Curating A Christmas Playlist

Today is November 24, 2023- the day after Thanksgiving, which means it is officially legal to begin listening to Christmas music. I’m sorry to tell you that if you’ve already been doing it, you have been out of bounds. I often make a few people (my wife foremost) a bit grumpy with such insistances, but there’s simply no way around it.

While I may be a stickler on keeping Christmas music to Christmas time, don’t mistake my strictness for disdain. There are few things I love more than the advent season, and few elements of the season I am more thrilled to return to than its music. Among all of its rich gifts, there are few greater things Christian history offers us than the overwhelming beauty of its Christmastide musical tradition. We are at no shortage of incredible hymns and songs to celebrate the season with. I myself have a playlist of a few hundred of them that I break out each year.

Christmas centers on the story of the birth and incarnation of Jesus, and as such carries with it a host of feelings and emotional and spiritual realities that can be overwhelming- certainly more than simple words can process. Music gives us the ability to dive into the emotions and realities that we encounter in the nativity stories. Sometimes it even does us the unexpected favor of walking us into a new emotion or understanding that we had not yet participated in. In order to encourage you to engage with this practice this year, I thought I’d supply you with a few songs from my own playlist, and how they help me interact with the story more fully each year.

Weary Longing
The Christmas story only arrives after years of pain and waiting, and it’s best experienced within that context. All of us arrive at Christmas carrying the pains of our year, and it’s worth engaging with the weariness and longing that would have been on the hearts of those first century saints. There’s probably no better or more famous engagement with that pain than “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. 
Re-ignited Hope
In the midst of the pain and waiting, the nativity story casts our first hope for change. Even before we celebrate, there’s a certain thrill that crescendos inside us when we sense the beginnings of God’s movement. Just as the longing puts us in a place of knowing we need a savior, re-ignited hope puts us in a place where we are ready to be excited by his arrival. The first song I have is one reflecting on Zachariah, who is the first to sense have this turning point revealed to him. The other  is by Josh Garrels. While “Gloria”  is likely unfamiliar to you, I love the way that it begins with the cold and dead environment of winter, and swells into the story of Jesus’s arrival.
Joyful Celebration
While there’s something to be found in feeling the mysterious hope of the first Christmas participants, there’s also an undeniable and unabashed celebration in the story. The angels that greet the shepherds create a chorus that is altogether exuberant. Songs like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are hard to beat when we want to interact with that feeling (Rend Collective’s version may be the most celebratory I’ve heard)
Hushed Wonder
One thing I find unique about the Christmas story is the tone of wonder involved in it all. There’s so much unexpected about its contents that it truly subverts our expectations of the future and idea of who God is. It involves people and places we didn’t expect and plays out more strangely than we might have guessed. I think it’s worth sitting in that wonder sometimes. Just pondering that maybe things aren’t always as they seem, and that God is up to something we didn’t necessarily anticipate. Songs like "O little Town of Bethlehem" and "Bethlehem, a Noble City" reflect on the strange and backwater settings of the stories, and "Joseph" reflects on the wonder and perplexity that must've existed within the spirits of those involved.
Refreshing Restfulness
There are likely a hundred other songs and a hundred other feelings I could associate with this season and story, but the last I'll note is restfulness. In the midst of all the chaos of our world (and of the Christmas story), there is something wonderful about the note in Luke's Gospel, at the end of the birth story, where he notes Mary treasuring and pondering it all. Her life would not go on to be easy, but she seemed to have a recognition in the midst of it all of the wholeness that was coming with her son . The final songs on my list are classics: "Silent Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"- I love them. They give me permission in the midst of chaos to recognize the birth story, despite all its own chaos, as the place where silence, rest, and wholeness enter the world.

Dan Vandzura