One of the nicest features of Advent and Christmas is that the unique carols of these seasons are a wonderful aid to meditation. You can be on your morning commute or out for a jog or pulling a pie out of the oven and, with music on in the background, you find yourself singing along and suddenly you’re swept into a moment of grace by the combination of profound lyric and gorgeous melody.
I’m not sure why it is, but there is something about folk melody – by which I mean the melodies each culture passes on along with its legends and traditional foods as opposed to the 1960s musical movement—that is particularly beautiful and moving, and most Advent and Christmas songs are set to these old tunes.
My mom trained to sing professionally and has a lovely clear-as-a-bell soprano. She used to give an annual holiday concert at the church I grew up in and spend literally the whole year gathering the most glorious (or sometimes humorous) carols from all over the globe. So us kids had the benefit of a wide repertoire of Christmas music which was fun – because music is fun—and a blessing because the religious imagery and melodies from every land are so rich.
When I converted to Catholicism, I began to have a similar interest in Advent carols and to “collect” them as an aid to entering into the Church’s joyful waiting. I try to learn a new one each Advent season. Here are some favorites, just in case you would like to branch out beyond O Come, O Come Emmanuel….which is wonderful, but I get tired of it when we have to hear it all Advent long. (There, I said it.) Besides, since that song is just the "O" antiphons of the December 17-23 liturgy put to music, it's nice, liturgically speaking, to save it for late in Advent.
Here are several of my favorites with descriptions, and a list of a few others for good measure. My links are to whatever pops up easily on an internet search just so you can learn them – they aren’t necessarily favorite performances. Once you know what you like you can look for them in a style that suits your fancy: in solo or choral form, or twinkly piano music. They are all lovely in melody and an encouragement for the heart if you let the words sink in.
People, Look East. Another French selection, this is an ancient carol that’s probably my favorite Advent carol due to the profound words by the deeply Catholic Eleanor Farjeon. She compares the coming Christ to a seed, a young bird, a coming star. The line, “even the hour when wings are frozen He for fledging time has chosen” gives me chills each time I sing it.
Gabriel's Song is based on an old Basque carol, as you can hear in the haunting refrain.
When The King Shall Come Again. This one was my obsession last Advent season --especially the third verse. What an image!
"Now the deaf shall hear the dumb sing away their weeping; blind eyes see the injured come walking, running, leaping!"
Like almost all hymns, it should not be performed at the dirge pace choirs and congregations drag them to, but more like a march. Sing those lines in triumphant march tempo and imagine that glorious day!
The King Shall Come. This vies with People Look East to be my favorite. I believe the achingly lovely melody to be Russian, but it’s the lyrics that pierce my heart – sing all the verses!
Those are five favorites. Here are a several more just to round out your selections.
I Sing A Maid (lovely contemporary hymn)
Rejoice, Rejoice Believers (I can't find the melody I know, but the lyrics are still wonderful)
For a change of pace, when Advent has passed and you’re ready for Christmas music, here’s a bouncy novelty song you won’t have heard before. Joseph & Mary in a Stable & a Baby Boy. It’s just released by my cousin, Michael Cariello. Not touching like a carol, but a lot of fun!
Do you have a favorite Advent carol not listed here? Leave a comment – I would love to know it.