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.
(Update, April 2022: I’ve decided to add several dozen choral selections to the playlist! While I considered creating a separate list of Christmas choral music, I’ve decided that I prefer an integrated approach, which is also why I scattered such songs throughout, giving some stylistic variety to those who prefer to listen to the playlist in order. My hope is that those who don’t normally go seeking out this genre will be surprised to find pieces that resonate with them.)
If you’re looking for Advent music, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” For the Christmas playlist, click on the image below.
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