We put the John Denver & The Muppets Christmas on the stereo for the ride up to Butler’s Orchard to get the Christmas Tree today, mostly because this is the album that makes me think Christmas. There are a lot of traditional carols, and a few secular favorites, but this is my favorite of the songs.
It’s in Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and it’s sung by Emmet and Alice as they’re down on the ice. It’s an odd choice for a Christmas album, as its material seems to be more geared toward the nature of life and loss than it is to the hopefulness of the Christmas season.
The version on the album is John Denver and Kermit (Jim Henson), and of the two versions, I far prefer this one.
It’s the last verse that hit me pretty hard, a lump in my throat and my eyes damp. It snaps me back through time to when I was a little kid riding in our old white van up to Alta to cut the tree down. We had that album on tape, and it was always part of that Christmas rotation. I can see the snow on the ground, I can feel the chill in the air, and I can remember the ride up the hill in the old Willy Jeep to cut the tree down.
Like a baby when it is sleeping in its loving mother’s arms,
what a newborn baby dreams is a mystery.
But his life will find a purpose and in time he’ll understand
when the river meets the sea. When the river meets the almighty sea.
This is a time of year when music comes with memories so thick I have to brush them away to keep from getting lost. It’s not always a bad thing, but the nostalgia that comes with them is often overwhelming.
And now with Charlie here, I understand this song’s immense power.
When the river meets the almighty sea.
Bogoroditse Devo (Богородице Дево) is part of the Rachmaninoff Vespers service, written in just two weeks in the midwinter of 1915. In the midst of the Great War’s harshest winter, Rachmaninoff wrote this incredible collection of 15 movements (Bogoroditse Devo is #6). It was well-received by the public on first performance in March of that year, but after the Revolution of 1917, it was pretty much buried. No recordings would be made until 1965, and even then, it was export only.
In the darkness of winter, when light is scarce, we must make our own brightness in the world. This is one of those great sources of musical light in my winter.
The text is old church slavonic, related to Russian, and is a setting of the Ave Maria.
This song is one I only associate with Advent because of Sufjan Stevens’ amazing Christmas Collection, but this arrangement is something special. The lyrics belong to Robert Robinson, English Baptist Preacher, written in 1757. The last verse is one that stays with me:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
I was particularly taken with this one, Prolis Eterne Genitor.
The text is something we would recognize in spirit, but the latinate is taken from local scripts from Hungary, in a period from which few documents survive, mostly relating to the Turkish incursion in the 16th century. The Turks, being devout Muslims, burned much of the existing Catholic history, its music included, to the ground.
I can’t imagine what Advent would have been like for the surviving Hungarians during those 150 years, when their faith earned them second class status.
I do find in this music a sense of peace and of patience. So take a moment from your busy day, pause and wait, and let the spirit of the season take hold.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the songs I think about for the first Sunday of Advent. Advent’s first week is about the Wait. One of the phrases from my youth’s faith tradition that I love is “we wait in joyful hope”. This arrangement, by the inimitable Punch Brothers, brings a seasonal joy to this otherwise minor-keyed carol.
O Come, O Come is the 19th century translation of the 8th or 12th century chant, and its original chant tones have influenced Kodály and Respighi alike. The lyrics of the first verse are quite innocuous, but by the middle, it’s almost a bit apocalyptic? Anyhow, it’s waiting in joyful hope, and that state, more than any other we’re exhorted to feel during the faith year, is what infects this Advent season.
This is one of my favorite recent discoveries, Michael Head’s arrangement of The Little Road to Bethlehem. Though this version of his arrangement is piano and solo voice, there is a phenomenal choir arrangement to go with it.
The lullaby song is one of Advent’s strongest suits, and something that you don’t often get with festival church music generally speaking. Thankfully there is plenty of contemplative to balance out the bombast. This is just one beautiful example.
Though Advent does not begin until Sunday, the season is upon us again. This carol has old roots, dating back to the 16th century. Praetorius’ harmonies date from 1609 and remain often unchanged four hundred years later, though there are those who have built upon it. Brahms’ Christmas works often start with the same structures.
This is one of my favorite arrangements of any simple church piece, for its harmonies are close and tight, its dissonances resolved, and those fabulous hemiola which just move the piece off its standard stock 4/4 pacing. The lilt jars the listener just slightly, and it’s a lovely effect.
Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey & The Roots: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (w/ Classroom Instruments) (by latenight)
I had no particular use for this song until it was so pivotal in “Love Actually.” And now the Jimmy Fallon version is making me really happy.
This gave me my first real smile of a particularly terrible day.
The best music for Christmas is the music that turns a bad day around.
Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, Mariah Carey, and the kids in the awesome hats.
If you don’t own Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Album, it might just be my favorite. Unique - and very American - instrumentation, and very heartfelt singing. There’s nothing inauthentic about this music, as there often is with popular takes on sacred originals.
Today marks the first week of Advent, a week spent on Waiting. Next week, we Prepare, the following week, we Rejoice, and the final week we Hope. But this week is about Waiting.
This is not I tend to associate with Advent season, but seems to be a perfect fit.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it Prone to leave the God I love Here’s my heart, O take and seal it Seal it for Thy courts above
When I was smaller, my mom bought a Christmas music boxset somewhere, probably Costco. It became our Christmas music Holy Grail. We still trot it out each yeah, though the CDs are dying. It has a little bit of everything: Bing and Frank dueting, half of Handel’s Messiah, a rockin’ 90s “Feliz Navidad,” the Beach Boys’ “We Three Kings,” a dash of holiday novelty songs, and this: the King Singers doing “Deck the Hall.” If you know the King Singers, you know them as incredibly talented performers of old English Madrigals. There were some eye rolls the first time we heard this—it sounds like an a capella madrigal group doing Christmas. And the thing that’s so wonderful about this song is that for the first half of it, that’s what it is. But then they change it up, in a way that makes me laugh every time I hear it. I hope it makes you laugh, too!