Paul Berens

Songs of Good Cheer

Some of the most delightful, most hygge memories of the Christmases of my youth are anchored in yuletide music1, because for many years the centerpiece of my family’s Christmas preparation was a large, multigenerational caroling party the week before Christmas, featuring Mom at the piano. She’s sitting up as tall as can be on the bench, an enormous smile on her face, reflecting the joy of the season, but also in knowing she’s giving people something nearly no one else can. “Here we go, Everyone!” She isn’t waiting for a suggestion or cue; she’s the pianist and entertainer, but also very much the director. Mom is a very fine pianist in her own right, but where she really excels is in getting people singing by keeping it lively, transposing to the key that works for the majority of male and female voices, knowing when to cut it short and move to the next number, etc. (essentially a musical EQ or musical nunchi [눈치]). And so you were carried along with the spirit of it—even if caroling wasn’t your bag (e.g., some of my buds during our high school years)—to the point where each of us so looked forward to and came to rely upon this event as an indispensable part of our Christmas: joining voices with friends and neighbors and letting the exultant and solemn hymns wash over us again.

Ergo the primacy of Christmas music for me, and so here’s a little digital stocking stuffer: some of my favorite Christmas tracks, curated into a few YouTube Music playlists. It actually began as a single master list a number of years ago, which I’ve gradually both expanded and pruned and just this year split by genre2 because I was finding it jarring to jump among wildly different genres (e.g., going directly from Felix Mendelssohn’s Es wird ein Stern aus Jakob aufgehn into Whitney Houston’s Do You Hear What I Hear).

Without further ado…my Christmas essentials in five playlists:

I make no guarantees these don’t shift and evolve over time—or even on a whim. So that means input is welcome: what did I miss; which tracks should be tossed out with the fruitcake?

Merry Christmas,

— ᴘ. ᴍ. ʙ.

  1. I was recently delving into the amazing power of the hippocampus and its ability to construct and preserve narrative memories—and the amygdala to encode the emotion—and so for childhood memories as indelible as those of Christmas, the associations surely span the senses: the visual (lights and decorations), the olfactory (the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen), and perhaps most powerfully for me: the auditory (the Christmas songs of olde). (Apparently when memories of multisensory [i.e. various sensory experiences being intertwined] there may be better encoding, facilitating memory recall and enhancing the clarity of the memories.) 

  2. I’m no ethnomusicologist so forgive me if I’ve miscategorized any tunes. Tom Nichols gave his favorite Christmas hits a year ago and also organized his thinking by genre, although he had a “religious carols” category. I didn’t split the religious from the secular, although some genres by nature may loosely correspond with a certain religiosity or lack thereof (e.g., the indie rock maybe won’t cover the Latin hymns; and concomitantly, the Renaissance polyphonic stuff won’t deal with Frosty the Snowman). 

First published: 2023-12-16

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