The Balm for the Bleak Midwinter

If I could give one gift to all of my friends and family, as well as complete strangers on the internet, it would be a perfect soundtrack to carry them through the dark, hopeful nights of the advent season.

I have been devoted to Christmas music since I was a teen, adding one new Christmas CD to my collection every winter. Remember those days? They are all still socked away in a CD accordion, and instead the songs make their annual appearance via my snappy demands to Alexa, resident music robot.

I have pretty much everything, all the classics from Bing Crosby to Tchaikovsky, to best-of mixes, operatic one-offs like Josh Groban and even Sting’s subdued winter meditation.

But one Christmas album rises above the rest like that first star of Bethlehem:

James Taylor at Christmas. It is absolutely perfect.

That presesnt he’s holding out to you? ACCEPT IT.

It isn’t just his gorgeous, familiar voice that serves as the ideal Christmas comfort. It’s much more than that.

He curated the song choices better than a sommelier selecting wine for one of the Queen’s state dinners. It’s obvious that his final choices were deliberate and thoughtful, full of intention, restraint and excellent taste.

And the collaborations!

Winter Wonderland – with Chris Botti (!)
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Jingle Bells
Baby It’s Cold Outside – with Natalie Cole (!)
River
Here Comes the Sun – with Yo Yo Ma (!)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Some Children See Him
Mon Beau Sapin
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Who Comes This Night
In the Bleak Midwinter
Auld Lang Syne

The only ones I ever occasionally skip are Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, because they’re the frivolous two. The rest I listen to dozens of times between the day after Thanksgiving and January third.

Over time I’ve come to believe that most Christmas songs have one artist whose version is so spectacular that they essentially own it, and efforts by other artists are but earnest imitations.

For instance, Bing Crosby created the greatest selling single of all time – of any song, this is an unbelievable, but true, fact – White Christmas. Sinatra might as well be renamed Santa with his jauntiest version of Jingle Bells. It’s 1960’s nostalgia for days when Nat King Cole begins The Christmas Song. All hail the Boss when Springsteen rocks Santa Claus is Coming to Town. You may actually fall on your knees at Celine Dion’s O Holy Night, and Luther Vandross leaves everybody in his wake in his triumphant rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful.

That’s why his efforts on these songs are so mesmerizing — he (and his team) created fresh arrangements for well-known songs, keeping them familiar but elevating each one so you find yourself marveling that it was ever sung any other way. Here Comes the Sun is not a Christmas song, but in his arrangement, you find yourself believing it was always intended as a Swedish hymn to carry us through the winter solstice.

I usually find Go Tell It on the Mountain to be a bit of a grating Sunday school-type melody, eliciting feelings of a teacher admonishing students to evangelize. In James’ hands, it nearly brings me to tears. He altered the lyrics to convey seeking after the Lord and being saved, and it transforms the song from universal to deeply personal.

When he sings River, it’s so gorgeous and sad, Joni Mitchell herself probably hears it and has to pause in her Christmas hustle to marvel and then pull it together.

One might think it’s Kate Winslet’s weeping in her cozy English cottage that breaks your heart in The Holiday, but no, it’s that she’s listening to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by James Taylor. Nancy Meyers was aware of this album’s brilliance long before I was — the album came out the same year the movie did: 2006.

The reason this album is so transcendent is that it can suit any situation. Driving in the car? Beautiful. Cooking or baking? Suddenly enjoyable. Gathering of friends? Soundtrack to your memories. I use it in all these scenarios, including mailing Christmas cards and wrapping gifts. It never ages.

Of course, I listen to all manner of other Christmas music through December, but JT is my bedrock. Every year an artist tries to enter the cannon to be established as a classic, but most fall short. We don’t want to be screamed at (I’m looking at you, Kelly Clarkson). We can tell when it’s overdone (ahem, Carrie Underwood). We know when it’s empty drivel (Katy Perry, obviously). We can also begrudgingly love a song we fully intended to hate (Taylor Swift and her blasted Tree Farm).

(I admitted that last one to Amy while we were in Nashville and she told me her friend bought Taylor’s actual uncle’s Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, and that connection gave me permission to love it without reserve.)

I asked my sister if it was crazy to write about my passion for James Taylor’s Christmas album, and she said, “No! When ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ comes on, I can barely keep it together.” I felt so seen. That song brings me to my knees.

The reverence is what keeps me coming back. He could have chosen a dozen Christmas standards, recorded them as written, completely phoned it in, and still sold/streamed millions of records. Instead, he made unexpected, thoughtful song selections with lyrics that catch your ear, rather than fly by unnoticed like so many Christmas songs. A huge part of the joy of Christmas music is that the One Great True Story of God’s love for us is being told over airwaves for an entire month. But often we know them so well, we barely hear the words.

In Who Comes This Night, which was written by Dave Grusin specifically for this album, he sings, “Who sends this song upon the air, to ease the soul that’s aching? To still the cry of deep despair and heal the heart that’s breaking.” It’s the tenderest song about approaching this newborn stranger, “for those who would the stranger greet, must lay their heart before him, and raise their song in voices sweet, to worship and adore him.”

All that when he could have just sung Joy to the World in two takes and been done with it. This is why he’s our homegrown American legend.

For now, today, listen to his spellbinding timbre as he holds the last note in the line, “In a year our troubles will be miles away.” You’ll find that it’s so beautiful you believe it, but his voice is so heart-rending, you know he knows it isn’t true. Which somehow makes his attempt to comfort us all the more endearing.

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