Music was always an important part of the life of my family. I missed out on the musical talent gene, but my siblings are all pretty good. And since 6 of the 8 of us could carry a decent tune, and the other two of us sang anyway (right, Dad?), music – especially singing – was woven into the fabric of our family life with unbreakable threads.
We listened to music and sang together all of the time. I remember many evenings in the kitchen on Wilbur Lane in Dubuque, a radio request show blasting through the house and out the open windows in summer. We called in, then sang along to “Which Way You Going, Billy?” or “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox”. When I was in junior high, Sundays saw us in the Cottage Grove Pizza Hut after mass. Often, we were the only customers there, playing jukebox classics like “Little Willy Willy” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, singing along for the amusement of the waitstaff.
Many were the melancholic and highly dramatic performances we kids forced our parents to admire. I mean, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” each have so many nuanced emotions to explore!
We sang in the car. At church. At home. While doing the dishes, going for walks, reminiscing. So it should come as no surprise that we adored Christmas music. We weren’t allowed to listen to it except during the period from the day after Thanksgiving (it wasn’t called Black Friday back then) until the day after Christmas – coincidentally, the same period during which we enjoyed the sight of our annual Christmas tree.
While I can’t speak for my siblings, I still love Christmas music. I am not one of those who listen to all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations. For the most part, I maintain the same restricted season I was held to in childhood, except that I have extended it through January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus and the official end of the Christmas season – at least, that’s what I tell myself as I happily listen to my iTunes Christmas mix into the new year.
There are many Christmas songs, carols, and hymns I love. So I thought that this week, in honor of the season, I would share a few of my favorites – along with brief stories to illustrate why I love them. There is no hierarchy to this list, and on another day it might vary quite a bit. I have not listed a particular version or performer for all of the songs – but those that I have are, indeed, considered by me to be the definitive versions!
- There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, by Perry Como. Back in the day, gas stations and cereals used recordings of holiday singles as promotional items. I’m fairly certain that’s where we first came across this gem. We loved singing along as the slow opening lines, suffused with longing for home, give way to jazzy syncopation. Only Como’s version captures this sublime timing – and continues to inspire such histrionics in the Hansons. We don’t sing this song, we perform it – and we attempt to out-ham each other shamelessly.
- Angels We Have Heard on High. This carol calls for harmony. When we got it right, we could do 6-part harmony and sound angelic. When we got it wrong, it was hilariously awful. A win-win if there ever was one. I love it now, not only for the memories it captures, but also for the sheer joy of praising something larger than myself.
- Oh, Holy Night. I don’t really remember this hymn being on my child-radar until I was in fifth grade. We had just transferred schools after moving across town when my parents bought their first house. We started at St. Anthony’s around Halloween, and for Christmas mass that year, my sister Chris was selected from among her new classmates for the first of MANY solo performances. Quite a coup for the new kid! Her solo was a difficult one: “Oh, Holy Night”. Despite my jealousy over the attention she received AND her ability to actually sing on key, I’ll never forget hearing her clear soprano ringing from the choir loft. It was truly beautiful. These days, I’m partial to tenor versions so I can sort-of sing along. Honestly, though, every year I wish we had a recording of Chris’ sixth grade solo.
- Adeste Fideles. Because Latin, yo!
- Up on the Housetop, by Jack Hanson. At some point, our family acquired a piano. While Chris (though perhaps Jeff, too, eventually) was the only one to take piano lessons, we all picked out a tune here and there. One year, we decided that each member of the family would prepare a song to play for caroling on Christmas Eve. My dad painstakingly practiced a one-finger piano version of this song. He hit the exact same clunker note every. single. time. Attempting to sing along with his accompaniment led to some of the most sustained, most wholesome family laughter ever heard!
- White Christmas, by Bing Crosby. If you prefer a different version of this song, I respectfully request that you shut your pie-hole. If you persist in touting your preference, you will be dead to me.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Judy Garland.
I always liked this song. However, it wasn’t until I saw “Meet Me In St. Louis” that the song, specifically Garland’s rendition, took on cult status for me. Talk about identifying with a character and a moment – truly movie magic in my book.
- Mele Kalikimaka, by Bing Crosby. Since the Bing Crosby “White Christmas” album is, in fact, the quintessential Christmas album, most of the tracks could have made this list. This song is here, however, because it’s unique combination of smooth vocals (by Crosby and the Andrews sisters) and odd-ball Hawaiian theme were irresistible to the Hanson children. Also, somewhere there exists video footage of Matt, Anne and me performing a lip-synch version one Christmas in the late 1980s. My hipster brother’s ukelele-playing Crosby impersonation would make Bing himself laugh uncontrollably.
- Honorable Mentions:
In case you have the impression that I only love Christmas music because of its association with memories and past events, I can assure you that is not the case. It has only been within the last five years, for example, that “In the Bleak Midwinter” has become a personal favorite. The polar vortex last year may have cemented my emotional connection with that one!
Also, a couple of weeks ago, I attended the Augsburg College Advent Vespers service at Central Lutheran Church here in Minneapolis. It was my second year attending this lovely event*, which includes performances by several choirs and interesting readings (both scriptural and otherwise). Both years, I’ve heard new music that touched my heart. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the event, though, is that it includes several opportunities for all of those congregated in the cathedral-like church to sing together. “Silent Night”, accompanied by harp and voiced by over 1200 people in a candlelit church with huge vaulted ceilings induced goosebumps. Tears, however, flowed freely when we all joined voice to sing “Angels We Have Heard On High”. Talk about harmony!
Please share your own favorites in the comments – I’m very interested in others’ choices. I’m also, of course, open to knowing your thoughts on my list! I hope you will each, in your own way, join me in taking the time to enjoy the spirit of the holiday season through song.
*A heartfelt thanks to Joe White for inviting me to participate in his annual Advent Vespers attendance and dinner. Both years the entire evening has been beautiful and soul-nourishing!