Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

Note: This post is dedicated to my father and mother. They are with the One whose birthday we celebrate on Monday. My parents both loved this time of year, my dad especially. My parents loved the music of Christmas, as well.

Recently, I was struck by the richness of a certain Christmas carol that we were singing in church. I paused to reflect on the words and let them soak in as the sounds rolled past.

I stand amazed at how great Christmas music stands the test of time. Much of it is in stark contrast to more modern music, both for its outstanding sound, and also for its skillful utilization of the English language -- which I think is the most beautiful instrument in the world -- as a key piece of the holiday orchestra.

So, I thought I'd highlight some great Christmas music this year, with a look at the lyrics of some of my parents' favorites, and mine, as well.

One of my all-time favorites is "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen". This carol is as English as English gets. Only the Brits could implore us to "Let nothing you dismay." I mean, they did invent the language. And the carol brings us tidings ... yes, tidings ... even waves of "comfort and joy":
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy ...
I think my favorite carol is The Ukranian Bell Carol. The song goes by "Carol of the Bells" these days, but when we played it in school, it was "The Ukranian Bell Carol". Indeed, the song is an adaptation of a Ukranian folk song and was apparently popularized in the U.S. by a Ukranian choir director named Oleksander Koshyts.

The Eastern European sound of this carol is unmistakable. There have been many beautiful instrumental versions through the years. But my favorite versions are those that perfectly mix the Ukranian music with the English lyrics to form this American classic:
Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away

Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold,
ding dong ding
that is their song
with joyful ring
all caroling

one seems to hear
words of good cheer
from everywhere
filling the air

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o'er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

Gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here,

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
On on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone to every home
Dong Ding dong ding, dong Bong
This next carol was one of my dad's favorites. The part that really got him, and gets me, is the command to "fall on your knees". Here is "O Holy Night", by J.S. Dwight and A.C. Adam:

O holy night,
the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of
our dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world
in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,
the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!
O night divine, O night,
O night divine!
On virtually every one's short list of great Christmas songs is "The Christmas Song" (it was destined for greatness with a title like that), with lyrics by Mel Torme. The best version is, of course, the one that my dad made me love, as did the rest of his generation, the version sung by the incomparable Nat King Cole-- arguably the greatest American singer ever. This song captures the magic of Christmas, reminding all of us kids that we used to believe that reindeer really knew how to fly:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

Everybody knows a turkey and some
Mistletoe help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight

They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies
On his sleigh
And ev'ry mother's
Child is gonna spy to see if
Reindeer really know how to fly

And so, I'm offering this
Simple phrase to kids from
One to ninety-two
Altho' it's been said many times
Many ways; "Merry Christmas to you"
This next song reminds us that Christmas, like Christ's life, began like with a whisper of the night wind. Although quietly delivered in the most understated fashion possible, the message of Christmas would ultimately trumpet thoughout the earth. One of my favorite versions is the one by Mannheim Steamroller, even though as an instrumental it omits the following stirring lyrics:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring Him silver and gold
Let us bring Him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light
To me, the deep, smooth bass voice of Bing Crosby almost represents the very heart of America. And Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" represents the heart of an American Christmas. I love this song for those reasons, and also because I've never seen a White Christmas. Ah, but hope springs eternal at Christmastime. And I also love the movie, too. Yes, it's corny, but there's some good old-fashioned American truth in there, like men don't forget their comrades. Here is "White Christmas":

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
The following song isn't really a Christmas song, but it became one in some quarters. In any event, I never particularly cared for it; however, it was one of my mother's favorites. I've come to appreciate it because it reminds me of her and the reason she liked the song. Here is "My Favorite Things" by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens;
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens;
Brown paper packages tied up with strings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels;
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles;
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes;
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes;
Silver-white winters that melt into springs;
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the dog bites,
When the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.
The next song has become a favorite of mine, even though you may not have heard of it. It's part of virtually every Christmas Eve service at our church. It's beautiful music by Michael W. Smith blends with lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick to tell the powerful story of Christmas -- that Emmanuel ("God With Us") in the manger grew up to save the world. Here is "All is Well":

All is well all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love's light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia
All is well all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ is come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Lift up your voice and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well

All is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well
Alleluia or Hallelujah means "Praise the Lord!". In the classic "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah, we see the power of repetition working in concert with truth. This musical piece, based upon the Book of Revelation, was my mother's favorite:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The kingdom of this world is become
the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever

King of Kings,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
and Lord of Lords,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

King of Kings,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
and Lord of Lords,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

King of Kings,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
and Lord of Lords,
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever

King of Kings
for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

and He shall reign for ever and ever,
for ever and ever,
King of Kings,
and Lord of Lords,
King of Kings,
and Lord of Lords,
and He shall reign for ever and ever,

King of Kings,
and Lord of Lords.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Handel's great work reminds us that some day the Babe of Bethlehem will be revealed as the Lion of Judah. With all the undeniable magic and wonder of the season, for Christians, Christmas is only the beginning.

I want to take this opportunity to thank those of you who lend me your time and comments. Your contributions make this space what it is, and I deeply appreciate your thoughts, ideas, and love for this nation and our way of life.

God bless you all, and Merry Christmas.

See you on the other side ... on Jan. 3. We'll have a little presser preview/tease on Jan. 2, so check in then for an update.