I’ve hosted a number of Advent Workshops over the years, and during the time I’ve collected a number of alternative Christmas songs, songs that perhaps might not get regular airplay over Christmas time, especially during worship or around the candles at Carols by Candlelight.
A confession: I’m not a fan of christmas carols, I’ve been known to walk into a church only to realise that I’ve walked into a carols service, at which time I turn tail and run. In my mind Christmas carols have become happy symbols that hide the real story of Christmas, they sing of tidings of joy, babies that don’t cry, families that don’t argue, of shepherds and sheep… rarely do they speak of the realities of families having to deal with staying together during the toughest of experiences, the story of people who have to flee a violent genocide with a young child, of the struggles of peasants and shepherds, of a young couple seemingly being abandoned by family and friends…
So, I’ve been on the search for songs that offer an alternative to the “Silent Night’s” and “Away in a Manger’s” out there, here are a few of them.
Title: Christmas Must Be Tonight
Artist: The Band (I have a copy of Paul Kelly singing a cover, a B-side from his “Won’t You Come Around” single)
I should be grilled alive for choosing this song first, after all, after suggesting that many Christmas songs are too happy and tell only a part of the story I offer up a song that does just this. However, this isn’t a song about the shepherds, it’s a song of a shepherd, and while I’m not a huge fan of many of the joyful carols I’m still a bit of a softy.
Title: White Wine In the Sun
Artist: Tim Minchin
In my mind, one of the most meaningful Christmas songs from Australia, I occasionally get questioned after playing it in church, but more than often I notice people stopping and listening, occasionally I see tears develop. What makes Christmas special to you, is it family, is it the memories?
Title: Cry of a Tiny Babe
Artist: Bruce Cockburn
One of the more beautiful christmas songs that has ever been written, Bruce has managed to tell the story in a complete way, with compassion, hope, humanity and without cliche. Bruce writes:
“I wanted to write a Christmas song. I went at it like trying to tell the Bible story but put it in modern terms. Like the Goddard movie “Joseph and Mary”. I thought the story in the Bible is such an interesting story, but you forget how interesting it is because it’s held up as a cliche so much to us. And over the years people have lost their humanity, who are in the story, and they’ve become larger-than-life figures. And I just thought it would be interesting to play at putting them in a human context. So Mary becomes a little bit shrewish and has a little bit of an attitude. The classic Mary figure, the Madonna – the original Madonna – is a far cry from any young Jewish mother I’ve ever run across [Laughs]. So I wanted to get it into something that people could relate to.”
Title: Nothing But A Child
Artist: Steve Earle
Kasey Chambers has recently released a cover of this song by Steve Earle, you can decide which one you like the most. The song itself reminds us that the hope that we speak of at Christmas isn’t a warrior, a king that would lead his people to war, nor is it a superhero, instead our hope remains in a child. Steve’s beautiful song also reminds us that every time a child is born the same possibilities, the same hope is born in each of us.
Title: If You Were Born Today
So, the lyrics go:
If you were born today
We’d kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say
Joy to the world and
Peace on the earth
Forgive them for they know not what they do
Blessed are the meek and
Blessed are the humble
Blessed are the ninety and nine
One of the more edgy Christmas songs, “If You Were Born Today” reminds us of two parts of the Jesus story, firstly there’s a reminder of the genocide that sent Jesus and family into Egypt as refugees. The song reminds us of this part of the story that often gets missed out, possibly because it’s hard to sing a happy song about that kind of thing, it certainly doesn’t make for a great image on a Christmas card. The song also echoes the story of Easter thus tying the two parts of this story together.
Continue: An Alternative Advent Soundtrack Pt2