What’s Your Christmas Album?

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms

I grew up in central Iowa in the 1950s, a time when public schools performed Christian music like Away in the Manger and Silent Night. When choir directors heard me sing they quickly nominated me to be the narrator for our concerts. Since my family didn’t often go to church, I learned the story of baby Jesus’ birth by telling it to audiences of proud parents at school concerts.

My sense of Christmas music was further defined by what played on the radio in our living room. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Burl Ives and others performed such pop music classics as I’ll Be Home for Christmas and White Christmas (many of the tunes having been written by Jews working in the pop music industry). I heard (but never came to like) novelty Christmas music by Alvin and the Chipmunks or songs like I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

As a child, I had a silly running battle with one Christmas tune: Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I hated that song with fervor that is hard to understand. When I heard “so you better be good for goodness’ sake,” I was outraged because clearly “goodness” was not involved, just greed for Christmas presents. Why that affected me so deeply I will never know.

In the Grooms household my mother preferred the pop classics in a style she called “mood music.” Mood music (a forerunner of “new age” music) was atmospheric stuff meant to be played softly in the background. Her favorite, by far, was an album by Jackie Gleason (who was also a bandleader). Gleason’s Merry Christmas album was a light jazz treatment of Christmas music performed in a deeply nostalgic vein for people who liked to celebrate the day weeping wistfully in their eggnogs. The first big shock I experienced after getting married was learning that my bride considered my family’s Christmas music embarrassingly banal and beneath contempt.

In my first Christmas as a married man I was introduced to her Christmas music, which was all about choirs performing classic European religious Christian carols. Many of the tunes were created in medieval times. Her Christmas music was usually sung in vast cathedrals, so it had a lot of echo, and many songs featured the piercing purity of the sounds of boy sopranos. The audio highlight of Christmas for my wife was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols performed each year at King’s College.

In short, her Christmas music could not have been more different from what I’d known as a kid. At first I was humiliated by her disgust for my old Christmas music, but I quickly embraced the beauty of the more traditional choral music my in-laws loved so much.

Still later, I acquired great fondness for Celtic music. Inevitably I began enjoying performances of Christmas music performed in that style by folk and Celtic musicians. At some point I had to add the music of the Charlie Brown Christmas show to my list of favorites.

It all becomes mixed together. I have known so many Christmases that my tastes are eclectic and inevitably mixed with memories, good and bad. I fell in love with one album during an extremely emotional Christmas, the worst of my life. George Winston’s December album became a classic in the winter when we discovered our old cat had cancer. My daughter’s last evening with him was spent holding him in her crib while the December album played over and over in the night.

To hear Christmas music now is to be reminded of earlier times, with all that was sweet and terrible about them. Like Scrooge, I am haunted by Ghosts from Christmas Past, and they come with a soundtrack.

What is your favorite Christmas music?

70 thoughts on “What’s Your Christmas Album?”

  1. Nice job, Steve, and what a fun collection of photos. My favorite tree is the one in the top right photo. Is it taken at the cabin in Cornucopia?

    There aren’t many Christmas albums I can listen to from start to finish. Any album that contains Little Drummer Boy is banned from our house. Can’t stand it.

    My current favorite is Kate Rusby’s Christmas album Sweet Bells; it is wonderful. I love her voice, and her interpretation of some well known carols is refreshingly different. Here’s the title track:

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    1. Thanks PJ. Yes, the upper right photo was taken the one year we visited the cabin around Christmas. We rarely felt safe driving that far on winter roads, and I remember that the return trip that year was a harrowing drive through a winter storm that nearly sent us into the ditch.

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  2. Nice Steve! Although I am not a Christian, I adore Christmas music (go figure). And I like all kinds: Burl Ives, Dale Warland Singers, Dixie Chicks, Julie Andrews. I really like the Roches and their Three Kings album. And I also extremely fond of the Pentatonix Christmas songs:

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  3. We have overlapping tastes, vs. If i had to reduce my Christmas album list to the five favorites, one would be the superb album by the Dale Warland Singers called “December Stillness.” It is perfect. Another of my top five would be that funny, sweet Roches album.

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  4. We have a lot of Christmas music. For years, it was my habit to try and find a new and unusual album each year. Not carols sung by barking dogs or croaking frogs, but just a little out of the ordinary. Consequently, some of my favorites are ones by Leon Redbone, David Grisman, The McGarrigles, Joe Pass, Cafe Accordian Orchestra, Laurie Lewis, John Pizzarelli, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, and the piano instrumental ones by Butch Thompson. Robin’s taste overlaps, but differs some. The copy of the Roches album is hers but it’s never one I choose.

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  5. My father owned a dry goods retail store that I worked Christmases at, usually wrapping presents which were offered free to customers. He had a tape of Christmas tunes that played over and over and over the whole season from Thanksgiving to Christmas eve. Luckily we were usually too busy to hear it. I don’t remember (maybe because of the tapes) hearing Christmas music at home, but I love (and still do) Christmas carols sung in churches. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Messiah is top of my list (I also have several LPs of their Christmas carols)…and I do love the opening carol of the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College. Oh, and Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. I am sure I have Christmas albums by Joan Baez and Johnny Mathis somewhere in the basement. Lots of cds collected over the years at MPR include The Revelers, Celtic, Thomas Hampson (sp?), and who knows what else. For now I rely on MPR for what Christmas music I listen to…

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  6. OT: First really cold morning in NE MN…I have to go outside now to feed the eases….but the sun is so nice and gold coming in the window shining on the Christmas tree and the houseplants…nice and warm….sigh.

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  7. Like HVSteve’s erstwife, I grew up with an (the?) album of Nine Lessons and carols from Kings. I try to listen to it live every year but they change up the carols and I would love to hear the exact program from that album. I think it became too scratched to play. It makes me think of decorating the tree with my father who has been gone since 1978,

    I had a reverse disdain thing from that of Steve and wife. After growing up with Kings College, I was treated to second wasband’s more “popular” playlist. However I did come to appreciate Bing’s album, including Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas song).

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  8. I tend to be rather cynical over Christmas. The rude people, the cutthroat shopping, the over-the-top commercialism…ugh! Therefore, Thurl Ravenscroft’s Grinch is always a favorite.

    One thing that will calm me down is the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Vince Guaraldi just did a masterful job and it’s a happy reminder of what Christmas is really supposed to be about.

    Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island always reminds me of TLGMS, so happy memories associated with that.

    Probably the most obscure and personal Christmas music for me is something that most people have never heard of. I was a huge listener of radio and records as a kid. I was ~always~ listening to music. And one Christmas, my folks got me an LP called The Christmas Song by a ‘group’ called The Bunny Hoppers. It’s really a Chipmunks knockoff with a cover of the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Song” and some other originals. But it takes me back to when Christmas was still a magical time. I just found that an ‘LP to CD’ service as burned it onto CD. I still have my LP but might just have to buy a well-burned copy of the CD.
    http://www.christmaslpstocd.com/Item/BunnyHoppersChipmunkSong-SX1734

    Oh, and if you haven’t heard The Orange Mighty Trio’s Christmas album from last year, try to find a copy…it is FANTASTIC!

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  9. My favorite Christmas music is an eclectic assortment as with many of you. I started this season listening to the pop radio favorites that the stable girls play while cleaning stalls, but quickly grew tired of the repetitions as I tuned in again in my truck. So, I pulled out my two Christmas Island CDs, one by Jimmy Buffet, the other by Leon Redbone. Then last night and this morning listened to the sweet variety on the Keepers Christmas album, and the memories flood back to the Morning Show, Dale and Jim Ed, laying in bed in the morning listening to their music and antics before getting ready for work and finishing the show as I drove to work, seeing their show in person at the Fitz and visiting them in the MPR booth at the Fair, requesting certain tunes to celebrate special occasions and even meeting them at the station’s Open House one year. We were introduced to Prairie Home Companion, Peter Oshtroushko, Butch Thompson, Neal and Leandra, Sue Scott, Pat Donohue, Rich Dworsky and a host of other local artists. We listened every day, it was a routine, but it also set the tone for the day and the early years of our marriage. Miss those guys, the show and cherish the wonderful memories. I’m semi-retired now, and we moved out of the Big City to a more quiet life, out “on the edge of the prairie” as Garrison would say. Thank you, Dale, for all those years and early mornings. I hope you’re doing well and celebrating the season with a variety of poignant music fare and songster friends. Fondly, Lynda (and Bob, the Ramp guy)

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      1. Thank you, Barbara. I followed the blog for a long time initially, but then got busy with other things. The Keepers Christmas album hit a nerve. Still miss the Morning Show! Happy Holidays to you!

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  10. Wonderful topic, Steve – I love almost everything mentioned above. I grew up hearing Mom play Perry Como’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and Bing’s “Do You Hear What I Hear” on the piano – (even that brings fond memories), plus the traditional carols. Now I want to hear a lot of choral music, but my first love is the really ancient stuff – Christmas Revels and old medieval carols.
    Inexplicably I bought a sexy pop album a few years ago by She-Daisy, for something completely different:
    http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=SHeDAISY+Deck+the+Halls&view=detail&&mid=22FE91DAD85C72E9613722FE91DAD85C72E96137

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    1. For a brief time there was an organization that performed Christmas Revels in Apple Valley. My daughter and I went, but the enterprise apparently failed to be profitable. That’s a very special kind of Christmas music, all that robust and slightly dissonant music.

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  11. My favorites are all over the map like many Babooners have previously indicated. One day I hope to compile a CD of all my favorites and play that nonstop during the Christmas season. A few fave artists that come to mind are Connie Evingson, Sam Robson, the Blenders, the King’s Singers, the old Percy Faith classic orchestral album from either the 50s or 60s (where I fell in love with the French Horn!), Mannheim Steamroller, Nat King Cole, and believe it or not, the Flying W Wranglers (they have a couple of songs I’d never heard before that are worthy of becoming classics.)

    We celebrate Christmas tonight with my Minnesota family, so Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a Baboon night. 😉

    Chris in Owatonna

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    1. That is a fun song! Catchy, bouncy, and has the same attitude about Christmas as I think I get sometimes: Grumpy but all about family at the end.

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  12. We have a vast collectiojn of Christmas music,. I go for the Lessons and Carols style stuff, but I also like the collections by Sting and Shawn Colvin, as well as Celtic Christmas cd’s.. Husband has quite eclectic tastes, and has “A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spectre”, “Blues, Mistletoe, and Santa’s Little Helper” with such memorable hits like Sandy Claw Stole my Woman, and “The Temptations Christmas Card”. He also really likes Corelli’s Christmas Concerti. Go figure.

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    1. I like many of the same CDs. I’d like to mention some specific Celtic albums that are especially good: Cherish the Ladies has one called On Christmas Night, Katie McMahon has a good one, there is a good Wyndham Hill sampler. My daughter’s favorite Christmas CD is probably the Bells of Dublin, a Chieftains album.

      One final Celtic album I play a lot is Noels Celtique, music from Brittany. I love it, and yet some people are bothered by it. More than any other Christmas album I know, this one sounds like it was sung by people who are THRILLED to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.

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  13. What I’m learning–in part, thanks to your help–is that there are many different kinds of Christmas music, and I can like just about any of them if I have good memories to go along with them.

    My absolute favorite Christmas album is one that surprised me. I once rejected John Denver and his music. Never mind why: I was a snob. Then I had a terrible Christmas that left me an emotional wreck. At my lowest, I heard the Christmas album Denver did with the Muppets. I ended up bawling like a baby, playing it over and over. The music is lovely, Denver’s singing is perfect and the album is fun. Above all, the album sounds like a group of good-hearted people who are fond of each other. For me, at least, this is the best album I know for reflecting the affection that Christmas at its best can inspire.

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    1. I am not on soon enough to say Rise and Shine, but I can still agree with this selection. Love it. I also agree with the blur the edges of each genre mentioned about TLGMS listeners.

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    2. Love this album. S&h puts it on to fall asleep this time of year.

      Very sweet in places, very silly in other.

      “Piggy pudding???”

      “No, no, FIGGY pudding, made with figs…………..and bacon”.

      “What?”

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    1. I was just watching the CBS Sunday Morning show, Renee. They did a story on Dickens and the Christmas Carol. Two experts offered their opinion of the best-ever production of that story: the Muppet version with Michael Caine.

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  14. I will add my vote for the Charlie Brown Christmas Vince Guaraldi. I also have a compilation CD called “Christmas Belles” that is the sort of pop tunes Christmas songs from the 40s-60s sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan and Eartha Kitt that gets a fair amount of airplay at our house this time of year. Being the daughter of a church musician, I have a definite soft spot for the traditional stuff: Handel and hymns, Lessons and Carols from Kings – if it is choral music or accompanied and/or played on the organ, I’m there.

    Love the photos Steve – the resting dogs under the tree is pretty great.

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  15. I’m distraught that almost all of you post before noon! Because of this, I hesitate to contribute later in the day. What Xmas always brings for me is feeling that I wish I was a “believer” because that seems to bring a wonderful fullness to the holiday. The music hits me with the thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I believed what the masses do?”, but, for me, it was like giving up Santa Claus. Some people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?”, to which I respond, “I don’t believe in hell, so I don’t worry about that”. Still, at this magical time of year, I wish I could join them for that one night. How I ache for that kind of community spirit, but only during the Xmas holiday time.

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    1. Looks like I got here at 10:09pm Saturday.

      I will admit to being grateful some days that a blog carries over more than one day, because some days I just don’t get here.

      The s&h had his last final last night and I am just waiting on one little piece of work to arrive so I can be well and truly done. It is a little bizarre to not have the “I should” tape running in my head (at least with outside projects-there is much “I should” do as far as my household is concerned).

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  16. A link to the Orange Mighty Trio Christmas CD is found below. This would have to be my favorite Christmas music. As many of you know, The Orange Mighty Trio includes my son-in-law, Zack Kline, on violin. The music on their Christmas CD was recorded last year and released at a show held at the Cedar. The CD includes arrangements of well know Christmas music and some Christmas tunes composed by the trio that I think are outstanding.

    http://orangemightytrio.bandcamp.com/album/breakin-up-christmas

    The trio didn’t do a Christmas concert this year. I am sure they will be making plans to preform publicly in the coming year.

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  17. when i went to pack up my stuff this year in the house family move albums took two days
    christmas albums was a chunk of that. i live christmas usic. perry como bing nat and frank the old firestone christmas alumms wiht anna maria albrigetti frankie laine barbara streisnad steve and edie, dinah shore and the like alweys make me smile. i love the morman tabernacale choir the viennia boys choir and it is maybe my favorite country offering. the judds di a good one emmy lou harris dolly parton willie nelson then the muppets the big band stuff the david bowie the john fayhe, etc etc etc…
    i really like christmas music. i ahd some girls stop by the gargage sale i had a couple of years ago and they were excited to find christmas albums to take to their christmas in july party they were going to on the next weekend and wanted advice on which album they should buy. i asked them if they could be trusted and they said they could so we went through the stack and picked out 25 albums to take of various levels of pop classic timeless and they brought them back the following week wit uig smiles and thank yous.
    nice blog steve. thanks

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  18. I have a deep affection for the Goodyear Great Songs of Christmas:Album 5.

    I love the papercraft angels on the cover and know every scratch and skip on our copy, wherever it might now be. I see I could get one on Amazon, but alas, no turntable or anyplace to put one.

    I tried posting this this morning, but got wiped out. Shortly thereafter I heard an interview on NPR that informed me Allison Krause and Kenny Rogers have recorded “Some Children”, which I know well from that old album with Dianne Carroll singing it.

    Lovely piece and we need it now as much as we ever did.

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    1. i remember when i was 5 or 6 getting the free christmas album with a tank of gas. i asked how that worked. and my dad told me the gas station company and the firestone people worked out a deal. i began trying to figure ot how the deal would work at that point. my early entrepreneurial thoughts in action

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  19. OT (I trust that the Original Poster won’t mind this post). I just finished my third Jojo Moyes novel in the past ten days. It’s so nice to find an author you are comfortable with, especially if that person turns out to have written several books. I often binge-watch TV miniseries, but I’ll binge-read books as well.

    I’ve recently read more than my share of awkward books, novels I found confusing at that most basic level of conveying what the heck was going on. Those badly written books helped me appreciate Moyes. And maybe this is a personal thing, but once I began reading the first of her novels I knew right away she knew how to tell a story, how to create characters I cared about and how to keep me pleasantly guessing what would happen next. Above all, with this author I feel I’m in competent hands. She knows what she is doing.

    As much as I love thrillers and mysteries, few authors give me that same sense. I had it with Tony Hillerman, with Elmore Leonard and above all with Henning Mankell. I could give myself over to those authors with full confidence that they were going to be great company.

    If you aren’t ashamed to read a “romance novelist” you might try Moyes, starting with Me Before You. If you like it, After You is at least as good and it features pretty much the same characters as Me Before You. And as for that “romance” thing, when I read Charles Dickens I don’t worry about him being all about social reform, just as I don’t fret about Jane Austen’s preoccupation with social manners. Good authors are good authors.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I, too, binge-read certain authors. I will see if the library has anything available by Moyes; I need to bring some reading to KC with me and the books I’m waiting for at the library have several people on the hold list in front of me.

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  20. I’m getting lots of ideas for Christmas music; thanks, Baboons, and thank you, Steve, for writing about this.

    My Christmas music playlist is not the most inspiring, but since I’m not in a Christmasy mood this year, it will do. I have some of the songs from Gifts by Joemy Wilson (hammered dulcimer player), some from Silent Night by Mahalia Jackson, the ‘Twas on a NIght Like This album by “various artists” (folksinger types), some songs sung by the Weavers, and last, but not least, the song Silent Night sung by Eva Cassidy.

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  21. My favorite Christmas album is a 3-record set, an anthology called Home For Christmas. Not available on CD or iTunes, more’s the pity. It devoted each of its six vinyl sides to a genre – folk, country, blues, gospel, etc. Some of the artists are Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Danniebell Hall, Mahalia Jackson, Roberts and Barrand, the Boston Camerata, many others. I bought it in the late 70’s, I think, and played it to death every year. I dubbed it to cassette so I could listen to it on my Walkman when I got a Walkman in the 80’s. I still listen to it in the car. It always takes me back to when I was 20 and Christmas was at its most wonderful for me.

    Joan Baez and Emmylou Harris were also favorites. And I have Leon Redbone, the Roches, Johnny Cash, Burl Ives, Roger Whittaker, Cyndi Lauper, Tish Hinojosa, many nice anthologies.

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned John Fahey yet.

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      1. Ah, yes, I am usually pretty good at interpreting, but I missed fayhe.

        The Christmases in my early 20’s were in slower times. I made homemade gifts and did more baking and seemed to have more time to enjoy the weeks leading up to the holiday. Telescoping time has made it harder to squeeze everything in, and I’ve worked retail in more recent years, which turns you a little jaded and cynical about Christmas.

        For a few years running, my sister and I made rosettes on Christmas Eve. I’d like to be able to return to that someday if our schedules ever permit.

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