4 American Christmas Songs That Get to the Heart of the Season
Many Christmas songs from around the world are old – centuries old. And I love them! But when it comes to holiday tunes from the U.S., we have no such history. Our oldest offerings date from the middle of the 19th century, and those that are best-known come from the middle of the 20th.
But those songs, as enjoyable as they are, are all about Santa, sleigh rides, and shopping. Sure, I get nostalgic about Gene Autry's rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Same with "The Christmas Song," a 1946 hit by Nat King Cole that begins "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...."
But then there are songs like Perry Como's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," with "toys in every store." Or Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," with a long list of expensive gifts desired from the ultimate sugar daddy for his "awful good girl." These songs are good fun – and so very American.
The true meaning of Christmas
I've written about Christmas carols each holiday on the blog (here are links from 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018). This year I want to share some wonderful American Christmas songs that are about the true message of Christmas.
1. Do You Hear What I Hear
Written in 1962 by husband-and-wife duo Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, this song was a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As two nuclear superpowers threatened each other, World War II veteran Regney feared the onset of another war. All he could think about was his desire for peace.
"Do You Hear What I Hear" tells a loose rendition of Jesus' lowly birth, attended by shepherds, heralded by a star, and bringing peace to people everywhere.
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night,He will bring us goodness and light.
Here's the classic recording by Bing Crosby, and a newer rendition beautifully sung by Whitney Houston, backed up by Pentatonix. I know you'll love both.
2. I Wonder as I Wander
Collected by John Jacob Niles in rural Appalachia in 1933, this folk song asks the question, "Why did Jesus come to die for people like us?" The lyrics describe how Jesus was born "in a cow's stall" even though he was a King.
Originally performed by Niles as he accompanied himself on a handmade dulcimer, recordings include those by Julie Andrews (the singer who inspired me – at age 4 – to become a singer too), Joan Baez, and even a cool jazz interpretation by Grover Washington, Jr.
High from God's heaven a star's light did fall,And the promise of ages it then did recall.
3. Go Tell It on the Mountain
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" is an African-American spiritual collected by John Wesley Work, Jr. and first published in 1907. It was performed in the late 19th century by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble that toured the country singing spirituals to raise money for Fisk University, one of the first institutions offering higher education to freed slaves.
Go tell it on the mountain,Over the hills and everywhere.
Check out this fantastic performance by the great Mahalia Jackson, and another by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby together (!), backed by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians.
4. Mary, Did You Know?
The lyrics to this song were written in 1984 by Mark Lowry, but not set to music until Buddy Greene got hold of them in 1991. Lowry has said that he imagined having a conversation with Mary, the mother of Jesus, over a cup of coffee, and asking her what it was like to watch her baby boy become a man who could still storms, heal the sick, and raise the dead. It's a meditation on the true nature of Jesus.
Mary, did you know that your baby boyIs Lord of all creation?
The song has been recorded hundreds of times in the past 30 years, but one of my favorites is this version by Pentatonix.
Celebrate the season
If you'd like to listen to a stream of these American Christmas songs as you continue to prepare for the holiday, here is the link. Our songs aren't the oldest, and they often focus on the trees and treats of the season, or on family gatherings and lost loves. But along with "Sleigh Ride" and "White Christmas," these four tunes deserve to be heard and sung each year.
P.S. If you like Pentatonix as much as I do, you're going to want more of their music. The album The Best of Pentatonix Christmas* is available on CD, vinyl, for download, and to stream on Amazon. There are 19 songs, and you're going to play them over and over.
* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.