I faithfully abide by the rule of “Christmas music starts after Thanksgiving,” because I find that listening to the same 15 songs for a month straight to be a little irksome. So, one of my favorite things to do this time of year is to dig through the Christmas albums put out each year by Christian artists.
Maybe, just maybe, there are a few others out there with similar frustrations this time of year. If so, you are in luck. I’ve done the work and I want to share with you a few Christmas albums that I think will do more than curdle your nostalgia, but might inspire, teach, and lead to a worshipful Christmas. All of these have been play tested to pull heart strings by yours truly, especially when listened to on a dark, winter night, under the glow of a Christmas tree.
This album includes my favorite rendition of one of my favorite traditional, but less often heard, Christmas songs, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” based on Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s poem by the same name which culminates in the victorious declaration “God is not dead, nor does he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail; With peace on earth, good will to men.” Casting Crowns does these lyrics justice with a slow build beginning with a simple piano riff which crescendos into a symphony, drums, and a children’s choir, which drives home both the feeling of heartbrokenness for the state of the world and the hope we have in the peace brought by Christ.
The album includes several traditional Christmas songs, and some originals like “While You Were Sleeping,” which contrasts Bethlehem sleeping through the first coming of Christ with the sleepiness of the United States of America as we await His second coming, “lulled to sleep by philosophies of save the trees and kill the children.” You don’t often get a straightforward calling out of America’s sins from Christian pop artists, and here it is effectively done and deserving of our appreciation.
What I particularly appreciate about this album is that it is more of an Advent album than just a Christmas album. From “The King is Coming Prelude” on, it is clearly designed to highlight the suspense, as the title says – “The Thrill of Hope,” from the “Weary World.” Prelude leads directly into Nockels’ “Advent Hymn,” where we hear, “come thou long awaited one, In the fullness of your love, And loose this heart bound up by shame, I will never be the same, So here I wait in hope of you, All my soul's longing through and through.”
In “Amaryllis”, we hear Nockels compare the coming of Christ to the blooming of a Christmas amaryllis flower, “There are the rare and beautiful treasures; That grow when it's coldest; When nobody's watching; Sending a message to a sleeping world; That You are here with us now; And You are making all things new again.”
Also on this album is one my favorite new Christmas song discoveries, ”Wrap This One Up,” which refers to the little known fact that when a spotless lamb was born in the time of Israel’s sacrifices, it would have been wrapped in rags to keep it from thrashing out and hurting itself. ”Wrap this one up. He is a lamb without blemish. Wrap this one up. He'll make his way to the temple. Born for sacrifice, he'll join the others and pay the price. “
Nockels wraps up the album with a powerful song which is not usually played at Christmas, “Is He Worthy?” which she blends into a reminder that, in a way, we find ourselves in a similar position to the Hebrews awaiting the birth of Christ as we prepare for His second coming, with a reprisal of “The King is Coming.”
There’s nothing traditional about this album, as songwriter Peterson bends his creativity to the subject of Christmas, and the result not only warms the heart, but the mind as well. Peterson weaves in threads of the Hebrew Passover, the muddled line of Israel’s kings, and Christ’s lineage as written in Matthew. “So the years went by and the people they whined and they wandered; And only sacrifice atoned for the sins of the land; So you see the priest he placed upon the holy altar; The body of a spotless lamb;
And he prayed, "Lord, let your judgment Passover us Lord, let your love hover near; So, Don't let your sweet mercy Passover us; Let this blood cover over us here." This leads into the song, “So Long, Moses,” which walks the listener through the History of Israel in the promised land leading up to the prophesies of Isaiah, “He'll take up our sickness; Carry our tears; For his people; He will be pierced; He'll be crushed for our evils; Our punishment feel; By his wounds; We will be healed."
Peterson’s album tells the story of Christmas more effectively than most Bible story books. Its song list is chronological, beginning with a call to listen carefully in “Gather Round, Ye Children, Come,” and then with “Passover Us,” and ending with “Behold the Lamb of God” and then “The Theme of My Song” which bookends the album with a reprisal of the chorus in “Gather Round.”
This is probably my favorite Christmas album to have on in the background, because I think Tomlin’s appreciation of the gospel of Christmas rings in every note. Ironically, “Adore” probably has the most “traditional” songs of any of the albums I’m recommending. But, unlike many artists recording Christmas albums, Tomlin obviously read the lyrics before he put them to music. He excels at finding the emotion that the songs were to invoke and pulling on it through the music and the choruses he addends. “Adore” does have original songs, however, such as the boisterous, “He Shall Reign Forever More,” the title track, “Adore,” and “Noel,” which features the powerful voice of Lauren Daigle.
The lyrics on this album aren’t as meaty as others I’ve recommended, but I find myself singing along to them more easily, and with more feeling.
This one gets to the heart of Christmas with every song. Christians often fall into the trap at Christmas of reading the Christmas Story as if it is a stand alone novel, so to speak. But there are no songs about cute babies and tired mothers here, only reveling grace of God who humbled Himself and came to earth with a purpose. “How Low Was Our Redeemer Brought” particularly accents that humility. “How low was our Redeemer brought, the Lord the worlds obeyed; Would stumble as He learned to walk upon the ground He'd made; The One the angels bowed before would kneel to wash our feet; And be at home among the poor though He owned everything.”
“Glory in the Darkest Place” brings the Christmas story out of the ancient world and into the chaos of our lives.“Out of the depths of silent night; A Savior born, a mother's sigh; The darkness trembled at this Star; A beam of hope for troubled hearts; You came to make Your blessings known; And bear our curse of death alone; You came to share our suffering; So in our sorrow we could sing; Glory, glory, glory in the darkest place; Glory, glory, glory let Your mercy reign.”
If you love Christmas, but are already tired of hearing the same Christmas songs over and over and over again, I hope these albums can be used to remind you of the epic nature of Christmas. That reminds me, I was going to include an honorable mention. It’s not a whole album, just a song by the lead singer of the rock band Thrice, Dustin Kensrue: “This Is War.”
“This is war, like you ain't seen.
This winter's long, it's cold and mean.
With hangdog hearts we stood condemned,
But the tide turns now at Bethlehem.
This is war, and born tonight
The Word as flesh, the Lord of Light.
The Son of God, the low-born King;
Who demons fear, of Whom angels sing.
This is war on sin and death;
The dark will take it's final breath.