Christmas Music

Dr. Seuss got at least one thing right: music is absolutely essential to any celebration of Christmas, perhaps even the most essential element; for me, the day the Christmas season begins is the day I bust out my collection of Christmas CDs (though I admit, I often cheat and start singing Christmas music in October or November, even though I refrain from listening to it that early). This year I recently compiled a list of about 80 most cherished Christmas songs, my favorite of which is actually not a Christmas song at all but an Advent song: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Of course, my choices are guided chiefly by music, but this 12th- or 13th-century Gregorian chant is the setting for wonderfully gloomy, plaintive, moving lyrics, answered antiphonally in the refrain by the promise of deliverance–as one popular translation from the Latin original renders two of the verses:

O come, thou root of Jesse! Draw
the quarry from the lion’s claw;
from the dread caverns of the grave,
from nether hell thy people save.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O

O come, O come, thou dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
and pierce the shadows of the tomb.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O

This magnificently solemn medieval chant is followed closely on my list of most adored carols by Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming (which made it into the LDS hymn books in both French and German), Personent Hodie (another tune from the high Middle Ages, this one in Dorian, arranged by Gustav Holst and John Rutter, among others), and In Dulci Jubilo (known also in an alternate incarnation and slightly more upbeat setting as Good Christian Friends, Rejoice).

I won’t bore you by describing the different versions of Adam Lay Ybounden (okay, not really a Christmas song exactly), or Blessed Be That Maid Mary. Needless to say, there are many, many more (one reason I have to start singing in October). I have an unfortunate habit of singing on planes to pass the time–very softly, just to myself–but I don’t exactly have any vocal training. Unless you happen to be seated next to me when I take off to visit family next week, you can count your blessings. ๐Ÿ™‚

Don’t let that number 80 fool you, though. I don’t like all Christmas music–I’m actually quite discriminating. Silent Night is much too boring even to consider, and only the English version of O Little Town of Bethlehem is acceptable in my book (the tune is that of I Saw A Mighty Angel Fly, number 15 in our hymnal).

I’m not sure I could choose a favorite Christmas album, but Percy Faith: The Music of Christmas, Vol. 2 ranks high on the list. One reason is that it’s incredible. Another is that, for years of my young life, it was basically the only Christmas album we owned (we had it on record). (The first album is almost as good.)

Mannheim Steamroller is also delightful, particularly the first two albums (given the fact that all of my favorite songs listed above are arrangements of early music, it may not be surprising that I like the concept of arranging Christmas songs in a Renaissance style, Chip Davis’s stated intention for these albums). The London Symphony Orchestra and Choir has a fantastic collection of Christmas songs–their rendition of Pat-a-Pan is breathtaking. I don’t like everything John Rutter or Robert Shaw include in their recordings, but what I like, I love (both of these choirs feature adult voices exclusively), and the same goes for the various albums produced by Kings College Choir at Cambridge and Trinity College Choir at Cambridge (featuring adult men and children), which are, on the whole, absolute gems.

But my tastes are undeniably quirky, and I’ve been accused by more than one person of being obsessed with Personent Hodie, which, in the view of some, is too strange to be believed. What Christmas music do you listen to, and what do you like about it?


  1. My tastes are quirkier. One of the things I dislike the most about the holiday season is the inescapable background Christmas music, starting in November (to think that I gave up artificial sweeteners earlier this year). Before the cries of “Scrooge!” and “Grinch!” begin, I should say that I like some. We had a wonderful choir director years ago, who lead us in Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming and Still, Still, Still and another very melancholy one–I can only remember the feeling but not the title.

    Sting has a meditative song focused on the Annunciation called Gabriel’s Message.

    And to push beyond the quirky and deep into the weird, this year I’m listening to A Very Scary Solstice which blends holiday tempo with Lovecraftian nihilistic anguish, for those of us who like our gods with more terrible awe and less goodwill. (link:

    On the cheery side, I like Vince Garaldi’s music from Charlie Brown’s Christmas and when I can find a decent sing-a-long, Handel’s Messiah.

  2. Great post for this time of year! My 11 mth old has just discovered our stereo and the Christmas CD is his favorite. He waves his arms and bobs his head to “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” and other favorites. That’s mostly what I love about Christmas music, watching other people enjoy the same warmth and spirit that I feel this time of year.
    (I think that may be on a greeting card somewhere)
    I just want to thank you, Kiskilili (and all the other sisters) for this site. It’s a great forum for discussing and learning, I really enjoy it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I think I need to get a look at your Christmas playlist. One of my absolute favorite Christmas pieces is Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.” We sang that in my choir, and it sent shivers up my spine the first time we practiced it (let alone when we actually performed it). We also did Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” that same year, and it is one of my absolute favorites too.

    I love Rutter’s “Angel Carol” because my family sings it over and over again every Christmas, and so it has a lot of sentimental meaning.

    I, too, like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming” (we did a really cool a capella version of this piece this year). I do like “Silent Night,” though.

    And, yay, for the Middle Ages stuff! I love “Personent Hodie,” (and “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Resonet in Laudibus”…).

    I think I’m going to stop now because the more I think about all the Christmas music I like, the longer my list gets (and I have to get back to my grading).

  4. I had to add one more thing to my list: some of the movements from Benjamin Britten’s “A Boy is Born” are hauntingly beautiful. I *love* his setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” because it really conveys the feeling of being outside in the cold while the snow is falling.

  5. I love Personet Hodie as well as Adam Lay Ybounden (sang them in high school choir). And I was just going to put on O Magnum Mysterium tonight– it is so beautiful, and all those amazing Ave Marias out there. (What would I do without music?)

    We grew up listening to some old Robert Goulet, The Carpenters, Amy Grant, and George Winston’s Christmas albums, so those are my favorites. And my favorite has to be Amy Grant’s O Little Town of Bethlehem.
    Christmas music definitely helps me be (somewhat) sane in the middle of finals.

  6. I love all Christmas music by Bing Crosby. I love all the old fashioned ones! I love O Come O Come Emmanuel, and thought about the words as we lit our advent wreath on Sunday.

    Obvious (maybe), but I really love O Holy Night too.

  7. Hmmm … I adore gloomy, plaintive and moving Christmas. Some of my favorites are What Child Is This, Coventry Carol, and I Wonder As I Wander.

    One of my favorite Christmas memories: Our apartment party about 7 years ago. Everyone was to bring a story or poem to share. I brought home a stack of hymnbooks, and we sang Angels We Have Heard on High … parts and everything, acapella. ‘Twas glorious. Something about all those running Glorias. Then again, I am one of those types who practices conducting the Hallelujah Chorus, in the event that I am ever called upon to step in at the last minute for the MoTab.

  8. I am a big fan of “Good King Winceslas”, even though it is not technically a Christmas song (the “feast of Stephen was traditionally Dec 26).
    Another seasonal favorite, though not really Christmas-specific, is Handel’s Messiah. But don’t give me any of those highlights or excerpts, I want the whole 2-1/2 hours.
    Carol of the Bells is also great fun to sing.

  9. Thanks for mentioning the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, ECS. They’re my latest favorite. I like Christmas Eve and Other Stories most.

    But I also love the Percy Faith albums you mention, Kiskilili, and for the same reason. Volume 2 in particular just means Christmas to me when I hear it like no other Christmas music does.

    Also thanks to your influence, I really like the Narada Christmas collections, particularly Volume 2 and David Lanz’s Christmas Eve album. Oh, and I second your recommendation of George Winston, cmac.

    Really, I’m about the most uneducated Christmas music listener there is; half the time I don’t even know what I’m listening to. But I sure know when I like it.

  10. Emmanuel is one of my favorite Christmas songs as well. This is largely because it reminds me of my husband since his name is Emmanuel.

    Every time it plays I turn to him and say “You know, this is one of the oldest Christmas songs that is still popular today.” To which he replies “I know, you tell me that every time.” (After X number of years of marriage you start to develop silly traditions… ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    I was thinking of doing a post about all of the Christmas music I like and why. There’s no way I could cover the topic in a little reply.

    I have this same ecclectic-and-picky thing going as you do, so I usually prefer to listen to my own compilation discs (as discussed here) rather than listening to the original discs all the way through.

    I’ve joked that my motivation to compile my own discs was avoidance of Silent Night, O Holy Night, and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, but it’s more than that. Usually I find a track here and a track there that I really love on an otherwise uninteresting disc or on a disc that isn’t a Christmas disc overall.

  11. Seraphine, I’ve got to agree with you on O Magnum Mysterium. Our choir is singing it tomorrow, and I’m thrilled (as long as we basses can keep the parts straight!). Those are some tight harmonies!

    I heard the story behind In the Bleak Midwinter a few years ago, and it was an interesting one about a woman’s struggle with depression, if I remember correctly. I should look it up on the Internet sometime.

  12. Thanks for the comments. I’ve never heard of <em>A Very Scary Solstice</em>, but the title alone is fascinating.

    I’m glad you like our blog, Jessawhy. We mostly blog for ourselves, but it’s nice to meet other people online with similar interests who enjoy our discussions! Your 11-month-old sounds very cute. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ll “fourth” Seraphine, cmac, and Septentrionalist about O Magnum Mysterium; it’s haunting. I hope your performance went well, Septentrionalist! And I’m amazed, Seraphine, that you like so many of the carols I like–and we’re not even related! (Most of Benjamin Britten’s carols I don’t care for, but I adore “This Little Babe” from his Ceremony of Carols. I’m not sure I’ve heard “A Boy Is Born.”)

    Hooray for cmac, who’s not only heard of but sung Personent Hodie and Adam Lay Ybounden!

    I’m a certifiable Anglophile in more ways than one, Rebecca. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I also like “O Holy Night” (there’s a wonderful rendition on Percy Faith album 1, which, incidentally, has my favorite recording of “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming.”) Like Dora, I also love “Coventry Carol,” “What Child Is This,” and “I Wonder As I Wander.” That’s funny about being ready to conduct the MoTab. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I haven’t actually heard the TransSiberian Orchestra, I’m afraid. But Capt. Obsidian, you’ll be glad to hear that I included “Good King Wenceslas” on the list, although, as you say, it’s actually a carol for St. Stephen’s Day (but close enough).

    Making your own compilations is a great idea, C. L. Hanson. There are a few CDs on which I love every single song. But mostly I listen to certain tracks over and over.

    (I forgot to mention in my post that I think the funniest line from any carol is “I have cherries at command,” in “The Cherry Tree Carol.” I can’t take it seriously.)

  13. Septentrionalist, I hope your performance went well. As for “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” the text is taken from a poem by Christina Rossetti, who was a 19th century English poet. I’m not sure of any background stories around the poem (i.e. if she wrote it because of struggling with depression), but that is who wrote it.

    Kiskilili, yeah, it was funny when I read your post, and I was like, “hey, it’s a bunch of my favorite Christmas music!” As for Britten’s “A Boy is Born,” it’s really hard to find because not many choirs do it (because of it’s difficulty)–the music is actually out of print. It’s a 7-movement completely a capella piece, and a few of the movements have 8 parts rather than your usual 4. When my choir did it a few years ago, it took us multiple rehearsals before we could do some of the movements well enough to get any kind of sense of how they would sound during the concert.

    I went looking around on Amazon, and I could only find choirs doing the “A Boy is Born” movement, and not the entire piece.


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