Charles Dickens raised the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. And evangelicals often do the same with their musical celebration of Christmas. Familiarity’s chains—tradition turned habit—may make Christmas present merely a celebration of Christmas past. Unless the pattern is broken Christmas future promises to repeat the present.

How can we bring freshness and a sense of wonder to our Christmas musical celebrations? Is there good contemporary Christmas music?

We asked several informed evangelicals what music they listened to or performed during this season, and what their attitudes were toward musically celebrating the Incarnation. Most of them were aware of the liturgical year and favored the use of Advent hymns (e.g., “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”) during that season and carols on Christmas eve and day. Families who wish to use Advent to prepare for Christmas might make their own Advent wreaths and on each of the season’s Sundays (the four preceding Christmas) have a short service at dinnertime of appropriate Scripture passages and hymns.

The respondents suggested that services should contain a mix of familiar and unfamiliar music. That there was surprisingly little overlap in their musical choices indicates the variety of excellent Christmas compositions, both old and modern. Even the comments on Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah, varied from person to person. Following are the edited comments.

Frank E. Gaebelein,headmaster emeritus, Stony Brook School, and pianist.

While I am not an expert in choral music, I think that Handel’s Messiah sums up the meaning of Christmas and is perhaps the greatest piece of Christian music ever written. Bach, too, wrote some fine Christmas music. Serious contemporary Christmas music would be appropriate, but I would caution against the assembly-line cantatas, what I call evangelical pot-boilers. I would add, however, that not all music written in an assembly-line fashion for a certain season or celebration is necessarily bad music. Bach, after all, turned out such music week after week. I want to stress that contemporary Christmas music ought not to seem mere formula. To reflect the historical roots of Christmas we need music with rich and varied thematic development. We need the strong, firm, and joyful notes of such great Christmas hymns as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Then, too, Christmas music need not always be verbal. Some of the composers for organ have written great celebrative, joy-filled music appropriate to Christmas services. Olivier Messiaen is a contemporary composer who comes immediately to mind, as do two late nineteenth-century composers, Louis Vierne and Cesar Franck. Whether the music we hear at Christmas is vocal or instrumental, it ought above all to have an atmosphere of wonder and awe.

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Tedd Smith,pianist and composer.

Each Christmas I attend two good symphonic performances, such as Vivaldi’s Gloria or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Then, I worship in three different churches. Since I live in the Washington area, I try to get to the National Cathedral for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. National Presbyterian Church gives a balanced carol service of well-known and unfamiliar pieces. And I like to get to a church where children present a Christmas program. On Christmas day I listen to recordings of Christmas music unfamiliar to me. This year I plan to hear an Australian carol record. And I also decide never again to hear another performance of Messiah. Listening to a variety of Christmas music is for me as a composer not only celebration but learning.

Don Hustad,music professor, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

From the masterworks choral repertoire I much prefer the new recordings of Messiah, which resurrect the baroque tradition of tasteful ornamentations (particularly Angel C6705, conducted by Charles Mackerras with the Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra). Too many of us are jaded by Handel’s oratorio, and ornamented versions make the piece come alive again. Two other choral works are Francis Poulenc’s Gloria in G (RCA LSC-2822, Robert Shaw conducting the Robert Shaw Chorale and the RCA Symphony Orchestra) and Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ (Classics Record Library MR L 11575). Shepherds Rejoice, a folk musical by John Wilson, published by Hope, is a good contemporary composition. There are several coloristic organ pieces written for Christmas: the noels of Jean Francois Dandrieu, “Variations on a Noel” by Marcel Dupre, and “La Nativite” by Jean Langlais, which is part of a longer piece, three evangelical poems for the organ. For me many traditional Christmas carols have become worn with repetition. We need to emphasize the less familiar chorales and hymns, such as: “Awake, Awake the Night,” “Let All Mortal Flesh,” “Once In Royal David’s City,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Earth Shall Ring,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” Christ needs to be fresh when Christmas comes.

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John Reed,professor of law, University of Michigan, and choir director, First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor.

For the last few years my church has used the theologically sound and musically exciting Festival of Lessons and Carols as part of our Christmas celebration. It alternates Scripture passages, starting with Genesis 3:15 and going through the prophets to the Gospels, with carol singing. The service is flexible, since you can use both traditional and modern carols in congregational, choir, solo, or ensemble singing. We often use recorders or handbells with medieval and British carols. At our church we give the first lesson to a grade-school child to read and continue chronologically through the six to nine lessons. David Willcox with the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, has a good recording of the service.

Randy Matthews,rock singer.

I don’t know of much contemporary popular Christmas music being written, though some folk-rock bands do some good arrangements of traditional carols. I spend Christmas with my family. The Matthews relatives, usually about 100 of us, get together and spend six hours singing carols and reading poetry and the Bible.

Harold Best,dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, Wheaton, Illinois.

At Christmas we need to be jolted as well as soothed, for in a peculiar way mystery and familiarity are conjoined then. The incomprehensible God became man through Jesus Christ, who was “familiar” yet “strange.” This provides us with a model for celebrating Christmas in the arts. We need to re-encounter the familiar and by faith make it new. But we must also face the new or strange that is the essence of the mystery of the Incarnation. So often Christmas programs feature only a rehash of music and ideas that fails to whet one’s spiritual and aesthetic apetites. Such programs do not encourage us to enter further into the full mystery of the Incarnation. Here is a sampling of some notable Christmas music not often heard:

BACH, J. S., Magnificat in D Major and A Child Is Born (Cantata 142)


BUXTEHUDE, DIETRICH, Good Christian Men With Joy Draw Near and The Infant Jesus

DISTLER, HUGO, The Christmas Story and Sleepers Wake! A Voice Is Calling

HAMMERSCHMIDT, ANDREAS, O Beloved Shepherds and Where Is the Newborn King?

HONEGGER, ARTHUR, Christmas Cantata

PACHELBEL, JOHANN, Magnificat in C

PINKHAM, DANIEL, Christmas Cantata

RESPIGHI, OTTORINO, Laud to the Nativity

SCHÖENBERG, ARNOLD, Peace on Earth, Opus 13

SCHÜTZ, HEINRICH, The Christmas Story



Among the shorter works for Christmas are:

MOE, DANIEL, “Fall Softly, Snow”

PAYNTER, JOHN, “Exultet Coelum Laudibus,”

RAMIREZ, ARIEL, “Gloria” from Misa Criolla,


And finally, everyone should know about the Oxford Book of Carols, a magnificent collection of carols for every season.

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