Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, Covered

As a defining event at the heart of the Western world’s most dominant religion, the Christmas story is perhaps the most sung-about narrative in history. But it’s not just religious importance which makes Christ’s birth so present in the air and the airwaves. The prophecy foretold; the kings, the star, the road; Bethlehem and the manger; Mary and Joseph - as a text, the multifaceted story breaks down into a dozen moments, stretching far enough for a myriad of narrative approaches, from a multiplicity of perspectives. And whether we grow up in Christianity or just aware of its vitality, there’s no denying that the importance of the coming Christian Mass, and the long slide into the season which precedes it, begs for a diversity of song, to sustain the fold as the season draws nigh.

Which is not to deny the immense driving force which culture itself has brought to the fore in spreading this particular gospel, either. The way in which singing and hearing Christmas has become a social phenomenon far beyond the trappings of pews and preacher - in home and hearth, in the community hall and the streetlight carol-sing - has only spread further the demand for a rich and eminently singable songbook. And as its time frame stretches back into November, driven by stores desperate to sell us a commodified Christmas spirit, batteries not included, the modern cry for spirituality in the midst of an ever-expanding commercial culture only strengthens our desire for the authentic.

The result is a canon unparalleled in scope. And where one finds such a vast array of song, coupled with the modern tendency to filter the stories of the past through both community and celebration, it is inevitable that we will find such song in the hands of the people. Indeed, it may be fair to say that there are more folk songs - and more folk versions of songs - about the various events surrounding the birth of Jesus than about any other single event in history, bar none.

There is heavy irony in this, of course. For much of the last several thousand years, the folk tradition and the Church tradition represented opposite, even opposed poles of the musical spectrum, with the Church struggling to displace the folk element with the imposed formality of its own liturgy.

But as we have noted time and time again here at Cover Lay Down, to pursue the folkways is to engage with common, shared understanding of the universe in ways that create communion. And for those of us who sing and listen to find the world in ourselves and ourselves in the world, to take familiar songs with deep meaning and a high recognition factor - such as those of our church childhoods - and filter them through intimate performance, is the very core of this practice.

Which makes for ample choice, when compiling a collection of acoustic and folk versions of Christian hymns and canticles for the holiest of seasons.

Indeed, even in source material, we find a broad selection. Many of the Christ child songs are “newer” hymns penned in and for churches; others come from old poems set to music by later generations, gospel spirituals grafted in the fields of the American south, true folktunes penned in homage to history by singer-songwriters. Regardless of their origin, their modern place among the canon speaks clearly to the relevance of true Christmas music throughout the ages. And though them, we celebrate the birth of every child, and of the presence of the holy spirit in our lives.

What follows, then, is by no means definitive, neither in song nor in version. But the songs I have chosen represent what I consider the core of the Christian mix for my own Jewnitarian home, where we struggle each season to honestly explain each diverse element in a world rich in faith and practice, allowing the true history of Christian retelling to take its place among the Buddhist and pagan elements, the humanistic and Jewish rituals which drive our multicultural household, even as we continue to profess our own core beliefs in something else entirely as part and parcel of raising healthy seekers.

Which is to say: you’ll find no Christian sermon here. But as a multitude of choir liturgies taught me as a child myself, to seek both deep joy and solace for the soul is anathema to a practice of exclusion. Here, then, are quiet songs of meaning, with joy and peace on a depth that transcends belief - even as they recount Christian teachings about a particular child, conceived of a particular mystery, foretold with a particular heavenly sign, born in a particular manger. Do What Thou Wilt with them, with my blessing for a truly meaningful holiday season, whatever you may practice.

See also Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 1: Christmas, (Re)Covered for new and newly-found holiday songs from singer-songwriters previously featured here on Cover Lay Down. Or, if you’re looking for something a bit more secular, why not try Wednesday’s feature set of Nondenominational Carols?

Category: Holiday Coverfolk

2 Responses to “Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, Covered”

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    [...] Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, Covered — Cover Lay Down – view page – cached Folkfan since childhood, coverfan since my teens. In my other life, I teach. In summer, I staff folk festivals. [...]

  2. carol

    Thank you so much for all the work you put into this. Beautiful words, beautiful music …. all good for the soul no matter what your beliefs. Happy Christmas-time!

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