Christmas Is: Music!

There are lots of things people say about Christmas of the excitement or dread, the fun or the stress, of family, friends, trees, decorations, lights, cookies, and feasts. But it is the music of the season that constantly surrounds us with a special presence that saturates our lives at this special time. Music is incredibly powerful and influences us in ways nothing else can. Music brings the light and color of wonderful memories and fresh awakening to new experiences.

Music is skillfully used to help us relax at the dentist’s office, endure waiting rooms, and to annoy us when we’re placed on hold. Music can create a pleasant emotional response and even inspire us to spend more freely while Christmas shopping.

In the early 1960s, my parents began buying the Goodyear Christmas albums released each year. The one I loved the most through the years began with Barbara Streisand singing “Silent Night”, followed by Andy Williams and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, and then Johnny Mathis singing, “The Christmas Song”. But it was the King Family singing “Holiday of Love” that changed everything. The tremendous sound of the orchestra and harmonies of beautiful voices was amazing. I have been trying to recreate that sound with choirs ever since.

The New Christy Minstrels singing “We Need a Little Christmas” and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Still, Still, Still” and the Ray Conniff Singers on “Frosty the Snowman” were the highlights on side two of the 1965 Great Songs of Christmas album.

What would Christmas music be without these great artists? Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” is the standard. The orchestra introduction sets a holiday mood immediately. Andy Williams singing “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a classic! Many remember the television Christmas specials hosted by Perry Como and his rendition of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The most iconic song of the season has to be “White Christmas” performed by the master himself, Bing Crosby. Just two nights ago, we watched the movie, White Christmas, again for the first time.

Thankfully, we still have these two great singers with us. Tony Bennett’s “The Christmas Album” featuring “Snowfall” is fantastic. My favorites are “Christmasland”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and especially “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. The last song is my favorite because it features the great jazz pianist Ralph Sharon, who was Tony Bennett’s accompanist for many years. Sadly, Ralph Sharon passed away in 2015 at the age of 91. When I was in junior high school I had a piano teacher named, Art Galonska, who could play exactly like Ralph Sharon. I loved watching and listening to him play. He was an amazing jazz pianist. Mr. Galonska played at local night clubs when he wasn’t teaching piano, organ, and guitar.

The cartoon special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, first aired on CBS in December of 1965 and has been on television every year since. It was written by Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts characters and comics, produced by Lee Mendelson and directed by Bill Melendez. The music was written and performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I don’t know of any single instrumental song that is as easily recognizable as “Linus and Lucy”, the song played by Schroeder when the Peanuts gang is rehearsing for the Christmas play directed by Charlie Brown. I love that song! Charlie Brown becomes upset and asks if anyone really knows what Christmas is about. Linus saves the day by quoting the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14, and says, “That’s the real meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

Several years ago we were introduced to the music of Mannheim Steamroller and director, Chip Davis. These two CDs have become part of our regular rotation of Christmas music. They feature a combination of classical choral music as well as creative instrumentals. Mannheim Steamroller’s rendition of “Silent Night” is absolutely beautiful.

While my wife was a student at University of Michigan-Flint, she was privileged to sing with the University Chorale under the direction of the legendary Carolyn Mauby. When the chorale presented Christmas concerts our family attended each night. It was during those concerts we heard the music of conductor John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers for the first time. I was immediately smitten and from that moment, John Rutter Christmas music has been front and center in our home.

This is the perfect music for quiet listening while you are enjoying the glow of Christmas lights in your home. These are not the kind of CDs you will want to put away on December 26th. The music of The Cambridge Singers will fill your soul and help you enjoy to the wonder of Christmas long after the day has passed.

One of our absolute favorite artists of all time is James Taylor. We were pleased when his Christmas album was released in 2004 and it remains in our music list to enjoy each year. If you love James Taylor you know his style of guitar playing and vocals that make him great. Our favorite song on the album is “In the Bleak Midwinter”. It’s a wonderful song.

Another CD we love is Kathy Mattea’s “Good News”. Two songs on the album, “There’s a New Kid in Town”, and “Mary Did You Know” we have performed ourselves using accompaniment tracks available online.

And lastly, we return once again to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Beyond a doubt, the most beautiful song I have ever heard performed by a choir is “Once in Royal David’s City”. This song is incredibly heart-filling, and breath-taking. The harmonies of this wonderful music will leave you feeling like you have been touched by the Divine. And maybe you have.

Whatever your choices may be for Christmas music, our hope is that you will enjoy it fully and allow everything that music can do, to bring you joy, rest, peace, encouragement, and that unmistakable Christmas feeling. Merry Christmas.

Christmas Is: Plays, Programs, and Concerts

In “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as the gang is preparing to rehearse the Christmas play, Linus is confronted by his sister, Lucy, with a script. Linus protests and complains.

Lucy: “Here. Memorize these lines and be ready to recite.”

Linus: “Why do I have to memorize these lines? Why should I be put through such agony?”

Lucy: “I’ll give you five good reasons why you should memorize these lines.” And slowly, folding one finger at a time into a fist, she says, “One, two, three, four, five.”

Linus: “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.”

What everyone needs when Christmas rolls around is more to do. After we’re finished shopping for everyone on our Christmas list, which means we’ve been to malls, outlets, big-box stores, small-box stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, tech stores, toy stores, music stores, clothing stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, and convenient stores, we need a full schedule of special Christmas programs to perform and attend.

Linus captures the feelings of every child, young and old, who has ever been in the obligatory Christmas play. Schools have them, churches have them, community groups have them, they’re everywhere, and if they weren’t, it just wouldn’t be right. No one likes memorizing lines for the Christmas play. Every parent loves and dreads seeing their little one on stage, realizing before it happens that if they are going to scratch where the sun doesn’t shine, it’s going to happen when they’re the center of attention. And what children’s program would be complete without the child who fights to stand right in front of the mic and sings extra loud.

Christmas programs are delightful even if they’re awful. It was always exciting to begin working on Christmas music in band class. As a band director in a private academy I loved working on the music of the season in preparation for the Christmas extravaganza that happened every year.

I don’t know if church choirs still do Christmas cantatas every year like they used to, but I loved singing in them and then accompanying choirs on the piano during high school. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as His mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Those are the words to the first solo I ever sang in church. I think I was twelve. It was part of a cantata called, “Born A King” our church choir performed. Many years later, directing community choirs myself at Christmastime was an exciting experience.

One of the most amazing church pageants (I call it a pageant because program and concert don’t come close) I have ever seen included costumes, incredible acting, a full orchestra, singing that should have been on recordings and in huge concert halls, was presented by a local church. No professionals, just willing, eager, and talented people.

Seeing the Christmas glow on children’s faces is priceless. The excitement in their eyes shines as bright as any candle.

As everyone knows, it’s easy to get swept up in the “must do’s” of Christmas and miss Christmas. Maybe there are a lot of things we have to do that don’t really need doing. Maybe Christmas will be everything we ever dreamed it could be without the details we’ve been striving to complete.

When I was working on my master’s degree in counseling, I had a professor who said something I’ll never forget. He said, “We need to learn to see with new eyes.” I said earlier that if we decorate too early we’ll get to the place we don’t see it anymore. What keeps that from happening is choosing to see with new eyes. If I choose to really see what I’ve seen every day for the last month, I’ll see it again for the first time and I’ll feel that Christmas joy all over again.

How many times have you heard “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby? Not just this year but every year combined? What about “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis? “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey? “Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives? “Rudolf” by Gene Autrey? Try hearing them for the first time. Really listen.

Instead of attending the Christmas program for the n-teenth time, go for the first time. If you have lights on your house, notice the glow inside the house. See it and feel it again with new eyes and see what happens.

Christmas has nothing to do with amounts of anything. It has only to do with what we choose to see and believe. If we choose to really see and hear again, we won’t miss the blessing of Christmas.