a deep bench. We all know the first verse, but if you keep going the lesser-known subsequent verses draw out some wonderful elaborations of why, exactly, the angels were in such a state over the birth of this child. This here is the perfect confluence of music and text.
2. Christmastime Is Here
I am very, very fond of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I love it for all of the reasons it shouldn’t work for TV. It’s not polished to a high gloss like the ADHD Christmas specials Disney churns out (which one of those has celebrated a 50th birthday—which ever will?). It’s not built on peril and action-packed resolution. It’s built on melancholy, questioning, and eventual comfort, and that’s a poignant mix for the Advent season.
This song captures the chink in the armored days of merry and bright. Some of it is in the jazz theory of pianist Vince Guaraldi (early on, he plays an F7 chord in the right hand over an Ab in the left—two major chords, but a minor third apart, blending into one unit the ‘happy’ sound of major tonality with the ‘sad’ sound of a minor interval. Advent captured in a single chord!). Some of it is the slow tempo at which the children’s choir sings of happiness and cheer. The song is filled with dichotomies. It comes together like no other Christmas song I can think of and offers the perfect soundscape for a pause to reflect during the Christmas blitz. This is the sound of Advent.
1. Hosanna In the Highest
At last. I love this song. I think everyone should love this song. Lots of people write new Christmas songs, lots of them are sentimental and tacky. This song is rich and singable and if I can introduce it to even just one more person, I’ve done a good deed. It plays on repeat in our house and I never get tired of it.