On the off chance that you’re not a fan of Justin Bieber’s and Mariah Carey’s duet rendition of “All I Want for Christmas is You”, just remember: it could be worse. There was a Christmas with no music at all. In fact, there were many. In one of history’s more egregious examples of governmental overstepping, English parliamentarians of the 1640s effectively canceled Christmas as we know it. Evidently people were getting uncomfortably festive. There was first an act passed declaring December 25th a day of fasting. Just imagine—not a single bit of stuffing all day long. A few years later, celebrations of any kind on Christmas Day were banned altogether. Churches were stripped of ornaments, stained glass windows were removed, and organs were destroyed. Absolutely no singing allowed.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and eventually holiday austerity measures were relaxed. Christmas music began to make its way back into church services. Mr. Handel wrote his blockbuster Messiah, solidifying the place of choral music inside the church at Christmas time; and outside it Queen Victoria’s royal family inspired a craze for taking carols out into the streets. Since then, choral music has become an essential part of the Christmas tradition of many thousands all over the world.
In the event that your Christmas playlist is a bit short on gems for choir, I thought I’d make a few suggestions slightly off the beaten path for you. These are are well worth a listen. Take my word for it.
In many places where English is not the primary language, Handel’s Messiah does not have such an enduring hold on people. Instead, J. S. Bach’s jubilant Christmas Oratorio is a perennial favourite. Quite honestly, I’d be hard pressed to pick whose music I like better, but once you’ve had your fill of the Hallelujah Chorus, give the Christmas Oratorio a listen.
Traditional carol texts have been around for centuries in some cases, and every now and then a composer comes along and gives new life to one of them for us. The prolific English composer John Rutter did just that with one of his most popular works, “What Sweeter Music”. The music is simple, pure and tender; and it has an intangible nostalgic quality that evokes memories of many happy Christmases for me.
My strongest endorsement for your holiday listening is a piece written only twenty years ago: American composer Morten Lauridsen’s ethereal setting of “O Magnum Mysterium”. This music somehow feels like it never touches the ground; it’s music that finds the quiet place in each of us. The composer himself said, “I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.” Mission accomplished.
Let’s face it: your holidays would be terribly bleak without music. I hope you’ll take a minute now and then over the holidays to search out the music that nourishes you. If your choice does end up being Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey, just because it’s Christmas, I won’t tell anyone.