Excerpt from A Very Merry Holiday Movie Guide by Rachel McMillan
The Music Lover’s Christmas
He told me all of these people carry Christmas in their heart,
and I should think of the audience as one big family. And I
think of that to this day every time I have stage fright.
Our Christmas Love Song
The link between music and memory is so strong that it’s easy to see why Christmas music is so popular. Even the happiest holiday songs can seem melancholy when the nostalgic bug bites and we think of loved ones now gone and Christmases past. Christmas music is also a testament to the human power of memory. Most of us hear these traditional hits for only a few weeks out of the year, yet we remember the melodies and lyrics a year later.
I know of one reason these songs set themselves so deeply in hearts and minds. For religious people, Christmas music relays the power of the message integral to our celebration. And imparted in the words sung by pop stars and blasted across department store aisles once a year, that message so deeply meaningful is spread to so many.
Without a doubt, my favorite part of Christmas is the music. Listening to songs written hundreds of years ago, performed by some of the most beautiful voices of the modern world, takes me back home to my parents’ living room, sitting by the tree while our favorite albums provide a lovely backdrop. Christmas music is so ingrained in my memory that I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know the words to every last song on the Carpenters’ Christmas album my dad played over and over again and on the well-loved cassettes with music produced by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant.
Music is an incredible gift. It brings people together in collective memory as we hum and recall the lyrics together, but it also acts as a canvas for the words spoken over it as we engage in conversations and make new memories that will last a lifetime. Whether holding a candle at a Christmas Eve service in a hallowed church where the organ chords rise to the rafters, caroling off-key for a local food bank, or merely singing along with Mariah Carey on our iTunes playlist on the subway train, the music of Christmas tells a story and anchors us to Christmases that have come before and the promises of Christmases that will come. I can think of no other time of the year that elicits such a vast musical response—for those who believe in the religious tenets of Christmas and those who simply enjoy a good melody alike.
- Check for local carol sings in your neighborhood. Start with church websites.
- Take your love for caroling somewhere it matters. Retirement communities, hospices, and hospitals are wonderful places to spread holiday cheer. Email the administrators in the fall to determine when and where your caroling might be well received. (A tip: Because Christmas is not a universally celebrated holiday and being mindful of other traditions, prepare a range of generic, inclusive songs every listener will find accessible and enjoy.)
- If friends and family aren’t usually churchgoers like you, Christmas is the perfect time to invite them to accompany you to a traditional Sunday service where you can all sing your heart out to carols.
- Remember that though caroling is a somewhat archaic tradition, at heart most people love Christmas music and the Christmas spirit. Don’t be afraid to let go and make an idiot of yourself! Sometimes it’s fun to allow others to see you “let down your hair.”
Customized Viewing List
Each of the movies listed here is designed to appeal to the music lover, and I believe a music lover is in all of us. From a composer working at an instrument store to the enchantment of a ballet honoring Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, from Elvis’s famed home in Memphis to the legend of Dolly Parton in Tennessee, the makers of Christmas movies are aware of the delicious effect music has on their viewers. Many Christmas films ensure that their soundtracks are upbeat as well as nostalgic, coloring moments of romance and memory in the characters’ lives with songs treasured by many.
- Angels and Ornaments: A mysterious composition from the Second World War creates a bond between two music-shop employees in a movie that celebrates carols.
- A Song for Christmas: A pop star is stranded in a small town for Christmas and not only finds a path through her writer’s block but the opportunity for a family Christmas she’s never had.
- Christmas at Graceland: Elvis Presley’s famous home is a supporting character in the story of a single mom who brings her kids to Graceland for Christmas and reconnects with a talented country singer she once loved.
- A Christmas Melody: A single mom finds unexpected love when her daughter has the opportunity to sing a solo in the school Christmas concert. This film costars pop star Mariah Carey.
- Our Christmas Love Song: Melody’s performance at the Grand Ole Opry is a smash—until a rival country star claims that the holiday song she performs is plagiarized. The looming lawsuit drives her home and back to her long-lost sweetheart.
- Christmas at Dollywood: Dolly Parton makes a cameo in this story about a single mom who returns to her hometown to produce an event at the legendary Dollywood. When she meets the park’s entertainment director, they clash on many fronts—but not on love.
Create the Perfect Christ Playlist
Whether hosting a party or chaperoning a shopping trip that requires some festive tunes in the car, a playlist can enhance the Christmas mood.
- Consider all listeners. Ensure a variety of tempos and genres to appeal to every holiday lover.
- Include nostalgic favorites and new classics. Introduce listeners to new favorite songs that might be classics in a few years.
- Every song tells a story. Open your past and heart to listeners by letting them in on the emotional connection you have to a song.
- Contrast wistful and melancholy ballads with upbeat and happy numbers. While some mournful chords conjure the solemnity and reflective mood of the season, a counterbalance of these tempos with upbeat pieces will endear you to your guests.
- Step outside your comfort zone. Google the most recent Christmas hits and use the prompts from sites like Spotify and iTunes to broaden your musical horizons.
The “Silent Night” Chapel
For many, Salzburg, Austria, is synonymous with music. Once home of the famed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and later to the Hollywood movie featuring the von Trapp family—The Sound of Music—its hills are filled with notes and song. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the birthplace of arguably the most popular Christmas carol ever penned—“Silent Night.” If you can’t make a pilgrimage to this iconic site, then visit the amazing 360-degree provided at stillenacht.com for an immersive experience of both the interior and exterior of the chapel.
“Silent Night” should be treated like porcelain. So long ago was it forged, and so precariously, that its fragility through the hunger and uncertainty of the Napoleonic Wars was fortified by the legend that saw its journey beyond its Alp-side home and into our culture. In fact, “Silent Night” and its humble origins from a small Austrian village can inspire us to meditate more on the holiday songs we hear and can sing in a state of immediate remembrance, mouthing words we’ve impressed to memory even if we don’t linger on their meaning.
Start a New Tradition
Check your local newspaper listings and your streaming services for holiday concerts. From Washington, D.C.’s Christmas tree ceremony to the Vienna Boys’ Choir and even Westminster Abbey, you have options for watching a Christmas concert with your family. For example, every New Year’s Eve, PBS broadcasts the New Year’s Eve Concert from the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna. A classical and historical concert featuring a range of masterpieces, including Strauss, the concert is a wonderful introduction to a beautiful worlds.
Some of the most beautiful and beloved carols have come out of times of conflict and war. Just as “Silent Night” came out of a dark and hungry time for Austrians under the threat of Napoleon, so several glorious songs of hope and the promise of the nativity resulted from the American Civil War. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” are all examples of songs that came out of the War Between the States.
In World War I, as several young men spent Christmas across the barren trenches surrounding an area called No Man’s Land, an unprecedented Christmas truce found them lowering their rifles in a gesture of solidarity and seasonal recognition. Christmas 1914 was a bleak and violent one until the dawn of Christmas Day, when German soldiers rose at dawn calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their enemy. Unarmed, they assured the allies that they approached in peace and goodwill. Throughout the day, trees were crudely decorated, greetings and songs filled the heavy air, and a game of football blurred the lines between the enemies.
Order a copy of A Very Merry Holiday Movie Guide by Rachel McMillan
Rachel McMillan is the author of The Herringford and Watts mysteries, The Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries and The Three Quarter Time series of contemporary Viennese romances. Her next work of historical fiction, The London Restoration, releases in Summer 2020 and takes readers deep into the heart of London’s most beautiful churches. Dream, Plan, and Go is her first work of nonfiction. Rachel lives in Toronto, Canada and is always planning her next adventure. Learn more at RachelMcMillan.net
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