Winter Solstice Songs: My Top Ten

In December of 1993, I received in my PO box at Cedarville College in southern Ohio an audio book on tape. It wasn’t the store bought kind. Wasn’t digital of any kind in 1993. It was a homemade, self-recorded tape of my favorite voice – then and now – reading a book that included her name. The book was The Story of Holly and the Ivy by Rumer Godden, which tells the story of a young child named Ivy and a doll that Ivy longs to have as her friend, Holly, the name that still stops me in my tracks when I hear it.

When you are in love, it is interesting how you see in every story of friendship and love your own story. When one of the characters has your love’s name, this is especially true. 

Winter and its holy days for me mean Holly. 

The music she used as the soundtrack for her homemade recording some 24 years ago was the music of George Winston and his December album which includes his rendition of the classic holiday song “The Holly and the Ivy.” I begin my top-twelve winter-themed songs with that rendition from 1982. I Begin the playing of that song with my own reading from the beloved book.

Holly saw Ivy's face pressed against the window as she had seen so many children's faces that day, but, "This one is different," said Holly. 

Ivy's hands in their woollen gloves held to the ledge where it said Blossom, High-Class Toys and Games. Holly looked at Ivy's hands. Soon they will be holding me, thought Holly. Ivy's coat even in the moonlight was as beautiful a green as Holly's dress was a beautiful red, so that they seemed to match, and, "My Christmas girl!" said Holly. 

Ivy had to go to the shed again to get warm, but I cannot tell you how many times she came back to look at Holly. 

"My Christmas doll!" 

"My Christmas girl!" 

"But the window is between," said Abracadabra, the naughty owl. 

The window was in between and the toy-shop door was locked, but even if it had been open Ivy had no money. "Hoo! Hoo!" said Abracadabra, but, remember, not only Holly but Ivy was wishing now. 

"I wish..." 

"I wish..." 

The toys woke up. "A child," they whispered, "a child." And they wished too. 

Wishes are powerful things.

I grew up in a large, working-class family. My father somehow clothed, fed, and sheltered an apartment full of eventually 6 children, all on a bus driver’s pay. In the words of Archie and Edith, “Those were the days.” We didn’t eat gourmet, for sure. Mom used WIC checks and for a short time “food stamps,” as they were then called, as if you could eat stamps. We wore hand-me-downs and a holey wardrobe – holey pants, holey socks, and holey coat. Each room had at least one bunk bed.

Were we poor? Probably, but not in the ways that matter most. 

Christmas was as wondrous for our family as it was for anyone else’s. But I know my parents worried greatly about affording the gifts we hoped for. My dad would get solemn at the end of the morning, after the winter dawn cheer wore off, hard on himself that he couldn’t give us more. 

We didn’t always get what we thought we wanted, but we never had to think about what we needed – somehow, we didn’t have to worry. We got by on faith and stubbornness. What more can you ask for, really? That is wisdom born of adulthood. 

My mom and dad were always big country music fans. My dad in particular loved Merle Haggard. His song “If We Make it Through December” is a song my dad understood firsthand. It recalls for me the realism and hope so many families like mine continue to know and live, the realism and hope my mom and dad embodied. 

Merle wrote the song and released it in 1973 when I was two. It remains one of Merle’s trademark songs. Here is Merle Haggard classic, “If We Make It Through December.”

In the Fall of 2006, I did a yearlong chaplain residency for my Clinical Pastoral Education at Tampa General Hospital. At the time, I was facing the reality of unfulfilled dreams. My ambition to pursue a doctorate and my plans to eventually teach theology at the college level were not going to be realized. A second round of PhD programs I had applied to all denied me admission and I was done trying.

On the minister front, I was finding my time at Tampa General very meaningful if not easy. CPE residency amounts to an extended basic training for ministers. And in many ways, it’s just as grueling as military basic training, emotionally speaking anyway. It forces you to enter the cave of your self and see what and who you are made of. It suffers no escapists, demanding recompense for all those issues you long ignored. I looked deep, saw what I was made of, took a long hard look, and all those other clich├ęs. And I didn’t like the me behind the mask. By the time December came around, and it was all breaking forth like an ugly sunburst, I was beyond worn out. It was indeed a Long December in 2006. Thankfully, it would end with a nice jolt of honest hope. 

The Counting Crows song “A Long December” – every time I hear it, I am brought back to that long December in Florida, “the smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.” The song perfectly captures the melancholy of winter in a warm climate. The uneasy ease of 70 degree sunny days in December, it seems to highlight the truth -- joy and happiness should be real but seem as fake as frosted window panes in Florida. 


Even long Decembers end. 

On Christmas Eve day that same December, I was working a Sunday shift at Tampa General Hospital. I got a call while writing notes in the otherwise empty chaplain’s office. It was Holly, my favorite voice, touched with a joy I heard right away. 

“Are you seated?” She asked. 

She then told me the news that changed us both in the telling. 

“I am pregnant!” 

My long December ended a week early. It ended with the joy of advent, of an expectant new life revealed to us. It would leave us humming a new song into 2007, through January, through winter, into the spring and summer, into the August of a new birth.

There is a beautiful poem of a song by the band The Decemberists ironically titled “January Hymn.” It talks about a Sunday, a keeping winter at bay, and the prayer of something hopeful coming back. Well, something hopeful had come back that late December and lifted me into heaven through January and thereafter. What can be more hopeful than news of a child soon to be born?

This theme of hope amid life’s struggles, it seems to be the winter theme. In winter, we hope for spring, an early one at that. In life, we hope for more life, for a long life, for new life. In our suffering, we hope, yea, long for better days. Holidays and the holy days of winter follow suit. 

Amid the longest, darkest days that mark winter, babies are still being born or are waiting to. Even in the shortest, coldest days of the year, a new line of the family tree rooted in a home-place becomes possible.

Phil Collins in 1981 wrote a song that nicely captures this stark human experience of winter, of knowing things are hard but that the human reach for springtime and strength and home amid the inescapable reality of winter, that indomitable human reach for winter’s end cannot be held back. 

The song is titled, “The Roof is Leaking.” It could easily have been written by Joseph about Mary with baby Jesus. The chorus with its change to a major key and its grasping onto getting stronger epitomizes in musical form the visions of spring that sustain us through our long winters.

Winter is particularly conducive to the singing of lullabies. Mother and child join forces to get through winter together, the tenderness of mother weaning child a perfect winter image. Yes, it could be said that the Nativity Story and the main characters of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus created the association. However, the image of mother and child and the symbol of sustenance it presents predates the Nativity Story. It is as old as motherhood itself.

The only carol in our list is the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter." It was written by the 19th-century poet Christina Rossetti and is all about winter. It is as much a winter carol as a Christmas carol. In that sense, it is my favorite carol. 

Rossetti's lyrics are easily interpreted as a lullaby. Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of the carol certainly interprets the song as one of a mother singing a lullaby to a child. In listening to it, it is easy to imagine Mary singing to Jesus, or any loving mother nurturing and nourishing her child with song. Maybe this is the vision that will come to mind as we listen.

In April 2011, during Easter tide, Holly, Corey, and I traveled to visit family friends in England. It was a memorable trip. We were courageous to take a 3-year-old Corey. But he did remarkably well all things considered. 

This is not to say he did not have his moments when he got really bored. And in those moments, he, a four years-old, was wall to wall energy. In those moments, we were at wit's end. Our friends had a couple shelves of movies though not a lot of kids' movies, However, all we needed was one. 

That one film was so soft and calming, that we must have played it 10 times in a week's span. The film is titled The Snowman. Not only is the animation stunning, so is the music.

It’s open and spacious theme song titled “Walking in the Air” really encapsulates the wintry scenes and landscapes it accompanies in the film. And alone, the song perfectly paints the sound of winter.

That it calmed Corey amid the awakening of Spring and around the time of resurrection also tells a story. In the bleak midwinter, the story of the birth of a child comes along to keep us looking forward. There, in Bath, England in the Eastertide of 2011, in the throes of Spring, a song of winter’s quiet and calm came and worked its miracle.

That’s the story “Walking in the Air” tells – winter, resurrection, birth, the miracle of song all along the way. Here is the original version from the film of the ethereally lovely song composed by Howard Blake and performed by Peter Auty.

In the few weeks after Christmas, maybe while you are returning the last Christmas gift you did not want, you will notice your favorite retailer preparing for the next retail-friendly holiday. Yes, Valentine's Day. 

Valentine's Day, the day dedicated to love and eros, comes at almost the two-thirds mark of Winter. It’s as if Valentines Day and the energy of love it represents is a way to encourage and urge us onward, a kind of pep talk to help us get through the last-third of the seemingly endless, exhausting journey that is winter. Love conquers even the last stronghold of winter.

Those who know me, know a playlist of mine without a certain musician is not at all likely. That certain musician wrote and recorded a song in 1987 that gets at this idea that the energy of love is often the only thing that gets us through the long road of winter. It keeps us driving onward until we arrive home to the warmth of a summer sun. 

The song is actually titled Valentine’s Day and it is by Bruce Springsteen. It’s one of the most meaningful love songs I think there are and one of my all-time favorites. And what good is winter without a good love song.

As some of you know, this is the last Christmas season here for my family and I. In the summer, we will be headed back to Southern Ohio where Holly and I first met some 27 years ago. Poor Holly, Floridian by rearing, cannot get south quick enough. Even southern Ohio is sufficient for her at this point. 

That said, the North Quabbin region and the Pioneer Valley will go with me. One of the reasons I will miss this neck of the woods is because winter is really winter here. The hills of white, the stark trees holding onto snow, the blustery winds loosening the snow-trees’ hands to let it go, the quiet fields with nowhere to go – yes, the North Quabbin does winter right. 

A recent favorite song by the Massachusetts band Fountain of Wayne depicts the winters here terrifically. It is aptly titled "Valley Winter Song." I play it in honor of my winter memories of this beautiful and blustery spot on the big, wide world.

Christmas 1914, so-called enemies stopped the lunacy. British and German soldiers, on opposite trenches in a war that desolated the land and destroyed all involved, stepped away from war, put down their weapons, and celebrated life. For that moment, there were no explosions and screams, no gunshots or last gasps for breath. Just stillness tinged with Silent Night and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear serenading the winter. 

I wonder what that silence tasted like. 

During this season, despite its persistent wars, conflicts, and divisions, I still hold out hope for a long-lived truce. I hold out hope knowing that for many the hope for peace is all they have. 

So, my winter solstice wish is the same as my holiday wish. It’s the same wish I offer up year after year in prayer: that a song reaches beyond our sides and hardened hearts and moves us toward unity.

"You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one." In honor of the hope for peace and the vision of a quiet winter, I play John Lennon’s pivotal holiday song, one that gets to the true reason of the season – peace.


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