I am a big fan of holiday music. Once the post-Thanksgiving Friday rolls around, I crank up a collection that now numbers more than 30 CDs/mp3’s and listen to as much as I can before the new year dawns. I love Christmas music, Hanukkah music, Winter Solstice music—you name it, I listen. (And I doubtless would like Diwali music, too, if I could get my hands on some.) I particularly like to span different types of music: medieval chant with men’s choirs; Anonymous 4 with polyphonic chant and American shape-note singing; classical, like Handel’s Messiah, and tons of carols by popular singers, folk singers, jazz singers, chorales…you name it.
Why? Well, I think the reasons are very similar to those I outlined in a November post on National Novel Writing Month, actually. Holiday music both represents and brings about festival time, reliably, year after year. I have carried my collection with me across the continent, in a bunch of different locales, but it remains an emblem both of time both recurring and special.
But it also represents burgeoning and a type of cultural and spiritual wealth that offsets the fact that the days are growing darker and darker. As the light outside gets less and less, the light inside—represented by lots of trumpets, choruses, and so forth—gets more and more important.
The cultural wealth is demonstrated by the simple plethora of holiday music available. For years, I soldiered on with 3 holiday albums: Joan Baez’s Noel (I’m a big folkie), Handel’s Messiah, and John Fahey’s The New Possibility. (Told you I was a folkie; and for those who have never heard of John Fahey, he was an enigmatic guitarist/folklorist who recorded—some on his own record label–from the 1960s to the 1990s.) Then, a bit more than a decade ago, I branched out into Chanticleer’s Sing We Christmas (everything from medieval music to contemporary African-American gospel) and The Bells of Dublin by the Chieftains (Irish instrumentals in the background; carols in the foreground; and contemporary stuff like “The Rebel Jesus” juxtaposed with, yes, the cathedral bells ringing out ‘round Dublin).
For some reason, those two wildly divergent yet-alike-in-being-about-the-holidays collections spurred me to look at holiday music available. And when I did, I realized that it is the rare performer who has not recorded a Christmas album, whether they are vaguely in the pop field or vaguely in the classical. No kidding: Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Ray Charles, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Michael McDonald, Bruce Springsteen, Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Carole King…and that’s just a very quick look at a literally almost endless list. So much so that every year, I add one or two to my collection. And never fear running out.
For those who love holiday music as I do, and who may be in a space where listening to music is not a distraction one can’t do but a pleasant background one can do (filling out end-of-term rosters, for example! or preparing to travel, planning holiday gifts or parties), I offer links to American Routes great shows on rootsy, folkie, and jazzy holiday music: two Christmases, this one and that one; Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice.