I love Christmastime for lots of reasons. It invites us to stop and contemplate the breathtaking, mind-stretching notion of Emmanuel, God with us. It encourages us to see the world with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, if only for a few moments on Christmas morning. It calls us home, to a place where people love us even when we’re not lovable. It brings family and friends together, and because of that, it brings back memories – Grandpa building a fire, Grandma telling stories, Mom and Dad working extra hard to make Christmas special. And it brings out the generosity and charity in (most) people. But there’s another reason I love Christmastime: the music.
We start playing Christmas music at our house the day after Thanksgiving, as we trim the tree, and keep playing it all the way through December. From the sacred to the secular to the silly, there’s nothing quite like Christmas music, and there’s really no other time of the year to enjoy it.
“More Jesus” in Christmas Songs
Researchers at Time magazine recently conducted a massive review of U.S. copyright registrations for Christmas songs. They found that “Silent Night” is the most popular Christmas song. No surprise there.
What is surprising is what Time discovered after it ranked each of the most-recorded Christmas songs, which included “heavily religious songs about the birth of Christ” as well as “highly commercial [songs] about Santa and snow.” The songs on the “more Jesus” side of the spectrum (Time’s term) outnumber the ones on the “more Santa” side.
The songs on the “more Jesus” side of the spectrum (Time’s term) outnumber the ones on the “more Santa” side.
In fact, by my count, 12 of the 18 most-recorded Christmas songs in America, eight of the top 10, and all of the top six fall on the “more Jesus” side of Time’s ledger.
There’s something encouraging, inspiring, and comforting about this – especially amid the so-called “war on Christmas.” Think about it: These songs serve as the background music, the soundtrack, for December. They’re playing in shopping centers and big-box retailers and restaurants all season long. Consider the words of these top-ranked Christmas songs.
# 1 – “Silent Night” declares that this baby is the “Son of God, love’s pure light,” and He brings with Him “the dawn of redeeming grace.” He is “Christ the savior.” And here He is – in a stable of all places – in Paul’s words, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
# 2 – “Joy to the World” declares, “The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!” The song urges “every heart” to “prepare Him room.” He knocks on the door of each person’s heart and longs to take up residence there. But it’s up to each of us to open the door and make room for the King of Kings.
# 3 – Without nuance, “O Holy Night” explains that “long lay the earth in sin and error … till He appeared and the soul found its worth.” In Jesus, the human soul finally found what it had craved ever since the Garden. The song’s writers understood, like so many others through time, that there’s a God-shaped space in our hearts yearning to be filled by the Creator. He has “set eternity in the human heart,” as the author of Ecclesiastes explained. Paul observed that the imprint of God’s law is written on our hearts. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” C.S. Lewis matter-of-factly concluded, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
# 4 – “What Child Is This?” challenges the listener to contemplate who – and what – Jesus is. Is He who He claims to be – the Son of God, the Savior of mankind, the Light of the world? How do you answer? The author of the song offered his: “This is Christ the King … the King of Kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
# 10 – “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” echoes the Gospel story and the words of Paul. “A blessed angel came” to tell us “the Son of God was born.” He came here to “save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” Put another way, He brought good news and offered salvation – even while we were still sinners. Much “comfort” and “joy” comes from this truth.
Songs that Sow
My favorite Christmas songs are “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (#14) and “Do You Hear What I Hear” (just outside the top 20).
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” spans past and future: Some stanzas remind us that before Emmanuel, before “God with us,” before the Son of God “appeared,” God’s people were “mourning” in “lonely exile.” But after He came and ransomed us, there was rejoicing, for He “cheered our spirits” and “closed the path to misery.” The song makes it clear that it was Jesus who did this – not Wall Street or Wal-Mart or Washington. And the song makes it emphatically clear that Jesus is all that matters, all that is good, all that is right: He is “our Wisdom,” the “Lord of might,” the “rod of Jesse,” the “key of David,” “our Dayspring,” the true “desire of nations.” Yet the song, with its almost-haunting melody, also points us toward tomorrow, reminding those with ears to hear that the Son of God will return. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
For me, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a metaphor for how God allows the Gospel to spread. The wind shares the Word with a lamb. The lamb passes it on to a shepherd. And the shepherd tells a mighty king the Good News: “The Child sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light.”
It’s comforting to think that even the Scrooges among us, even those who care little about the meaning of Christmas, even the politically correct retailers that replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” even amidst the industrial-strength consumerism of Christmas in America, people are singing and humming songs of praise to the Savior of mankind.
It’s as if heaven is mounting a covert operation in the world, behind enemy lines, using these songs to stealthily sow seeds in the hearts of those who are lost. This is a reminder of what God promised Isaiah: “My word,” He thundered, “will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Someday, perhaps in the New Year, perhaps next Christmas, perhaps many years to come, some of those seeds will take root and blossom into faith – faith in a King born in a stable, faith in the real reason for the season.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.