While all music captures our human experience, holiday music to me addresses the mystery of life and our longing for joy and redemption in a very special way. It was difficult to choose ones for this list, but these are the some I can put on repeat and never tire of.
Here We come a Wassailing (Caroling)
The chorus “love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too (Merry Christmas in some versions)” and god bless you and send you a happy new year” is a simple, lovely holiday sentiment. Wassailing is a very old English tradition when people would travel to houses asking for drink of the wassail made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar served in a bowl that would be passed around. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’.
Past Three O’Clock
Written in 1924 by George Ratcliffe Woodward, its refrain “past three o’clock on a cold frosty morning, good morrow masters all” refers to 17th century tradition of “The Waits” when musicians and watchmen in Ireland and England patrolled during the night with musical instruments to mark the hours. Growing up my father brother and I listened to the Roger Whitaker version repeatedly as it was a perfect soundtrack for the frosty vision through our parlor window.
I find this carol very peaceful.This peaceful carol word nouvelet has the same root as Noël, stemming from the word for news or newness. A traditional French carol which translates roughly as “Sing We Now of Christmas” dates from the late 15th century and celebrates the figures in the crèche.
The Holly and the Ivy
I love this 19th century carol because it celebrates the pagan origins of Christmas with lines like “the rising of the sun and the running of the deer. ” Holly was sacred to the Druids and used it to decorate in the winter. Ivy has a close association with the idea of Bacchus, the Roman God of wine and was used during Saturnalia whose dates later became Christmas.
Merry Christmas Baby
A blues song with amazing lyrics like “I haven’t had a drink this morning but I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree” it’s a romantic reminder to slow down and enjoy. I love all the versions, but the first performance by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers with Charles Brown on vocals released in 1947 that defined the song, which is also mired in some controversy on if Charles Brown or the other members Johnny Moore and Lou Baxter wrote it.
We Need a Little Christmas
This song is from the 1956 musical by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee with lyric Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical Mame based on the 1955 book by Patrick Dennis. Mame loses her fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but nonetheless she her young nephew Patrick, and her two household servants “haul out the holly.” I love the enthusiasm to find happiness in spite of difficult circumstances.
The famous Wham! song recorded 1984 is overly played as much now as it was in the 80’s. Like many creative productions it has an interesting history with George Michael playing ever instrument on the track. The song has a kind of Brechtian dissonance, the lyrics being a sad tale about a break up but he music being so upbeat it makes you want to dance.
I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In
The carol was written in 1833, but probably based on a 17th century carol. No one is sure exactly what the ships represent, since Bethlehem where Jesus was born is landlocked. One theory is it may refer to the ships that carried the Biblical magi relics to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany in the 12th Century. The Sting version is a great modern take on this.
Ocho Kandelikas (Eight Little Candles )
A joyous song celebrating Hanukkah written by Flory Jagoda in 1983, it comes from Sephardic Jewish traditions (Jewish people who lived in Spain) she preserved throughout her career and sung in Ladino, the Old Spanish derived Sephardic language. Flory, who passed away in past February at 97 , had an incredible life including fleeing the holocaust which involved her playing an accordion.
“Ain’t that Rockin’”- Odetta version
If you haven’t listened to Odetta’s Christmas Spirituals from 1960 go to Spotify right now. She has been quoted saying “these songs sufferings of slavery as a catharsis for the terrible wrongs that were committed.” Her powerful voice makes me cry every time I listen to her version. I attempted some research on its origins and found a reference that said “it is a tradition from St. Helena Island, South Carolina where long time isolation helped maintained the music of plantation-era folksongs and spirituals.”
Christmas Must be Tonight
This reflective song was released by the Band in 1976 and penned by Robbie Robertson in honor of the birth of his son. Written in in the style of the King James Bible with religious lyrics, it also feels like a secular piece about hope. “How a little baby boy, bring the people so much joy, son of a carpenter Mary carried the Light.” It was was part of the Scrooged soundtrack.
Celebrate Me Home
This song from 1977 debut studio album by American singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins, was not meant to be a holiday anthem, although he wrote in during Christmas when he was in New York and feeling lonely. I just love it because it is fun to sing and captures the longing for “home”
New Year’s Day
With lines like “It’s New Year’s day here on the border and it’s always been this way. I never do the things I outta think I’ll stay it’s New Year’s Day,” Charlie Robinson’s country song from 2004 about a man waking up on New Year’s day with only $50 in his pocket might be weird welcome in the new year, but I love the narrative of being lost, but still finding one’s way in the world.