My family can tell you that Christmas music and its poor imitations are a constant source of comments from me. They think I can’t see them roll their eyes. But I am an avid music lover—especially of Christmas music. To me, there are three types of things called “Christmas music.” The first is theologically sound and musically beautiful (“Joy to the World,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Mary, Did You Know?” and so on). The second group takes the occasion seriously and may even acknowledge its religious importance but trends toward a humanistic rather than biblical message (more on that later). The third group is beneath notice and takes nothing seriously except jolliness (“Santa Baby,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” etc.).
Group one includes some contemporary examples that might one day join the exalted glory of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Come Immanuel.” These songs hit the sweet spot of theological teaching and emotional winsomeness that can bring a lump to your throat while reminding you of what Scripture says about our redemption. You’re more likely to hear only the instrumental versions of these songs playing when you go shopping.
It’s group two that I’m listening to more closely. Somewhat sober Christmas songs have been released by acts as varied as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, the Eagles, Alan Jackson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Coldplay and The Killers, to grab just a handful. This doesn’t take into account the hundreds of singers who have covered hymns and popular Christmas songs (groups one and three) over the past 50 years. These “group-two” songs are wistful, desiring something that is in no way certain. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” speak to the sadness of being alone during the emotionally warm season in the writer’s memory. Something glorious is associated with the holiday that perhaps being home or just being with a sweetheart will reveal. This yearning is very forward in “Boots,” a song by the contemporary group, The Killers. The words recall days of joy with the family, Father watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the smell of candles, the comfort of those familiar things and wishing for some humanistic redemption—little things that speak of something better than now. John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” turn the strong wish for something more perfect into a sharp critique of the imperfect present. Lake’s biting “Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve” is a good representative of this message.
I’m tender toward these songs because these composers are, to varying degrees, taking the holy day seriously (if only for nostalgia). That melancholy longing is a small version of being poor in spirit, or can be. But they settle for so little. Some sentimental songs only want a loved one to share Christmas with, or even a houseful of loved ones. Others see the hyperbole of our celebrations and long to see more compassion for the poor; Tull’s “Christmas Song” asks, “How can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry?” Lennon sees war as the ultimate violation of the Christmas spirit: “War is over, if you want it,” his descant repeats. At their best, these songs long for Utopia, an imaginable place where everyone is tolerant and generous—where government is unnecessary because we treat one another with mercy and justice. If this were even possible, it would not make us happy. What we long for is something we dare not imagine or ask for. We want something perfect, Paradise rather than mere Utopia—something that can only be delivered to us rather than built by us.
That’s why “Joy to the World” lifts my heart in a way that “Happy Xmas” never can. Lennon begins, “So this is Christmas and what have you done?” Isaac Watts trumps him with “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
The search for Utopia naturally leads to bitterness because people seek to please themselves. But the Lord of Paradise sought us, the stronger serving the weaker, the perfect serving the corrupt. We are a large pod of drowning swimmers who rage at our fellows because they do not rescue themselves and thus perfect our community.
Christmas is so much better than that. We were rescued by the One who was not drowning. That’s why true Christmas songs tend to celebrate rather than complain or harangue.
Things are not ideal in this age, and the image of God in us all makes that imperfection grievous to us. The hope of Christmas is not that people will be good and generous for a few weeks; we will not generally be either. The hope of Christmas is that we can be changed. So we watch in wonder with Charles Wesley and sing, “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth; hark, the herald angels sing; glory to the newborn king!”