Secular Seasonals & Nondenominational Carols:
Snowsongs, sleigh rides, & more folk covers for a winter’s night

Though the basic tenets of the movement include finding truth in a diversity of sources, thanks to the large number of post-Christian seekers in their membership, Unitarian Universalist congregations can be a bit oversensitive about “the Jesus thing”. This makes seasonal celebration a bit tense. For example, in our own UU Society, though no one balked at last weekend’s celebration of Hanukkah, and though we expect solid support for similar services on both Kwanza and Solstice in the coming weeks, past practice suggests we’d do well to avoid mention of the trinity, angels, miracles and the like for our upcoming Christmas service, lest we merit scowls and complaint in the midst of what should be holiday cheer.

But avoiding the overtly religious doesn’t mean swinging towards mass culture, either. Crass commercialism is anathema to UU’s humanistic pillars, knocking songs of bows and gift wrapping off the list as well; gift-giving in the spirit of recognition and sharing is all well and good, but the relevant tropes we find in mass culture are both too trivial and too suspect for Sunday services. Santa’s just not spiritual enough for worship. And though many come to us bearing gifts of honest, illuminating messages, for their characters and their iconography, holiday specials belong in the home, not in the meeting hall.

Thankfully, song selection for this year’s UU Christmas service isn’t up to me; it’s up to our dear friend Elisabeth, who - as Music Director for the congregation - knows far better than I which carols will slide through the oddly narrow space defined by what might offend the masses. But I know well the dilemma she faces, having for years searched for just the right collection of song for our own little Jewnitarian, humanistic, anticommercialist brood at holiday time.

Don’t get me wrong: As a listener, I’m an avid multiculturalist, with a love for holiday hymns brought in no small part by a Jewish childhood spent coveting the way in which the true songs of Christmas past were so familiar, so meaningful and dear, to mainstream society. Indeed, this weekend we’ll be swinging to the other pole, bringing forth a set of deeply religious songs which, thanks to stunning melody and memorable imagery, nonetheless ring relevant and true for me this time of year.

But today is for others who, like our family, are determined to seek out honest, inclusive songs of authenticity in a world of creches and boxes. And happily, somewhere along the way, an awful lot of songs of universal peace and joy, winter and cold have been folded into the Christmas canon. In fact, looking through the archives, I find that our very first Christmas here included a post collating those songs which - though generally found on the same radio playlist and popular songbooks alongside the religious ones - belong to Christmas only by association. And two years ago, a kidfolk feature on songs originally taken from TV specials led us again towards songs which serve to skin the proverbial cat, offending none, yet retaining the spark of the spirit.

So here’s today’s roast with the fat trimmed, a re-collated set of songs which celebrate the season without yawing into the twinned, polar harbors of religion or marketing. You’ll find neither mangers nor malls here; instead, you’ll find stories of homecoming, love, and longing, and plenty of simple paeans to both the quiet peacefulness and the raucous joy of snow. Some are romantic ballads; others were penned for children, and speak to the utter glee of the winter world. But all acknowledge the season authentically, even spiritually, without bringing Christmas, church, or commerce into the mix.

Whether you choose to mix them in among the larger canon or not, for the sake of your neighbors and your children, remember to play nice this year. Honoring those who wish to eschew religiosity while retaining the spiritual center of the season may not always come easy, but it’s always worth the work.

    If this Paul Williams-penned tune wasn’t familiar from two of Jim Henson’s most magical Christmas specials ever, it would fit perfectly in the gospelfolk canon. Here, on a live radio cover posted on her own blog a while back, singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani comes on sweet and rough, delivering a gorgeously balanced take which manages to let the faintest hint of the season creep in through a sparse, bell-like hand on the piano. Head back to last year’s Polenzani holiday feature to hear a produced version of the title track.

    Gordon Lightfoot’s mellow Song For A Winter’s Night fits the folk mindset perfectly: the hearth, the snow, the story of us in a house. Sarah McLachlan’s ubiquitous pop cover is a bit too too, but a spare cover from Erica Wheeler and the rich harmonies of Canadian folk supergroup Quartette do it justice, twice over.

    Solo indie darling and occasional Grizzly Bear cohort Robin Allender takes on the theme to the poignantly silent British holiday classic The Snowman with aplomb. Worth seeing and worth hearing, lest we forget that not all children grow up American.

    An instrumental two-fer from a man I saw wow a standing-room-only workshop stage crowd this summer. Pretty sure they were recorded for the same set originally, but I picked up the first from the country-grass collection A Very Special Acoustic Christmas, and the second from Putumayo’s delightfully fun A Family Christmas collection, and recommend both.

    Trifectas are great, when we can find ‘em, and this one’s a gem, with three mellow yet vastly different takes on an increasingly old pop standard. Fiddle-playing post-folk singer-songwriter Laura Cortese turns in a slow plucked beauty, and indie duo A Weather goes dreamy, although with holiday bells. Oh, and keep an ear open here and elsewhere for more new work from Joel Rakes, whose yearly song-a-week holiday series has already begun with wonderful folkpop versions of both Deck The Halls and Hark! The Herald Angels.

    My favorite surprisingly quiet version of a jinglebell sleighride carol you forgot wasn’t about Christmas. From the mistress of authentic kidfolk, who’s been absent from these pages far too long.

    When she was little, my youngest daughter had a snowman fetish; she’d pull the old Rankin-Bass animated classic off the library shelf regardless of the season, and I caught her dancing to the credits more than once. Fiona Apple isn’t usually this folk, but her solo acoustic guitar version of the tune which started it all, via 2005 alt-rock compilation Christmas Calling, comes off as perfect lusty singer-songwriter fare.

    Two wonderful finds from previous years, for those sick of the same old soul: a sweet amateur folk duet from Hanft and Yonack, and an unusually sparse solo turn on uke and voice from still-rising star Allo, Darlin’, way back in her 2008 lo-fi demo days.

    Okay, it mentions Christmas in the first line. But Joni Mitchell’s song isn’t about Christmas, it’s about yearning for home and family, escape and empowerment. And Rosie Thomas does it so sweetly, skipping the darkness for the light.

    David Pomeranz wrote it, and Dayna Manning’s excellent folkpop version rings of Aimee Mann and fellow Canadians Chantal Kreviazuk and Sarah McLachlan, but it took John Denver and his beloved Muppets to make it famous in the late seventies. And so we end where we began: remembering Jim Henson, whose Christmas specials brought us so much joy as children, and still do, today.

Looking for something a little more Christmas-y? Come back Sunday for a set of true holy day hymns - and, in the meanwhile, don’t forget to check out these past Holiday Coverfolk posts.

Category: Holiday Coverfolk

5 Responses to “Secular Seasonals & Nondenominational Carols:
Snowsongs, sleigh rides, & more folk covers for a winter’s night

  1. Hal B

    I think it was you who posted a great cover of “I’ve got my love to keep me warm” by Sophie Madeleine a while ago, which fits into this theme somewhat.

  2. boyhowdy

    GREAT call, Hal B! Click here for Sophie Madeleine’s delightful take on Irving Berlin!

  3. Darrick Corchado

    I grew up with everything focused on Christmas Eve, we would bring in and decorate the Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve, go to Christmas Sauna within the evening, and afterwards open the presents. No bedtime either, but I would typically fall asleep playing before morning came. Christmas Day was spent doing not a heck of a whole lot, eating what was leftover from Christmas Eve dinner, having fun with new toys and such things. Now that we have our own kids, our traditions are a mish-mash of nordic, german and north american traditions. The kids put their shoes out on the windowsill during nights leading to Christmas, and Santa fills them with candy. Christmas Eve is family christmas time, so we do presents at my inlaws with my wife’s family. Christmas morning is santa present time. Christmas dinner is moved to Christmas Day.

  4. Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, Covered — Cover Lay Down

    [...] Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, CoveredSecular Seasonals & Nondenominational Carols: Snowsongs, sleigh rides, & more folk covers …Covered In Folk: Nick Drake (18 covers from Beck, Lucinda Williams, Solas & more!)Chanukah [...]

  5. Larry

    That’s Fiona Apple? She sounds like Michele Shocked! I love it! Thanks for the post!

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