Holiday Tunes

Since starting a family my attitude toward Christmas and the holidays has changed.

In my younger days, as an embittered man in my early 20’s, I railed against the holiday season, whining of corporate greed and commercialism and the injustices suffered by pagans at the hands of early Christians co-opting a solstice for their own designs.

Essentially, I was a self-righteous, Grinchy, asshole.

Fast forward to the arrival of a child, then a wife, and then another child, and my heart has grown. I really dig the holidays now. And though the corporate greed and commercialism continues to run rampant–even more so every year–I can look past all that and appreciate the season for what it is: a time of togetherness in which we cherish those we love, give thanks for what we have, provide comfort to those who do without, and remember sacrifices offered up for our benefit. And this is how we are meant to live year round. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is told to hold Christmas in his heart year round. I know we lose sight of this throughout the year, but it’s nice to get a boost and a reminder.

One aspect of Christmas that often receives a generous amount of flack and derision is the music; this is most likely due in part to its arrival date every year. It seems that just after Halloween, more aggressive stores begin piping in Christmas music, both traditional and secular, full versions and muzak alike. And that’s unfortunate, because the traditional songs/hymns are really beautiful and the pop songs are a lot of fun (especially for kids). In our home, we have acquired a variety of Christmas and holiday collections either through purchasing it ourselves or checking it out from the library (FYI, you can score a bunch of free music with a library card), but we do wait until after Thanksgiving.  Raffi’s 1983 Raffi’s Christmas (a favorite my sister and I when we were kids) receives heavy rotation as does the Jackson 5’s collection; this year, we discovered two new records that switched things up a bit: 1) Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook and 2) Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas.

Elizabeth Mitchell has been a musical staple in our home since the birth of our first daughter, Erp. She writes simple folk songs and dabbles in standards, and her soporific voice lends itself to soothing a restless child. Her Christmas record provides something different from the usual holiday fare. I like the songs on this collection because they focus on the major themes and characters from the nativity story but stays centered on the proverbial mother and child of the tale. “Joseph and Mary (The Cherry Tree Carol)”, a simple and soft, almost Hollullabyish narrative of the relationship between Joseph and Mary, is my favorite from the record.

Sufjan Stevens was an artist I listened to in college. His state records received heavy play in our house, but I kind of forgot about him as new music wormed its way inside my skull.

Then, just a week before Christmas, my wife discovered Spotify, and sought out Advent music (we are trying to be more mindful of the liturgical calendar in our home, celebrating Advent, then Christmas). Sufjan Stevens’ rendition of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” popped up on her playlist and we were both hooked. We talked about learning it and singing it as a family (I realize that sounds a bit too much Partridge Family, but…so what? It’s not like we’re going to buy a multi-colored bus and tour the country…although…no, that wouldn’t work). After investigating the rest of the track listing, I decided to buy the record; it was 42 songs for twelve bucks. The multi-record collection featured classic hymns, holiday pop songs, and some weirdo Christmas tracks to boot [“Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well You Deserved It)]. Many of the songs are tunes that people would recognize and expect on a Christmas record, but Stevens masterfully arranges the songs, bringing something new to the experience. I especially like his cut of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

If you’re someone who likes Christmas music but long for something slightly different, I recommend checking out these records. And if you’re someone with a pessimistic, grinchy, bah humbug heart, like I used to have, you might benefit from listening to these as well.

Merry Christmas, folks and have a happy New Year.

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