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Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

Sometime around Thanksgiving, many radio stations become Christmas stations. They almost exclusively play Christmas music. At first glance most people think that Christmas should have something to do with Christ and His birth, however popular culture often completely eradicates Christ’s presence from Christmas. In the English-speaking world, there are many charts to analyze the music and films inspired by Christmas. Writers examine the vast number of Christmas songs and try to pick the “best” ones, but these articles reveal the Jesus-shaped hole in our society’s Christmas practices and traditions.

The most familiar Christmas songs are often older, and the more modern songs have very little to do with Christ. According to one chart that analyzes the top 30 Christmas songs, 40% of those songs were written between 1930 and 1940, 40% between 1950 and 1960, 17% between 1970 and 1980, and the last 3% after that. One can certainly argue that the 20th century has been the most productive time for more contemporary Christmas songs with “Jingle Bell Rock” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” being the most popular. “Last Christmas” is a relative latecomer, since it was written in the 1980s.

Good Housekeeping recently produced a list of the 60 best Christmas songs. Among this extensive list there are only 8 songs that are actually about Christ: The Band sings “Christmas Must be Tonight,” Julie Andrews sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Aretha Franklin sings “Joy to the World,” Josh Groban sings “Silent Night,” Faith Hill sings “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Pentatonix sings “O Holy Night,” violinist Lindsey Stirling plays the “We Three Gentlemen Medley,” and the Celtic Women sing “Do You Hear What I Hear.”

In December 2017, Andrew Unterberger of Billboard magazine wrote “The Best Holiday Song From Each of the Last 50 Years: Critic’s Take.” Unterberger does amazing analysis of each Christmas song that dominated each year. His analysis starts with Stevie Wonder’s 1967 “What Christmas Means to Me” and ends with Dej Loaf featuring Kodak Black, singing an updated and family-centric version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” In this highly creative list, only two songs had titles that referred to the birth of Christ – Emmylou Harris’s 1975 “Light of the Stable” and Bing Cosby and David Bowie’s “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” duet.

Christmas music clearly has a large impact on society, both popular and religious. Church choir directors and musicians can attest to the Christmas anthems that bring joy and inspiration to the people who gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. These Christmas carols are so impactful that there are also Christmas cantatas – Christmas concerts that last one hour or more. In addition to cantatas, there are Christmas plays or dramas and many people who grew up in churches remember being a part of these performances, wearing a striped bed sheet or a pair of sparkly angel wings.

With the exception of “Silent Night,” the well-beloved guitar song that was written because a church organ was not working, I find that none of the traditional, religious Christmas songs are popular in mainstream culture. New songs are being written about the birth of the baby in a manger, but there is an absence of new and old carols on non-Christian radio stations. I think we can conclude that there are two separate Christmases being celebrated in the USA – one that remembers the birth and the purpose for which Christ was born and one that uses the word Christmas, but has left out anything about Christ.

It is this bifurcation in the celebration of Christmas that should make Christians frequent singers and practitioners of the song “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” During this Christmas season, “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!” 

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