O Holy Night

In the last few years I’ve heard this song more and more in the UK during the month of December. With it comes the accompanying flak, which usually contains something along the lines of, ‘It’s so cheesy! It’s so American! It’s not a proper carol! It’s impossible to sing with a crowd!

To all of which objections, I say, cordially, STEP OFF.

There are lots of over-the-top Christmas songs. There are lots more over-the-top recordings of perfectly sedate Christmas songs – or Advent songs, for that matter.  ‘O Holy Night’ is more dramatic than your average carol, I grant you, and it can be tiresome to sing whilst you’re out caroling in the streets, the pubs, the shop-fronts, wherever.

But look at these lyrics:

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

 

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

 

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

This song doesn’t rush you. It lets you feel ‘the thrill of hope’ as ‘a weary world rejoices’. And if the third verse isn’t basically the best summary of the gospel I’ve ever read, then I’m not very worthy of my status as a trainee priest.  Those of you who perhaps rightfully hesitate at the kyriarchical language of this song, please consult Nadia Bolz-Weber’s brilliant meditation on kingship and what it means to fall on our knees before a king who was emptied of all power in order to show worldly power and violence for what it is: empty.  And in a year that has seen so very much of ‘sin and error pining’, I need O Holy Night to remind me of a the one who knows our need, to whom weakness is no stranger.

So, in the spirit of Andy Walton’s Ten Greatest Recordings of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I offer you, the ten best versions of O Holy Night that I know of, in order of ascending fabulosity. Enjoy.

NB: many of these videos are just astoundingly cringey because internet. Deal.

10. Kevin Max. To do this accompanied mostly by xylophone takes big baubles.

9. Faith Hill. Country, y’all. I love how she loses any trace of a ‘down home in the South’ accent when she performs this. Fishy. But still gorgeous. And I love the English horn / cor anglais in this version for sentimental reasons.

8. Kutless. Surprised you with this one, didn’t I? Gotta do a Jesus Headbang once in a while, peeps. Try it sometime. You’re not allowed to listen to this except on VOLUME 11. Do NOT turn it down, otherwise you are dangerously in Contemporary Christian Music Listened To Softly In The Car territory and Jesus will judge you.

7. The Miracles.  You want a side of Motown with all your musical consumption. You just do. There’s no fighting it. Unfortunately this recording is rather truncated, but just imagine the rest of it splendidly playing in your head.

6. Any recording from King’s College, probably. This one is particularly good. I do love the little trill you get in ‘the soul fe-elt it’s worth’.

5. Randy Travis. I will hear no ill spoken of him. That twang! That country glissando!

4. Mahalia Jackson. This is a fairly traditional arrangement, complete with harp and well-placed single chimes, but THIS WOMAN’S VOICE. Bow down.

3. Josh Groban. You can skip the crapful video on this one.  I will not apologise for my vocal-cord-crush on this curly-haired angel.

2.  David Phelps. I’m 100% NOT ASHAMED to admit that I have been to more than one ‘Bill and Gloria Gaither Homecoming’ concert. At the second one I went to, I heard David Phelps sing two Christmas songs – O Holy Night, and Mary Did You Know? To this day they remain my favourite Christmas songs. I defy you to find more fabulous piano accompaniment than the one in this version. And that surprise high note on ‘praise his holy name’. You wish you could sing like that.

1. Harry Connick, Jr.   This one has it all: cinematic strings, homely choruses, intimate piano. If it is wrong to like a bit of HC, J, I don’t want to be right.

 

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Honorable mentions: listen to on Spotify here

1. Sufjan Stevens. I do love Sufjan, and I enjoy his version, and sometimes I do want several solid minutes of banjo. But sometimes not. First runner up.

2. Sara Groves’ new jazzed up version. It’s nice, but just…no. No, Sara. No.

3. Blake – enthusiastic piano and three lovely dudevoices – but I’ve never been a fan of the ‘three good-looking tenors’ sorts of groups. Sorry, boys.

4. Barenaked Ladies. You crazies.

5. I can’t not put Nat King Cole’s classic version on here, even if I find the background singers a bit too much.  There will never be another Nat.

6. Future of Forestry. This one tries to turn into a dance track halfway through. nice try.

7. Rhema Marvanne. This is a small human with seriously big pipes. Cute. But she messes around with the lyrics too much.

 

 

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