Saying you love Christmas music is akin to saying you love ice cream—not many people would argue with you. So it’s without hesitation that I proudly join the chorus of millions when I confess: I love the music of Advent and Christmas.
However, about eight years ago I began to despair at the limited number of holiday songs piped through speakers at the mall or broadcast on those wonderful lite FM channels that devote their airtime after Halloween to playing non-stop Christmas hits. After the sixty-seventh time of hearing Burl Ives croon, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas,” or Mariah Carey belt out, “All I want for Christmas is you,” I decided to follow Ghandi’s advice and be the change I wanted to see in the world (granted, he was probably hoping for change of a bit more substance).
For the last several years I have compiled a playlist of lesser-known Advent and Christmas songs, or renditions that don’t receive the attention they deserve. The list to the right includes some of my favorite sacred songs from that collection.
I recommend them all but highlight a few for you here:
Advent is not simply looking forward to the pastoral scene of a baby born in the manger—it’s also the anticipation of Christ coming to set the world right. In “Canticle of the Turning,” Emmaus Way sings passionately of Mary’s vision in which the poor will be lifted up and the exalted brought low “till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, / who is turning the world around.” Like Advent itself, it sings the song of God’s justice that is promised with Christ’s coming.
We see a similar vision of God’s coming reign in Over the Rhine’s “The Trumpet Child.” Using imagery from jazz music, the song imagines what it will look like when God—in the same vein as jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk (both of whom get a nod in the song)—“improvise[s] a kingdom come” where “The rich forget about their gold; / the meek and mild are strangely bold.” The improvisational spirit is underscored by the interplay of horns, piano, and tenor sax that offer the listener a poignant metaphor for God’s imaginative work in creating all things new with what already exists.
“A Cradle in Bethlehem” is one of the hidden gems of the Christmas canon. Whether you prefer the smooth style of Nat King Cole or the sweetness of Sara Groves, this Christmas lullaby focuses our attention on the common humanity of Mary caring for her child, as well as the cosmic plan of this little child who was sent to lead us to redemption.
Not for the faint of heart, this song by Duluth-based band Low imagines what would happen “If You Were Born Today.” And while most of us like to imagine that we would recognize the Messiah, Low points to the more likely truth that we too would reject the Christ who calls us to peace, forgiveness, and humility. It is a sobering, though necessary, reminder of Christ’s prophetic call in the Christmas season.
Far from the usual soaring versions, folk musician Tracy Chapman’s “O Holy Night” is stripped down to a stunningly simple acoustic arrangement. By taking away the powerful vocal fireworks, she leaves the listener with an unadorned message that is all the more poignant in its basic form: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, /for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Listen to the Spotify playlist at CovenantCompanion.com/playlist