Category Archives: Musical notes

Carols you aren’t sick of hearing

I have a mad love for Christmas carols. Even so, I find that some are egregiously overplayed.  By December 3rd, I have already heard “Sleigh Ride” often enough to last me comfortably through the rest of the month.  So I have a fondness for the slightly more obscure Christmas carols, the ones that you don’t hear piped into malls and on the radiowaves.

Such as the Wexford Carol, an Irish carol of extraordinary beauty.  Here it is, sung by Alison Krauss with accompaniment by Yo-Yo Ma.

Another lovely carol is the Basque carol called “Gabriel’s Message,” about the angel’s visit to Mary.  It’s been covered memorably by Sting, but I like this particular group’s rendition for its simplicity.

For a more secular change of pace, there’s the catchy “The Christmas Waltz.”  Bing Crosby sings it here, in a production number that is the height of 60s retro awesomeness.

“Mary’s Little Boy Child” is also a moving song that I’d love to hear far more often.  Here it is, sung by Harry Belafonte. (Andy Williams also did a beautiful rendition.)


“The Sussex Carol” is lighthearted and lovely, and it’s sung here by The Priests (three guys who really are priests).  It always makes me feel like I should be wandering around in the snow with holly and ivy and wassail.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the English composer John Rutter, who has penned some astonishingly beautiful carols.  Here’s my favorite of them,  Angel’s Carol.  It’s not the Christmas season for me until I’ve heard this song.

What are your favorite underplayed Christmas songs?

Musical prayer: The Deer’s Cry

I first heard “The Deer’s Cry” on retreat a year ago.  One of the retreat leaders played it for a morning prayer, and it is, I feel confident saying, probably the best song I can think of to greet a new day.

I arise today 
Through the strength of heaven
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea
Stability of earth, firmness of rock.

The lyrics are based on a longer prayer attributed to St. Patrick, though apparently some believe it was written later, around the eighth century.

I arise to-day
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s eyes to look before me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
From all who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul

See what I mean?  This is very good thing to hear early in the morning.  Even if your resident cruel merciless power is nothing worse than a bad morning commute, it helps to be reminded that you don’t face it alone.

Christ with me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ in me

Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ on my right 
Christ on my left

I don’t just listen to this song in the morning. It helps me at any time of day when I feel vulnerable.  When my mother-in-law was dying last summer, and Scott was in New York with her, I remember listening to this song alone on the sofa after the kids were in bed, and I cried and cried but it was the kind of crying I needed to do.  And I thought about Joan’s life, and all of our lives really, and how we may not always know it, but the world is positively saturated with the presence of Christ; we can’t escape it, thank God.

It’s a truly beautiful song.  If you don’t know it, take a listen.  There are a few versions on YouTube but somehow I really like this one, in spite of the bad video quality.  It’s a singer named Rita Connolly singing at the inauguration of the Irish president Michael D. Higgins.

It’s a shaky recording, but it’s a rare chance to witness the song sung in the context of real life.  You get to see all the people at the inauguration listening to the words and, I’d venture to guess, finding the day that much better for hearing them.   That’s always true for me, at least.

Do you hear what I hear? — Praying with the carols


“Favorite Christmas Carols” is the book on my mother’s piano. Its paperback cover shows a 1960s-era drawing of Victorian carolers singing by lamplight. There are a few elongated circles scribbled on the cover, courtesy of my cousin Tim who, thirty years ago, spent several happy minutes alone with a pen and my mother’s sheet music. 

The pages are fragile with age, and are splitting from the binding. But within those covers are sturdy, beautiful memories of family Christmases, of singing carols around the piano with relatives and friends.

Simple line illustrations decorate each song. “O Come Little Children” shows a boy and girl on rocking horses, near a sign pointing the way to Bethlehem (“They won’t get very far on those horses,” my sister and I used to quip). “Go, Tell it On the Mountain” features a man standing on a jagged cliff, stretching to touch to a faraway star.

I know those images and lyrics by heart. I adore that book. Every year that I can remember, it has heralded the season of Christ’s birth, filling my mind with song.

Even today, I’m a Christmas music junkie. I delay my indulgence until after Thanksgiving (I believe in giving that beautiful holiday its due). But when Black Friday comes, I’m never at the malls. I’m at home, happily sorting through CDs of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the Harry Simeone Chorale.

Though I love “Rudolph” and “Marshmallow World,” I have a particular affinity for the religious songs that we sang around the piano. They ground me during a season that feels far too frenetic. Though I try not to be caught in the spin cycle of holiday stress, I always am. Trips to the mall and post office, December weekend traffic – the immediate needs of the season can creep like frost over the windshield of my vision, obscuring my view of the Incarnation.

But listening to a religious carol – “Silent Night,” John Rutter’s “The Angels’ Carol,” or my father’s favorite, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming “— can melt those distractions away. Those songs always help my harried holiday self settle on the beautiful mystery at the heart of the season. My favorite way to pray during December is to curl up on the couch and listen to those songs, staring at the fireplace or a lit candle, letting that wavering light and those waves of music seep into my bones and saturate me with the beauty of Christ’s coming. The songs restore and renew me, always.

And now that my son is three, I’m realizing that the carols are not just for me. As I wonder how to help Matthew find Jesus among all of the tinsel and gifts, I’m learning anew the power of music. In the car, at home, my son hears what I hear. Just as these carols sank into my bones years ago, so they are sinking into his: one little child learning about the birth of another little child, the sweetest story ever set to music. 

Yes, this is one from the archives, from 2009 (!).  But though my youngest son is now older than Matthew was when I wrote this, my love for carols hasn’t abated.  And my mom still has the book of Christmas songs on her piano each holiday season.  

A song for parents

Sometimes, when I tell my kids to put away their toys and I have to repeat myself five times before they actually do, I wonder if they hear anything I say.

And then there are other times when, completely out of the blue, they reference something I said months earlier.  It comes back, that obscure comment I made, and I’m always astonished to discover that the kids not only listen to what I say, they retain it.  It makes me realize that a parent’s words are more powerful than I tend to think.

That’s why I love this song.  It’s  by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, sung here by the incomparable Bernadette Peters.

Careful the things you say 
Children will listen

Enjoy the music, the singing, and – if you’re a parent – the gentle reminder.

Gratitude, Beach Boys-style

Pandora keeps me guessing.  Every now and then, random rock songs slip into the lineup of Broadway anthems on the Showtunes channel (one of my current faves), and just like that, we’ve gone from  Idina Menzel to The Beach Boys.

Specifically, we go to this song from The Beach Boys, which I’ve heard at least ten times in the last few days:

I can’t complain about the mixing of genres, because I really do love this song. (You’ve heard it before, right?)  God only knows what I’d be without you say the lyrics, over and over and over. God only knows what I’d be without you.  Simple, but effective.

Because somewhere around the fifth time I heard this song last week, I started to think that maybe there’s an opportunity for mindfulness here.  If I were going to dedicate this song to someone, whom would I choose?  Who are the “God only knows what I’d be without you” folks in my own life?

The choices just kept rolling in.

My folks, for unconditional love for forty-one-plus years.

My husband, for proving that good guys do exist and are interested in me  (and for always solving my technology problems).

A doctor of my past, for catching something before it turned into something very very bad.

My writing friend, who encouraged me to take my personal scribblings to a wider audience.

My sister, for a lifetime of laughs that have sustained me through any number of challenges.

A terrific therapist, for helping me finally take on  my OCD several years ago.

My kids, for pulling me out of myself and for stretching me in ways that I need to be stretched.

Some key friends over the years, who have helped me sift through all of my questions about faith.

What’s great is that I could keep going and going.  But I’ll stop here, because now it’s your turn.   Who are the “God only knows what I’d be without you” people in your own life?

If you have a minute, try making a list.   It’s a revealing exercise, and — to use a Beach Boys-inspired metaphor — a surefire way to find yourself surfing a tidal wave of gratitude.