Christmas Playlist

In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.

The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.

Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.

Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:

(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)

The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.

(Related post: “The Christmas Songwriters Project”)

In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.

Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.

The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.

You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings. I hope to release a choral Christmas playlist in December 2021.

If you’re looking for Advent music, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” For the Christmas playlist, click on the image below.

Christmas Playlist (art by Yasuo Ueno)

Merry Christmas, friends! May you rejoice in Christ with exceeding great joy, he who “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Amen.

Cover art: Yasuo Ueno (Japanese, 1926–2005), A Multitude of Heavenly Hosts, 1986, natural pigments on silk

Nunc dimittis (Artful Devotion)

presentation of christ in the temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, ca. 1650. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

—Luke 2:29–32

These words were sung two thousand-plus years ago by a Jewish man named Simeon upon seeing and holding the newborn Christ child at his presentation ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. Known as the “Nunc dimittis” (from the Latin for “Now you dismiss”), the song has been used year-round in Compline, Vespers, and Evensong worship services since the fourth century. Since the seventh century, it has served as the centerpiece of the annual feast day known as Candlemas, celebrated on February 2 in the West and February 15 in the East (the Western and Eastern churches count forward forty days from their celebration of Christmas Day, on December 25 and January 6, respectively).

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SONG: “Nunc dimittis” from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1915) | Arranged by Bob Chilcott (2016) | Performed by Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir, on In Winter (2016)

Rachmaninoff’s “Nunc dimittis,” the fifth movement of his All-Night Vigil, was one of his favorite compositions of his career, and he requested that it be performed at his funeral. Its melody is based on a Kievan chant from the Russian Orthodox Vespers service but employs a few rhythmic adjustments and, furthermore, is carried forward by a soloist. As Vladimir Morosan notes in his essay “The Sacred Choral Works of Sergei Rachmaninoff,” “The slow rocking motion of the accompanying voices on two-note descending figures, akin to a lullaby, imparts to the piece a static and peaceful quality.”

The performance above is by Katie Melua, a Georgian singer-songwriter from the UK, who in 2016 returned to her native Georgia to record a winter-themed album with one of the country’s all-women singing troupes. The choral arrangements on In Winter, including “Nunc dimittis,” were specially commissioned of Bob Chilcott.

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Icons are central to the devotional lives of Orthodox Christians. Here I’ve included three from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, which I had the pleasure of visiting about five years ago. Iconographers follow very specific guidelines in their writing of icons, which is why there has been little variation over the centuries. To learn how to read an icon of the Presentation of the Lord, see this “iconreader” blog post.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1600. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 16th century. Tempera on wood, 24 × 16 in. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, cycle C, click here.