One of the most disconcerting things about having Thanksgiving come so early this year–as early as it can possibly come, actually–is finding myself with an extra week of November, afterwards.
For years I’ve become used to thinking of Thanksgiving as the snowball that gathers momentum, precipitating the mad rush to Christmas, Hanukkah, and all the other winter holidays. Instead, there’s this unaccustomed additional week: an extra seven days to catch one’s breath and gather one’s forces before diving into the next giddy round. So, strange as it feels, I’ve decided it’s something else to be thankful for, along with family, friends, a home, good health, good food, and good books.
Not that I don’t enjoy Christmas–I do, more often than not. Yes, you’d probably have to drag me kicking and screaming to a shopping mall on Black Friday (cyber-shopping for the win!). And there can be stress and pressure, not to mention everyday irritants that balloon into huge ones during the holidays, but along with those, there’s more time to spend with loved ones, new films and books being released, bright lights and decorations to offset the winter gloom, and the attempt–by most people at least–to be a little kinder and more thoughtful towards each other.
And there’s music. In my mind, Christmas is inextricably associated with music, more than any other holiday on the calendar. Granted, not all of it is wonderful. The more modern, secular Christmas songs tend to get the most airplay in public, and after hearing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “It’s the Holiday Season” dozens–if not scores–of times between Thanksgiving and December 25, I have to admit they wear out their welcome with me pretty fast. Over the years, however, I have discovered several, less familiar Christmas songs that don’t pall after repeated listenings.
1. “A-Soalin’ (Soul Cake)”: The lyrics sound and probably are traditional, but the musical arrangement was done by Noel Paul Stookey, one of the folk trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary, in 1963. The interweaving guitar parts and the vocal harmonies are all lovely.
2. “Bethlehem Down”: Composed by Peter Warlock in 1927, this song portrays a poignant moment in which Mary envisions a triumphant future for the infant Jesus, with no inkling of the sorrow that lies ahead. I’ve heard several versions but my favorite so far is Erin Bode’s devastatingly simple rendition on her album A Cold December Night.
3. “The Peace Carol”: Written by Bob Beers in 1971. But I first heard it sung on a Christmas special, starring John Denver and the Muppets, in 1979–as a duet between Denver and Scooter(Richard Hunt, one of the best singers among the Muppet performers). Like “A-Soalin'” and “Bethlehem Down,” “The Peace Carol” has a timeless appeal.
4. “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way”: Nothing about the title clued me in about this being a Christmas song, but it is: a wistful but ultimately optimistic song about a man who regrets his break-up with his lover and hopes they can reconcile at Christmas because “it’s only right.” I pretty much love every song Jim Croce ever wrote and/or sang, and this is no exception. While the setting of this one is modern–composed in 1973 and referencing sidewalk bands and street-corner Santas–the loneliness and longing to be with the one you love are universal.
5. “Merry Xmas, Everybody”: Cheerful and rambunctious, this 1973 song by the British rock group Slade captures all the happy chaos of a modern Christmas, from a house overflowing with relatives to wild rides down the hill on a homemade toboggan. My favorite lines are “Does your granny always tell ya that the old songs are the best? / Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rollin’ with the rest.” Go, Granny, go.
So readers, what are your favorite holiday songs? Do you prefer the modern/secular or the traditional/religious? And have you discovered any hidden gems in the vast sea of holiday music?
I will be giving away an ARC of my debut novel, Waltz with a Stranger, to a commenter this week.