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

Io, io, io! (Artful Devotion)

Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Mystic Nativity, 1500. Oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

Messenger: Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough. . . .

Heavenly Choir: To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God! And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God! . . .

Shepherds: Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!

—Luke 2:10–12, 14, 16 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Ding Dong Merrily on High” | Music: French dance tune, 16th century | Words: George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1924 | Adapted and performed by Rend Collective, from Campfire Christmas, 2014

Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

[The third verse above, by Rend Collective, replaces the original:
Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your evetime song, ye singers.]

For a fun instrumental version in a more traditional mode, see the album Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season by the Baltimore Consort:

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At the birth of God’s Son, heaven and earth danced. For heaven and earth embrace. All things are filled with divine music, and we too are invited to move our lives with grace, in harmony with divine love.

—Richard Harries, from A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ—Devotional reflections on the Christmas story in art

Do you blame me that I sit hours before this picture?
But if I walked all over the world in the time
I should hardly see anything worth seeing that is not in this picture.

—G. K. Chesterton on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, from his notebooks (mid-1890s)

The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. . . . The real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at.

—Robert Farrar Capon, from The Mystery of Christ . . . And Why We Don’t Get It


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 Nativity of the Lord, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

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“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.

Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.

Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

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Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina Androsenko and Vasily Anokhin performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

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“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

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NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

Roundup: The art of celebration, cross-cultural exchanges in illuminated manuscripts, the history of color, and insect-wing blooms

The Art of Celebration (album): Rend Collective is a folksy worship band from the small coastal town of Bangor in Northern Ireland that is internationally known for its high-spirited, experimental songs of joy. The Art of Celebration is their fourth of five albums, the story of which is told in the video below. “This record is an attempt to reflect something of the irrepressible laughter in the heart of God,” says bandleader Gareth Gilkeson. “It’s a call to the cynical to once again choose celebration over condemnation and a reminder to the broken that ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength.’” You can preview songs from the album here and purchase it here, or catch the band on tour (they’re currently in the US). I’ve embedded one of my favorite songs from the album below: “My Lighthouse.”

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“Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts” (exhibition): Through June 26, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is running an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts and painted book arts from the ninth through seventeenth centuries. From the website: “These highly prized objects allow us to glimpse, admire, and study a world gone by, as well as its peoples, different belief systems, and an interconnected global history of human thought and ideas about art.” Check out the Q&A with curator Bryan Keene—so fascinating. Also click the link above to find out about related events. Next up is a lecture on April 19 titled “A Medieval Picture Book and Its Judeo-Persian Lives: The Shah Abbas Bible in 17th-Century Safavid Iran.”

Virgin and Child (Ethiopian)
The Virgin and Child with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, from a Gospel book, ca. 1480-1520, Gunda Gunde Monastery, Ethiopia. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Northumberland Bestiary
Pen-and-ink wash-tinted drawing of a dragon riding an elephant, England, ca. 1250–1260. Northumberland Bestiary (Ms. 100), fol. 54, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The Brilliant History of Color in Art (book): Victoria Finlay’s latest book from Getty Publications, full of fun facts about the origins and science of color. The trailer below tells how Prussian blue, Indian yellow, lead white, and Tyrian purple came to be. Lapham’s Quarterly has a nifty infographic on the same topic.

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Mimesis (photomontage series): From 2012 to 2014 Paris-based artist Seb Janiak executed a series of twenty-two photographs that show insect wings pieced together in flower-like forms. Janiak says he believes that a spiritual reality undergirds the physical. “Using art to reveal what is behind the veil of matter is fascinating and full of discoveries,” he writes. See more Mimesis photos at the link above.

Mimesis by Seb Janiak
Seb Janiak (French, 1966–), Mimesis—Lacus Luxuriae, 2013. Chromogenic print, 180 × 180 cm.