My favorite Christmas song in recent years has been "In the Bleak Midwinter." With words by Christina G. Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst, it's a treasure for heart and ear, detailing the icy conditions — "water like a stone" — that traditionally accompany stories of Jesus' birth, along with the gathering of angels and archangels, and Mary's blessing of a kiss.
On the other hand, some in my acquaintance have found "Midwinter" a little, well, bleak. Once, during a stately rendition at a Christmas picking party, my wife gave me a thumbs-up symbol that I took for approval. Turned out, she wanted me to pick up the tempo, just a little.
I turned to my friend and former pastor, the Rev. P. Joseph Ward, for some informed notions on the way that Christmas unites a gloriously celebratory spirit with the wintry depths from which it springs.
"I think that the entire Christmas experience sounds the depths of emotional intensity," Ward told me the other day. "The Christmas story is the infusion of hope into the bleakness of the world. It doesn't dispel the darkness, but shines in it.
"The music that grasps that paradox is the music that sounds the depths. 'Sweet Little Jesus Boy' is one that I like in that vein. Like 'In the Bleak Midwinter,' it touches the heart's longing for the transcendent."
Here's a glistening, candle-lit version of "Midwinter" by the Gloucester Cathedral Choir: bit.ly/IMNmQy
All of this led to me explore Christmas music, how it comes in all shades and varieties. Taking in both sacred and secular favorites will carry the listener into medieval plainsong, Watts hymns, 19th century sentimentality, Tin Pan Alley kitsch, baby-boomer rock and R&B, and more modern stabs at creating "instant classics."
Christmas music can be any kind of music, and it can touch us in all sorts of ways. Here's a selection of seasonal favorites, headed by the mood they seem to represent.
Starkly magnificent: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," Medieval French melody arranged by Gustav Holst. Here's a strong performance from 2011 by the LSU Chamber Singers, under the direction of Anneli Fernandez: bit.ly/1hb5xLS
"Ponder nothing earthly minded," we are admonished in this song, which sums up an ascetic view of Christmas. No sleigh bells, cups of eggnog or shopping malls here, but spine-chilling music of praise "as the darkness clears away."
Celebratory, sacred: "O Holy Night," Gladys Knight: bit.ly/IWMjgs
The 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam wrote the tune that became "O Holy Night" for his popular opera "Giselle." The soaring melody expresses both joy and nostalgia for the night of the Nativity. Its range and inventive chords make it a challenge for the less talented, but work superbly well for soul-pop vocalist Gladys Knight, who put her gospel background and conviction to full use in this 1999 live performance. "I wish I could have been there," Knight says.
Celebratory, secular: "What Christmas Means to Me," Stevie Wonder: bit.ly/1kW4Xl9
From the 1967 LP "Someday at Christmas," one of the absolute best Yule discs of all time, this tune represents Stevie Wonder at his exuberant, mainstream Motown peak and belongs somewhere among great records such as "There's a Place in the Sun" and "I Was Made to Love Her." Made for jumping parties with Stevie on the box. Midwinter celebration at its peak.
Sacredly ironic: "The Cherry Tree Carol," Joan Baez: bit.ly/1b6PSaP
A rare story, based on the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in which the situation of Joseph is laid bare: He's responsible for Jesus' welfare even though he's not, in modern parlance, the Messiah's "real dad." Versions date back to the 15th century. The continuing popularity of this song, recorded by Joan Baez in 1961, must rest in part on identification with Joseph's testy response when Mary asks for cherries from a tree: "Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee."
Yule-groovy: "It Must Be Christmas," Gerry Mulligan and Judy Holliday: tny.gs/1k3GsSD
So many things unite here: Judy Holliday's wistfully jazzy vocal, backed by hubby Gerry Mulligan's jazz-meets-classical arrangement, along with an overall vibe that 21st century people would identify as "Mad Men." The couple co-wrote this song, recording it in 1961. For me, this tune recreates the cocktail-party ambience I remember from childhood visits to New York City, where my sisters and I were sometimes allowed to tag along to nightspots.
Obsessively lonesome: "Every Christmas," Luther Vandross: bit.ly/1gCCpN4
Love and Christmas customarily go together, but don't always run smooth. Caught in such a dilemma, Luther Vandross lays on the emotion in a tale of annually unrequited love, released in 1995. You see, Luther, who gets offers of better times as the song rolls on, is not waiting for this mysterious woman just this once. Nope. It's every year. Every Christmas. Killer, killer song and singing.
Oddly importunate: "Please Come Home for Christmas," Charles Brown: bit.ly/1bIFWEn
Did it ever strike you that Charles Brown is perhaps excessively broadminded in his 1960 plea for his baby to come home for Christmas? First setting the scene in a gorgeous 6/8 blues setting, he begs twice for her to come home, then offhandedly adds, "If not for Christmas, by New Year's night." That's eight days — does he have something else going? Lyrical whimsy aside, what a great song! It's deserving of its place near the top of Yule perennials, even in the Eagles' bar-band version.
Romantically homesick: "Tender Tennessee Christmas," Vince Gill and Amy Grant, from a 1993 broadcast: bit.ly/18NrQol
Christmas draws people together, and it becomes a time when sentimental notions hold sway, notably the desire to be home for Christmas. I lived for more than 30 years in Tennessee, and Renee and I married and started our family there, so that's the origin of my soft spot for this song.
In the end, for better or worse, people not only tend to draw emotion from Christmas but also to project their moods upon it. Hipster or dip, devout or profane, we can find in Christmas the feeling — and the song — to match our mood. Some years it may take a spot of bleakness to allow the lights of morning and home to shine all the brighter.