I used to love Christmas music. I used to love it so much, in fact, that I convinced the rest of my family that it is acceptable to listen to Christmas music on November 1st (the previous acceptable time was exclusively post-Thanksgiving). However, I’ve found myself listening to less Christmas music with each passing year.
This year, as I’ve become more vested in the philosophy of aesthetics thanks to my involvement with the Nehemiah Foundation, I’ve been pondering why I have experienced this gradual divorce from holiday tunes. What I’ve found are some serious pitfalls within the genre and some solutions to renewing the arts that surround Christ’s birth.
I recently read an article from Russell Moore that rang very true to me regarding the aesthetics of Christmas. In it, he discusses themes which are not unfamiliar to us at the Foundation, such as the emotional breadth of the Biblical narrative and a call to incorporate lament into our art and liturgies. It is an excellent piece, and you can read it here.
After further reflection on Moore’s article (and on the response it has generated), I’ve concluded that the loss of lament in the overwhelming majority of Christmas music is the root cause of my personal drifting from the genre. It’s hard to relate to the ever-bubbling spring of “Christmas cheer” when life has been giving you its worst. It can be cathartic to hear that, even in a season where many celebrate, we are not alone in our pain.
But one might argue that Christmas is a happy time of celebration, and thus its music should follow suit. Although the occasion of Christ’s birth is certainly a reason for celebration, Christmas music generally does not accurately convey a sense of true joy. It’s either saccharine and insincere, or it’s merely happy instead of joyous. Happiness is a vapid, temporal sensation, whereas joy runs much deeper. Joy is a complex emotion, often tempered by hardship (Eccl. 7:2f).
One of the primary weaknesses of Christmas music involves its primary function for many listeners—as a form of escape from the harsher realities of life. While a case could be made that much art succumbs to the lure of escapism, this problem seems particularly prevalent in Christmas music, from the sappy nostalgia of longtime mainstays to the hollow pastiche of many contemporary recordings. Art should equip us to confront our problems on a personal and societal level; it shouldn’t serve as an escape from them. Again, there is a proper place for rejoicing—and even merriment, but we sell ourselves short when inducing fuzzy feelings becomes the sole purpose of art. In fact, a certain amount of self-deception occurs as a result. When we feed our souls with only “uplifting” words and pleasantries, we leave our faith vulnerable. Like the plants in Jesus’ parable which had shallow roots, the hot sun of persecution easily scorches those hopes that are founded primarily on temporal happiness (Matt. 13:5f).
However, while many Christmas songs fall into the “sentimentality trap,” this isn’t the case for all of them. In fact, as Moore writes, the Church has “a rich and complicated and often appropriately dark Christmas hymnody.” Unfortunately, we rarely hear or sing these songs. Instead, we often end up beating a horse with a dead schtick, illuminating only the most generic and sappy bits of Christmas music, even to the point of ruining songs that otherwise might have been acceptable.
In response, here’s a short list of Christmas songs—traditional and contemporary—that serve as counterpoints to cheap sentimentality. These songs evince the principles and range of feelings that Christians can and should incorporate into their artistic commemorations this holiday season.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – Traditional
While the refrain of this classic hymn bids the singer to rejoice, the song also notably focuses on Israel’s hardships under bondage. The song serves as a desperate plea and heart’s cry for deliverance. While the song takes hope in the Messiah’s certain eventual coming, it also recognizes that, in the meantime, God’s people often “mourn in lonely exile.”
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” – Traditional
Perhaps the oldest entry on this list, this hymn is an adaptation of the Divine Liturgy of St. James. Originally drawing poetry from Habbakuk, the version included in most hymnals was penned by Gerard Moultrie for use in the Catholic Church. The song serves as a centering on the divine nature of the Incarnation, a call to shun the rampant materialism and commercialization of the season by joining with the angels in praising the One who “will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.”
“If You Were Born Today” – Low
Released in 1999, Low’s mini-album titled Christmas is an under-appreciated exercise in somber Christmas music. In addition to singlehandedly redeeming “The Little Drummer Boy” with their muted, shoegazing take, Low delivers a handful of excellent originals. The most striking of these is “If You Were Born Today,” which acknowledges the faithlessness that the band sees in the modern world. In doing so, they also remind us that Christ’s—and our—greatest victory is his death and resurrection, which casts a new light on his advent and humiliation.
As a postscript, “Long Way Around the Sea” is also an exquisite and haunting track from this release that imagines the lonely journeys taken by the main players in the Christmas story. It’s certainly also worth a listen.
“Coventry Carol” – Traditional
One often overlooked element of the Christmas story is Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in an attempt to snuff out the Messiah before he could come to power. This 16th century English carol serves as a sobering reminder that Christ was born into a world of turmoil and violence much like the present day. The ethereal melodies and vocal refrain further drives the chilling point home.
“Remember O Thou Man” – Traditional
Similar in focus to “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” this hymn demonstrates the significance of Christmas by reflecting on our frailty and sinfulness. With the understanding that we were saved from soon-coming eternal damnation, God’s gift of salvation and the call to “be not afraid” carries much more meaning and weight. The song reminds us that Christmas isn’t just a happy holiday, but one that should inspire deep gratitude for the price that was paid on our behalf.
Songs for Christmas, Volumes 1-10 – Sufjan Stevens
We at the Foundation have previously spoken of the latter five volumes of Sufjan’s ongoing Songs for Christmas anthology. You can read that post here. Before I briefly touch on some of the better tracks from these releases, it should be noted that at times Sufjan blurs the line between actually indulging in holiday kitsch and satirizing it. There are some real doozies in the 100 songs he has released; in fact, volume seven (I Am Santa’s Helper) should probably be skipped entirely.
With that being said, there are some truly wonderful renditions of classic hymns (such as the aforementioned “Coventry Carol” and my personal favorite version of “Holy, Holy, Holy”) and some brilliant originals. There’s “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You from Christmases Past,” which sums up in its lyrics the concept that I Am Santa’s Helper sought to convey in its 23 insufferable tracks. There’s “Sister Winter” and the autobiographical “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” which recognize how, for many, the holiday season only brings up painful memories. Finally, there’s the Joy Division-sampling “Christmas Unicorn,” which is simultaneously the most critical and hopeful song about Christmas ever penned.