Like most things new and good, it began with a lack.
For years, I had wanted a playlist of Christmas songs that were neither classic choral nor jazzy pop, the only options the radio seemed to offer. Both those styles have their place, of course, but the music that feeds my soul tends to have a banjo as a main ingredient. So in late 2021, I sauntered through Spotify seeking Yuletide equivalents to bands like Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, and The Lumineers.
Through the lovingly curated playlists of strangers and Spotify’s algorithmancy, I discovered not only great selections to add to my own buffet but also a new favorite cuisine: Christian indie and folk rock in artists such as Josh Garrels, Branches, and Sarah Sparks—and, most significantly, a new all-time favorite band, The Oh Hellos.
Since each title of the four tracks on The Oh Hellos’ Family Christmas Album conveniently starts with “Mvmt” I, II, III, or IV, I structured my playlist around them and tied each movement to one of the weekly themes of Advent: hope, joy, love, and peace.
The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the quintessential morsel to tide over Advent’s hunger, open “Mvmt I, ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’” Thus it introduces the theme of hope, songs of lament and comfort. The medley transitions into the “Coventry Carol” about the Massacre of the Innocents, a reminder that this season of Waiting is designed not to augment the anticipation of presents and parties but alleviate the anguish of guilt and grief.
“Oh Light” by The Liturgists begins in quiet reflection but builds to a crescendo, for that is what hope is: dawn blooming, winter melting, heart again beating. It’s the Old Testament story gradually unfolding in “So Long, Moses” by Andrew Peterson, “My Deliverer” by Rich Mullins (sung by Rick Elias), “Isaiah (O Come)” by The Porter’s Gate, and “Mary Consoles Eve” by Rain for Roots. It’s four centuries of heaven’s silence (“400 Years” by Sarah Sparks) followed by the unheralded arrival of heaven’s King (“At Last, the King” by The Gray Havens).
In “Refugee King,” Liz Vice and Hannah Glavor mourn Herod’s first-century evils, and in “Advent for Weary Souls,” Amena Brown delivers a fiery monologue decrying twenty-first-century grievances and petitioning for Christ’s peace. The focus of Winter Pages is rest and stillness, so it may not seem the right space for songs of hope, whose eyes are never still but ever-straining, much less lament. But for pilgrims still miles from Bethlehem, rest may take the form of a rest stop, a brief well-lit stay before they rejoin the dark and winding road to chase that mysterious star. “Invisible the hope grows / In the black where nobody knows / We smile in the mystery / In the night where nobody sees” (“Silent Night / Smile in the Mystery” by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan).
Exuberance describes the quality I love most about The Oh Hellos, and my favorite of their Christmas songs, “Mvmt II, ‘Begin and Never Cease,’” bursts with it. So we come to joy, songs of celebration and joie de vivre.
Here’s where I placed all the “fun” songs, like the country singalong of Andrew Peterson’s “Matthew’s Begats,” the medieval feast of Josh Garrels’ “The Boar’s Head,” Branches’ energetic renditions of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Little Drummer Boy,” and Beta Radio’s “Carol of the Banjos.” You’ll also find the typical joy-laced carols: versions of “Joy to the World” by Future of Forestry and Sufjan Stevens and “Joyful Joyful” by The Brilliance.
When I think of Christmas joy, I picture shepherds in awe amidst a choir of angels, hence the inclusion of Lowland Hum’s lullaby-like “We Are the Shepherds” and Ordinary Time’s lilting “Angels We Have Heard” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” This section of the playlist ends with Andrew Peterson’s jubilant “While Shepherds Watched,” which circles us back to the line “begin and never cease.” For that is what joy is: praise on repeat; a little drummer beating out holy, holy, holy; perpetual feast.
“Mvmt III, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’” is a quieter, simpler song than the other tracks on The Oh Hellos’ album, a fitting introduction to the theme of love, songs of contemplation and adoration.
Certainly contemplating and worshipping divine Love draws our eyes outward and upward to the heavens. Sufjan Stevens’ “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” based on Psalm 24, casts Jesus’s birth in the light of a royal triumphal entry. In Beautiful Eulogy’s “Immanuel,” poetic monologue and soaring instrumentals invite us to consider the cosmic majesty of the Creator and marvel at his condescension for love’s sake.
But adoration also draws us inward to our personal experience of God’s love—as in “December” by Tow’rs meditating on “how deep your love is”—and downward to a domestic scene between husband, virgin mother, and babe. The peaceful “Mother of God” by The Brilliance reflects on the blessing wrought by Mary’s faithfulness, and the soulful “Like Mary” by Jess Ray and Langdon entreats each of us to likewise bear God to the world. Sister Sinjin’s ethereally haunting “In the Virgin’s Womb” and “Magnificat” ponder the mysteries of incarnation, while other songs humanize the holy family, like “Carol of Joseph (I Believe in You)” by For King & Country and “Mary’s Lullaby” by The Lower Lights.
Such are the paradoxes of love: graciously simple and powerfully complex, soft as newborn skin that pierces like a sword, majestic and mundane, human and divine.
“Mvmt IV, ‘Every Bell on Earth Will Ring’” reflects the previous themes with verses from “Joy to the World,” the refrain “O come, let us adore him,” and a snatch of the melody from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” so finally we come to peace, songs of reflection and warmth.
Many of these songs I chose for their peaceful, calming music and lyrics of cheer and goodwill, like “Stars of Glory” by The Lower Lights, “Christmastide” by the Brilliance, and “Silent Night” by Penny and Sparrow.
Others preach of the renewed peace between God and creation, like “O Day of Peace” by Josh Garrels, which invokes the eschatological vision from Isaiah 11, and “Pie Jesu” by Future of Forestry, with Latin lyrics that translate to “Merciful Jesus / Who takes away the sins of the world / Grant them rest.” In “Simeon’s Song” by The Porter’s Gate, Tenielle Neda, and Paul Zach, this universal peace becomes personally significant (“All creation will be redeemed / Now your servant can go in peace”).
Yet in this world of woe, our souls may know Christmas peace even while our hearts aren’t in it. In “Sister Winter” by Sufjan Stevens, the speaker confesses that the satisfaction he should feel eludes him. “Yahweh” by The Brilliance begins, “Yahweh, here are your children, crying out for peace.” I’ve listened to different versions of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” but Branches’ melancholy violin and powerful vocals render afresh the speaker’s anger and despair (“And in despair I bowed my head / There is no peace on earth, I said”) and the defiant hope of the last verse (“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep / God is not dead nor doth he sleep”).
The final two songs transition us from Christmas to New Year’s. “Ring Out, Wild Bells / Carol of the Bells” by Kat Tingey is based on the poem “In Memoriam” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which symbolically connects the changing of the year to Christ’s changing of the world from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, strife to peace. “All Glory Be to Christ” by Kings Kaleidoscope reworks the New Year’s standard “Auld Lang Syne” with Ecclesiastes-like lyrics that discredit our paltry resolutions (“To you who boast tomorrow’s gain / Tell me, what is your life? / A mist that vanishes at dawn”) while reminding us God’s resolutions never fail, and he has promised through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to make all things new.
Happy listening, and may you find something here both new and good.
Margaret Bush has a BA in English and lives near family in Houston, Texas, where she works as a technical editor. Her hobbies including writing fiction, procrastinating from writing fiction, playing board games, and joining more Bible studies and book clubs than she has time for.