It's not uncommon to hear sugar-coated songs about candy canes and packages with strings this time of year. You'll probably hear a lot of generic odes to snow, sleigh rides, and keeping warm by the fire playing in stores throughout the country. You might even manage to hear a few well-known carols that actually have something to do with the reason for the season--the birth of a certain baby who would go on to die for the sins of mankind some thirty years later. But for those of us who love Christmas music but often tire of the trite and overdone covers of songs that everyone has heard from hundreds of artists done exactly the same way, finding songs to satisfy that craving can be difficult.
It's for this reason I often gravitate toward the Christmas music industry, where I can find some new Christmas favorites that give me great melodies coupled with meaningful lyrics. But in the mainstream, it's hard to get away from the feeling that a lot of the offerings are kind of the musical equivalent of a sugar rush that doesn't really satisfy your hunger. But every now and then, I do find some original Christmas songs from mainstream artists that offer something more substantial. For this article, I am looking at a few original songs released by artists in the mainstream market over the decades that speak to the true meaning of Christmas.
This doesn't mean I endorse all or even most of what some of these artists might stand for in their personal lives or views. While some of these artists are known people of faith, some also share in some things publicly that we as Christians may not be able to align ourselves with. But during this time of year when we look forward to celebrating the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ, it's good to find some common ground where we can begin a conversation toward something more. Even in the midst of mainstream music, where the themes can often be opposed to everything Christ stood for, we can find some flickers of His truth. Hopefully some of these songs can provide that for you.
Jon Anderson, "Where Were You"
The former lead vocalist of progressive rock group, Yes, Jon Anderson's vocals are iconic to many who grew up in the 1970s rock scene. While his personal faith is known to many in the industry (he even collaborated with 4Him on one of their hits back when they were active), even many of his fans probably don't remember his Christmas album, 3 Ships. The album isn't on Spotify or iTunes and is pretty rare, despite a rerelease some years back.
I grew up hearing this album, and I've come to appreciate it more as I've grown older. The album eschews many of the trappings of modern Christmas albums. There's very little to be found here about commercial Christmas staples, with most of the songs taken from lesser-known classics and originals. And most of these originals speak directly to either moral themes or the birth of Christ Himself. While the sound is definitely dated in 80's synth-pop, those willing to overlook that stylistic approach might be rewarded with some new Christmas lyrics to chew on.
One song in particular that sticks out to me is one that I think would connect well with Christian music fans, "Where Were You." The songs sings of the the wonder of the witnesses of the birth of Christ, while proclaiming of the goodness that His birth has brought to us. And the chorus looks ahead to the end of time when "There we'll stand at His right hand/singing for Our Savior/And all will know from this day forth/that the light will always save you." A song about Jesus praising His name and looking forward to His reign over heaven and earth, from a mainstream artist? Yes, indeed.
Mariah Carey, "Jesus, Born On This Day"
Mariah Carey has kind of become synonymous with the Christmas music season for some reason. Don't get me wrong, her signature Christmas song is good and catchy. But it doesn't rank very high for me on things I look forward to every Christmas season. At some point, there's only so much you can hear it. But did you know the album this song is originally from has another original, and that is has everything to do with Jesus? "Jesus, Born on This Day" is somewhat slower than her more known upbeat hit. But I think it's definitely the stronger song, with a nice choral finish and lyrics that, while not particularly theologically deep, it still rings truer than another song about wanting to be with a generic someone for Christmas. ("Jesus born on this day/He is our light and salvation/Oh Jesus born on this day/He is the King of all nations.")
Trans Siberian Orchestra, "Dream Child"
You've probably heard one or two songs from Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) in stores during this season. Their "Christmas Eve (Sarejevo 12/24)" is literally iconic. And their "Christmas Canon" is one of the most stirring compositions ever put on a Christmas album. But it's a bit less common for folks to know the deeper cuts of their Christmas albums. While the band's bombastic classical rock instrumentals are what they are most known for, I've increasingly grown to love their original compositions with lyrics.
One that particularly stands out is "Dream Child," which is about a man who has an encounter with the Christ child in a dream. The song captures a spirit that is both haunting and peaceful in a way few songs manage to, and its lyrics offer more interesting imagery than a lot of the songs that merely recycle Christmas cliches ever could. "In the book was the word/In the word there was truth/In the truth there was age/In the age there was youth/And I said to the Child/Do your hands they still bleed/After all of this time/Do you think there's still need/But the Child only smiled/And said not a word/And the snow it came down/As if it hadn't heard."
David Archuleta, "He Is Born"
One of American Idol's contributions to the music scene, David Archuleta, may not have achieved the notoriety of some of his contemporaries, but he's a face many fans of the show probably remember well. A few years ago on his Christmas album, he included the original ballad, "He Is Born." The song almost takes a lullaby-like approach, avoiding the temptation to go for a grand overproduced sound, and instead, letting the music and vocals create a soothing and warming atmosphere. The song juxtaposes the journey it took to bring Christ to us, and how it ties in with us today: "The journey cross the desert land/
Nothing sure and nothing planned/Faith in something still unknown/The savior born without a home/Shepherds gather from afar/Darkness broken by a star/Something new that always was/A newborn baby God with us/Someday He'll give His life for me/For now He sleeps so peacefully."
Faith Hill, "A Baby Changes Everything"
Perhaps the most known song on this list. While not as known as Hill's contribution to The Grinch soundtrack ("Where Are You Christmas") this song has found itself covered some number of times over the years. The song looks at an unplanned teenage pregnancy and slowly reveals it to be that of Mary carrying Jesus. The song examines both the fear and uncertainty of a young girl tasked with such a big ask from God, while also showing the immense good that came from her cooperation with God's plan. While you may have heard this in passing and just glossed over it as a cute song, take a moment to sit back and dig a little deeper into its message.
These are five Christmas songs from mainstream artists I've found that have spoken to me by singing about Jesus. What are some of your favorites?
J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community. His new novel, 'When Miracles Can Dream,' is out NOW!
NEW!BEHIND THE SONG
#1201 - Anna Golden
The up-and-coming artist talks about her new song
NRT's J.J. Francesco reviews the new film from Angel Studios
NEW!NRT STAFF VOICES
Journey Through Sound
The NRT staff share their first Christian music experiences
Anne Wilson "Strong"
Exploring songs currently heard on Christian radio
NEW!THE CHH DROP
#175 - Steven Malcolm
What's new in Christian Hip-Hop and Urban Soul for this week