Christmas Music: What’s on Your List?

One word —Christmas — and I start humming.

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

In my internal cinema, I’m sitting cross-legged on my grandparents’ moss green velvet carpet, my back sweating against a snapping fire while watching Grandma Belle with her lavenderish silver halo of curls list from side to side on the embroidered cushion atop the walnut piano bench.

Belle’s back is to us. I watch her fingers romp and caper up and down the keyboard while she cranes her head back to us —cousins in plaid, uncles in red vests, aunts in flouncy blouses— and while she lips the lyrics, coaxing from youngest to oldest more volume than you’d expect from a couple of dozen full-bellied folks. But no one —not the stiff uncle with a starched hair piece or the sullen fourteen-year-old with an extreme Toni permanent (me) slacks off or slips from the rhythm.

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At some point, we’re all shouting, “You better watch out/You better not cry!” and then we’re pa rum-pa-pa-pumming (even the teenagers) in unison. We’ll all be hoarse by the time the candles on the mantelpiece have wax pooling at their bases. Belle turns “Good King Wenceslas” into rag time, chords hopping and slapping in the left hand and embellishments tinkling like tinsel in the right. Her legs are jigging beneath the keyboard. She switches gears and makes “I’m Dreaming Of a White Christmas” into a tearjerker with the longest cadenza known to man. No one, not even Bing Crosby himself or my trained operatic soprano mother can sustain Belle’s last note, that over-the-top “whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.”

Belle played like that every Christmas Eve until well into her 90s.

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It’s Grandma Belle I recall every Christmas. Belle, and all the pianists, organists, choirs and soloists, instrumentalists, quartets, trios, orchestras, street accordion players or subway pan flute artists— all the music makers who, over my half-century of Christmases, have made my holidays ring.

Now you understand why, although I don’t really get into accumulating stuff, I do collect Christmas music. I have to. I listen to it (in secret) all year long.  (Officially, only from Thanksgiving until January 1st.)

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And that’s why I want to share with you my CD titles.

A word about this list: it’s alphabetized (not in any order of preference); it’s incomplete (I haven’t included my dozens of digital files, and I note with a gasp!! that I don’t have enough jazz and what’s this? No rap, country or reggae?); and it’s eclectic (From Thurl Bailey, a hoopstar-turned-crooner to Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.)

So I need your input. Can you post your musical treasures in the comment thread? Titles, please, of single songs or whole albums, and maybe include a bit of background as to why. Why this recording? Why this version, this instrument, this language, this key, this style?

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  • Amy Grant: Home for Christmas
  • Andy Williams: We Need a Little Christmas
  • Anonymous Four: Wolcum; Celtic and British Songs and Carols
  • Barbara Hendricks: Chante Noël
  • Barbra Streisand: A Christmas Album
  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (von Karajan): A Christmas Concert
  • Burl Ives: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Canadian Brass: The Christmas Album
  • Celine Dion: These Are Special Times
  • Choral Arts Northwest: A Scandinavian Christmas
  • Christmas Music: Christmas Peace; Piano, Guitar, Angels
  • Concord Jazz: A Concord Jazz Christmas
  • Curnow Music: Holiday Favorites
  • Dave Brubeck: A Dave Brubeck Christmas
  • David Archuleta: Christmas from the Heart
  • David Tolk: Christmas
  • Diana Krall: Christmas Songs
  • Die Wiener Sängerknaben: Ihre Schönsten Weihnachtslieder
  • English Heritage: Spirit of Christmas
  • European Jazz Trio: Silent Night
  • Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Album
  • Garrison Keillor: A Prairie Home Christmas
  • Garrison Keillor: Now it is Christmas Again
  • Harry Connick Jr.: Harry for the Holidays
  • Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas
  • Helene Fischer: Weihnachten
  • Ingolf Jentszch (festliche Weihnachtsmusik): Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen
  • James Taylor: At Christmas
  • James Wilson: Holiday Favorites on Guitar
  • Jim Brickman: Peace
  • Jim Brickman: The Gift
  • Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas
  • Johnny Mathis: The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis
  • José Feliciano: Feliz Navidad
  • Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration
  • Kelly Clark Parkinson: Romantic Christmas
  • Kenny G: Faith; A Holiday Album
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas Volume One
  • Kurt Bestor: One Silent Night
  • La Chorale de Saint-Pierre: Les Plus Beaux Cantiques de Noël
  • London Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikovsky Nutcracker
  • Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas Extraordinaire
  • Mel Tormé: Christmas Songs
  • Meryl Streep: The Night Before Christmas (Rabbit Ears Series)
  • Moore Light: Christmas with Bach
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and the Canadian Brass): A Christmas Gloria
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Hallelujah! Great Choral Classics
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Handel’s Messiah
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Noël
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Once Upon a Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Rejoice and be Merry
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Ring Christmas Bells
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Spirit of the Season
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Great Messiah Choruses
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: This is Christmas
  • Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  • Now That’s Music: Now That’s What I Call Christmas!
  • Osmonds: Christmas Album
  • Patricia Carlson: Christmas; A Creative Harp Collection
  • Reader’s Digest: Merry Christmas Songbook
  • Robert Shaw: Handel’s Messiah; Favorite Choruses and Arias
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Glade Jul
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Norsdisk Vinternatt
  • Skruk: Stille Natt
  • Sony Music: The Best of Christmas Vol. 1-4
  • Steven Sharp Nelson: Christmas Cello
  • The American Boy Choir: On Christmas Day
  • The Boston Camerata: Noël, Noël! (Noël Français)
  • The Cambridge Singers: Christmas with the Cambridge Singers
  • The Choir of Christ Church, Oxford: A Tudor Christmas
  • The King’s Singers: Deck the Hall; Songs of Christmas
  • The New Christy Minstrels: We Need a Little Christmas
  • The Piano Guys: A Family Christmas
  • The Roches: We Three Kings
  • Thomanerchor Leipzig, Dresden Kreuzchor: Silent Night
  • Thurl Bailey: The Gift of Christmas
  • Tim Slover: The Christmas Chronicles (Radio Drama)
  • Time-Life: Treasury of Christmas
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Bergweihnacht
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Europäische Weihnacht
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories
  • Vanessa Williams: Silver and Gold
  • Vienna Boys’ Choir: Christmas Joy
  • Windham Hill Christmas: The Night Before Christmas
  • Wynton Marsalis, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade: A Carnegie Hall Christmas

And to everyone, I wish you a blessed and harmonious holiday season.

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.