Gospel Christmas Songs
We begin most of our genre overviews by focusing on the genre’s most celebrated artist and for any piece on gospel Christmas songs you can’t look beyond Mahalia Jackson. The reason for this is simple because in 1962 she recorded one of the best Christmas albums of all time in ‘Silent Night’. Now Jackson was a gospel singer of fine repute but on this release everything she touched turned to gold (and Frankincense and Myrrh if we’re honest). From the moment Jackson's vocals are heard on opening track ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy’ right through to the album’s undoubted highlight ‘Silent Night’ there is little to distract attention from her unmistakable vibrato. The music for its part is both occasional and pastoral thanks to Johnny Williams' orchestra. No gospel Christmas would seem right without this album.
The 60’s was a breeding ground for great gospel Christmas classics. Family group the Staple Singers’ ‘The 25th Day of December’ is one such with 12 strong songs of devotion such as ‘No Room At The Inn’ and ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’. The album was released in 1962 and it would be a whole 8 years later before the Staple Singers would release their most famous Christmas song on ‘Who Took The Merry Out of Christmas?’ which appeared on their otherwise non- Christmassy ‘We’ll Get Over’ LP. This was gospel Christmas music with a jive, a sense of mischievousness without ever losing the core message of the dying of our faith.
It may have taken a 2006 compilation called ‘Joy To The World’ to gather all of Aretha Franklin’s Christmas songs together but she had been giving us Christmas gifts since her 1964 version of ‘The Christmas Song’ when she was aged just 22. If any song encapsulates her talent it was this as she gave the lyrics a personality all of their own. Her live version of ‘Oh Happy Day’ with Mavis Staples also appeared on ‘Joy To The World’ and even though it was a different Aretha, from several decades later, the power of her gospel singing hadn’t diminished one iota.
Moving beyond the great gospel Christmas albums there are plenty of songs that are deserving of your attention. Reverend James Cleveland had a piercing vocal but rather than grate it added to the gravitas of his homilies. His ‘Pretty Little Baby’ was recorded in 1968 and he was joined by the Cleveland Singers and the Angelic Choir to complete a drama filled performance. The Pilgrim Travelers ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ took Bing’s homeward longing 1943 recording and gave it a slow gospel march a decade later. In the process the Pilgrim Travelers created one of the great black gospel Christmas songs that for the most part relied on the svelte acapella skills of the Texan group.
If you are one of those many sorts who can do without gospel over the holidays you have probably never clapped ears on the Patterson Singers ‘Behold The Star’ which is as close to psychedelia as gospel gets. Besides that it boasts an energy that would put most Christmas songs to shame. ‘Behold The Star’ was released in 1963 on a compilation called ‘A Treasury Of Golden Christmas Songs By America's Greatest Gospel Singers’ which was thankfully given a CD reissue in early part of the 21st century. Also present on this compilation is an old world recording of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ by the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Another compilation of note from the same era is the ‘Gospel Soul of Christmas’ which shared some of the songs found on ‘A Treasury Of Golden Christmas Songs By America's Greatest Gospel Singers’.
When it comes to amalgamating a genre into a Christmas compilation you can generally rely on the WOW series. And 2007’s ‘WOW Gospel Christmas’ is no different as it gathers 30 of today’s top gospel stars and their renditions of some of the most well-known Christmas gospel songs. Highlights include Aaron Neville’s ‘The First Noel’, Beverly Crawford’s ‘Joy To The World’ and Yolanda Adams ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. Also featured is Mandisa who is the rising star of gospel Christmas music following the release of her ‘It’s Christmas’ LP in 2008. Mandisa teamed up with Christian star Michael W. Smith on ‘Christmas Day’ but pride of place must go to ‘The Bell Medley’ where the American Idol star runs through an array of bell themed festive favourites like ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Carol of The Bells’.