I have bad news: I am that person who starts playing Christmas music as soon as Halloween is over.
Actually, I lied. I start playing Christmas music in September.
To avoid being banished universally by everyone around me, I use a sneaky trick: I play music that no one knows is Christmas music. Such as “The Boar’s Head Carol,” “The Wren in the Furze,” and the unpronounceable “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil.” (Other fun fact: Not only do I know how to pronounce that title in Irish Gaelic, I can actually sing the whole song.)
You see, I’ve always had a big thing for history. And so some of my Christmas music tastes go way back. I mean way back. “The Boar’s Head Carol” was written in the middle ages when a young Oxford student rammed his book down a boar’s throat when it charged him in the woods. The college then served the boar up for Christmas dinner, and wrote this song in the young scholar’s honor.
But I also listen to many of the oldies and goodies–which I carefully keep to myself until well in November.
Today, I thought I’d serve up a selection of my favorite Christmas albums–and to pay homage to my historical bent, I arranged them from “albums with everyone’s favorite” and worked my way backwards to “albums with the most ancient/unknown songs.” I hope you enjoy!
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Home For Christmas
by Amy Grant
I’m hopeful a lot of you already know this one. I hear tracks from this album in stores and malls during Christmas all the time! Originally released in 1992, this collection of holiday music has already stood the test of time–and I think it will for many years to come. Amy’s soulful singing combines with amazing acoustics, orchestra, and choir to create an experience that takes you everywhere from a playful stroll through the woods, to a reverent moment in church, to sipping coco by the fire. This album never fails to transport me.
My favorite track? That’s so hard! I love them all! But if I were forced to choose, I might say “The Night Before Christmas.”
by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Hello, retro! I’m hoping some of you recognize this album, too! Brass player Herb Alpert released it in 1968, and I listened to it the old-fashioned way when I was a kid–vinyl on a good, old-fashioned turn table! (Is there any better way to get sound?!) The upbeat brass band music on this album will have you dancing in your kitchen all day while the pies and cookies are in the oven.
My favorite track? Definitely “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle.”
by Ed Sweeney
I promise you’ve never heard of this one! But if you like really old-fashioned acoustic instrumentals, this is definitely the album for you. We’re talking banjos, hammered dulcimer, bones, and even a hand bell choir! I’ve done a lot of historical re-enacting in the past, and this album really puts me back in the 19th century.
My favorite track? Another hard choice! But I’m going to go with “Good King Wenceslas.”
The Bells of Dublin
by The Chieftains
You fans of Irish music–you’ll know what band I’m talking about! The Chieftains are probably the most famous (and almost certainly the longest-running) Irish band ever. They’ve been active since 1962! This album was released in 1991 and contains some of the most ancient and unheard-of holiday music I know, including many traditional pieces with forgotten origins. This album is boisterous and full of Celtic spirit. It’s also a little hard to get ahold of these days! Amazon streaming isn’t an option, and as I write this, Amazon advises that the CD usually ships within one to two months.
But it’s worth it.
My favorite track? “The Wren in the Furze.”
And since I can’t link you to the track, I’ll instead provide you the fascinating history on this song. This was a kind of wassailing song–wassailing being the tradition of singers going house-to-house begging for food and money. Think Christmas caroling combined with modern-day Halloween.
In Ireland specifically, an ancient tradition took place on St. Stephen’s Day–the day after Christmas. Boys and young men would go out in the woods to kill a wren, then put it in a little box and sing from house to house, asking for food and money to give the wren a wake. “The Wren in the Furze” is one of the songs they would sing.
There are layers up on layers of historical tales I could tell related to this one song–such as why the boys kill a wren and why the wren is called “the king of all birds” in the song. But doing so would seriously bunny trail this blog post! Instead, I’m going to recommend that you simply shop for this rare album and enjoy it’s incredibly vast array of holiday favorites and little-known tunes!
And that’s it! Four of my all-time favorite holiday albums. I hope you check them out, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
Need some reading while you listen? Here are today’s best-sellers!