I love Christmas music, so much so that I even have an IPod playlist of at least 140 Christmas songs. Glancing through this list, it’s not uncommon to find multiple versions of a many songs. Hymns like “Joy to the World”, “Silent Night”, or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that has been around for over a century are going to be pretty well covered. Songs like “White Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, “Somewhere in My Memory”, ” Where Are you Christmas”, and “Believe” became seasonal standards because of their immense popularity through films.
As such with so many great songs, and even kitshy ones like “The Chipmunk Song”, “ You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, or the entirety of the album Star Wars Christmas In the Stars, it can be a tall order to come up with a new song for the season. Further, when a good chunk of Christmas music is in the public domain, it makes it much easier to record the song as there are no legal entanglements to deal with. However, it can still be fun to try and introduce the world to something new, and many have tried and some have managed to rise to the challenge. Other attempts however leave much to be desired.
This was all the more evident to me a few nights ago when my family was driving home from something. On the radio a song was playing that was roughly a few years old, written and performed by a popular band. As far as Christmas songs go, it wasn’t particularly bad, but it wasn’t anything that made me say “instant classic” either. It just felt like it was trying to do too much. In fact the whole first verse sounded like a jumble of a few different Christmas hymns.
Now, bear in mind I am the last person to knock hymns. Believe me. Aside from singing them in church as a child, my mother would often sing them to me at night. This wasn’t just limited to songs like “Amazing Grace”, “Be Thou My Vision”, or “What Wondrous Love Is This”, but she would also sing some of the Christmas songs to me, mainly because I loved hearing them. It could be July and she would still sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “O Come all Ye Faithful” to me if I asked nicely.
I look back over some of those older songs and I marvel at the composition of many of them. It is no wonder after all. Many of them were written by musical and literary geniuses, for example the hymn “In The Bleak Midwinter” has lyrics by poetess Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst best known for his symphony The Planets. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, best known for “The Song of Hiawatha”, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, and being the first person to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts who wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” made hundreds of compositions to the church hymnal.
Yet at the same time there is a simplicity to these songs. These older songs were written with the understanding that they would be sung by the laity, many of whom would not be well educated. There was also a good chance that some of those same lay people, as is the case today, may not have any musical training. They had to able to be sung and understood by everyone in the congregation. This is why you can take a song like “Hark! The Herald Angel Sing”, and not only sing it in church, or have my mother use it as a lullaby, but it can be recorded by wide range of artists including Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Mariah Carrey, Amy Grant, Carrie Underwood, Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix. Each version sounds great and each one brings forth more of the song’s beauty.
To write a great new Christmas song it doesn’t have to be complicated, any more then gift giving has to be complicated. Let’s face it no one is going to become Irving Berlin overnight. However, in our rush to try and create something new and shiny we often forget at times just what it was that made us fall in love with so many of those old Christmas songs in the first place, and make us drift back to them every season and make us wish, for just one moment, that every day could be like Christmas. It all lies in the heart of those songs .The ones about Santa, and reindeer, and snowflakes and bells reminded us all that wondrous things could happen on Christmas morning, while the old hymns with their simple truths and even simpler melodies reminded us all of what we all hope for at this time of year: “peace on earth, good will to all.”
It can’t get any simpler than that. As the Sesame Street gang sang so long ago:
1965. 2014. Peanuts Worldwide/ABC/United Media.
1978. The Children’s Television Workshop.