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Musical encouragement for Christmas 2020

It’s Christmas 2020 and nothing is as it should be, it seems—or at least, it’s not the sort of holiday season we’ve come to expect. To provide some holiday encouragement this year, we’ve compiled a list of Christmas songs from some of the Western Territory’s musicians, with comments about why their selections are special to them. While some of the songs are well-known, perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve considered the words and their deeper meaning. For other songs, not so well-known, YouTube links are provided for listening.

Music is an effective way to create a mood—perhaps you will experience the wonder and joy—and ultimately the hope Christ brings—through these songs.

1. “Silent Night”

Suzanne Miller, Tustin Ranch (California) Corps 

One silent night—before phones, shopping malls, fast food, and cars came into existence—our Lord, Jesus Christ, came to this place we live as an infant child. We get so distracted by our day-to-day routines throughout the year that we gloss over the fact that our Creator came to Earth to give us a chance at eternal life with him (something none of us deserves). Without this momentous occasion, we’d be condemned to an eternity away from God. The hymn, “Silent Night,” reminds me that “silence” is a good thing and that the best thing to ever happen to the human race happened on a “silent” night. 

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

Original German lyrics by Joseph Mohr (1818)
Translation by John Freeman Young (1859)

2. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

Lt. Erin L. Wikle, Santa Monica (California) Corps Officer & Silvercrest Coordinator

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Originally written in Latin and dating back to the 1700s, its melody is haunting and unusual. At first listen, its lyrics could be mistaken as melancholy, but the words, “Rejoice, Rejoice!” ring with prophetic power and are wrought with hopefulness. This song is about redemption, rescue—reconciling man with the Messiah. Its message—needed then, now and forevermore.  

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

3. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Joy Yi, Tustin Ranch Corps

This year, the line, “O tidings of comfort and joy,” has been on repeat in my head. I think we often equate comfort with cozy, especially in this winter season. We see cozy blankets and sweaters everywhere. But I’ve often been reminded in songsters that the word comfort means “with strength.”  We can find strength knowing that Christ came to earth as God’s rescue plan to free us from sin and to bring us back to him. We can be that source of strength for someone else when there is so much confusion, brokenness and injustice in this world. That news of comfort and joy are worth sharing!

4. “This Little Babe”

Cadet Kate Wohlman, Messengers of Reconciliation Session, College for Officer Training at Crestmont

I’m going to sayThis Little Babe from Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.” The striking lyrics (the text is from 16th century poet Robert Southwell) set the scene of an urgent juxtaposition of a fragile, little baby against the military, mighty evil of Satan. The frantic nature of the music leads to a unison reassurance that God himself will be our guard, our protector, when we join with Christ in the fight.

5. “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Barbara Allen, Western Territory Staff Songster Leader

My favorite Christmas carol is “In the Bleak Midwinter” (words, Christina Rosetti; tune, “Cranham” by Gustav Holst). The melancholy melody of this carol and the beautiful, poetic words just pull me in and remind me of cold winters at home as a child in the north of England, sitting by a crackling fire watching the wild weather outside; it felt so safe and secure. 

Today, whenever I sing this Christmas carol it takes me back to those days and reminds me that, in this current “stormy” season of fear, uncertainty and loss, Jesus is still there. Our minds are crowded with worries and concerns, but he speaks through the storm. This carol not only refers to Christ’s birth, but also to his coming again 

(Verse 2: “Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign”); and what is the requirement in order to receive this gift from God? (Verse 4: “What can I give Him, poor as I am?) We only have to offer our hearts to love, adore and worship him. In the middle of all of life’s storms, including the one we face today, this carol brings calm and great encouragement to my soul. 

6. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Jingle Bell Rock”

Rachel-Ann Bach, Roseville (California) Corps Youth Activities Coordinator 

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” is significantly important to me because the shepherds listened to the angels singing to adore the new-born king. That response needs to be immediate in our lives when God calls us, because he always knows what is best no matter how incredibly awesome or difficult the situation may be.

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” is my favorite Christmas song because it says we should proclaim Jesus’ birth from the mountaintops. Jesus was sent from heaven to accomplish incredible things and his birth is just the start of a whole lot of awesomeness!

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms is my all-time favorite secular Christmas song because I remember my Lolo and Lola placing a hip-swaying Santa Claus in their living room, where we would always gather the family together. The song reminds me of such amazing memories of laughing too loud and eating tons of delicious food with my family in an incredible time of celebration of Jesus’ birth.

7. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Derek Helms, Western Territorial Music Department Director of Operations

I have always been fond of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Lewis Henry Redner. Especially the lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. 

This reminds me of John 1:3-5 (MSG):

What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

8. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “King of Kings,” “The First Noel,” paired with “Hallelujah Here Below”

John Opina, Cascade Divisional Music & Worship Arts Director

I always see the birth of Jesus as a dichotomy of sorts: on one hand you have this expectant miracle child who will be the savior of all people, and on the other you have this very real situation where the king has ordered the execution of all babies in the area. What a time to live! For me, these three songs speak to this dilemma.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful”—This song can give off not only the feeling of joyful exuberance of the newborn King, but also this quiet, intimate moment with a baby boy. Imagine a scene in which the angels above are singing, but Mary and Joseph, and later the wise men, are whispering the words, “O come let us adore him,” so as to not wake him. This feeling of chaos and joy can be experienced today: yes, there’s much around us that can take our joy away, but having our hope in him we know there are better days ahead. For a fun alternative to this song, I’d also suggest “Let us adore” by David Binion, which accurately depicts the abundant joy about his birth!

King of Kings” (Hillsong)—While not a Christmas song per se, this does bring forth the reason for Jesus’ birth, to be an atoning sacrifice for humanity. This song could also be used for Easter as it refers to the trinity. How does this give hope this season? God has a plan! And as he told the Israelites as they were wandering in the desert, his plan is for good. Many of us could be in the desert in our lives today, wondering why we cling to a faith in God, but he has shown time and time again his plan always comes to fruition. We have hope that this is just a season and that God has something much greater planned for our future if we cling to him.

“The First Noel,” paired with “Hallelujah Here Below” (Elevation Worship)—I love the inclusivity of this song: poor shepherds and wise men, which to me simply means Jesus was born for all! Indeed, Jesus was birthed to fulfill God’s promise to his people, but Jesus, and salvation, was available to all—and it’s the same today. From the perceived lowest to highest in our society, everyone can experience love, joy, peace, hope and salvation through Christ. Musically, pair the hymn with the chorus of the popular “Hallelujah Here Below” and it can be an anthem of praise.

Lastly, and strictly musical, “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst is probably one of my favorite tunes ever.

9. “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Daniel Prince, Del Oro Divisional Music & Worship Director

I find encouragement in the song “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It describes a dark, cold winter that I think closely parallels how many feel about these past months dealing with COVID. Despite the cold, the last verse reminds us that what we have, no matter how small it may seem, is enough. 

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

10. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Phillips Brooks 1835-1893)

Neil A Smith, Western Territorial Music Secretary

I’ve always enjoyed the word pictures painted in this carol, especially in verse 3, which says: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” There was no fuss or fanfare—just God sending his son, for the sake of all mankind. And even today, with uncertainty all around, we can still relate to verse four, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” God is still here—we just need to ask him in.

11. “A Cradle in Bethlehem”

Marlon Jones, Southwest Divisional Music & Gospel Arts Director

One of my favorite Christmas songs is A Cradle in Bethlehem (Al Bryan, Larry Stock). This song brings back memories of my childhood. I remember my father (Salvation Army officer, now deceased) coming home from Christmas duties; he would power up the record player and play Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. What makes it special was hearing him sing along with the songs, especially “A Cradle in Bethlehem.”

12. “In the Face of a Child” and “Someday at Christmas”

Karen Gleason, New Frontier Publications Senior Editor

Here’s a song that may not be known to many people, especially those who don’t identify as Salvationists: “In the Face of a Child” (John Gowans/John Larsson). This hauntingly beautiful song indeed speaks the truth of God’s love—a truth to hold onto during these difficult days. The chorus says: 

God is hidden no more,
He has spoken his mind;
Wrapped the gift of his love
In the stuff of mankind.
Now his nature is known:
God is Love undefiled.
And his love is revealed
In the face of a child.

My favorite secular Christmas song is “Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder, with its powerful and timely message.

13. “Once in Royal David’s City” and “The Little Drummer Boy”

Stephen Yalden, Intermountain Divisional Music Director

Although I have many favorite Christmas carols, these two are special to me. “Once in Royal David’s City” is not often sung here in the United States, but as a boy growing up in England, I heard it a lot. Now, when I hear it or play it, it brings back many happy Christmas memories. I particularly like these two verses:

For he is our childhood’s pattern.
Day by day, like us He grew.
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew.
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love.
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

In “The Little Drummer Boy,” we meet a poor, young boy summoned by the magi to the nativity of Jesus. Without a gift for the infant, the little drummer boy played his drum with approval from Jesus’ mother, Mary, recalling, “I played my best for him” and “He smiled at me.” As a drummer myself who has played this song many times, it brings a smile to my face. My favorite version of this carol is the recording by Bing Crosby and David Bowie.

For more encouraging and uplifting Christmas music, check out the Salvation Army Song Book Devotional series on Facebook, which this year brings together the creative efforts from seven different Salvation Army territories around the world.


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Karen Gleason

Karen Gleason is Senior Editor of Caring, having worked in Salvation Army publications for 20 years. She is an active member of The Salvation Army, and loves its message of “Doing The Most Good” and its mission of serving others and sharing God’s love, of meeting human needs in Jesus’ name without discrimination. Her work allows her to share the stories of how The Salvation Army makes a positive difference in the world—stories that may inspire readers to do good themselves. Many years ago, Karen earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia. When not working, she practices and teaches yoga, cuddles her cats (she only has four), and takes adventures with her family.