My top 5 Classic Contemporary Christian Christmas Songs
As a child of the 80s and 90s who was raised in the Evangelical subculture, I listened to two kinds of music growing up: the oldies of my parents’ generation and Contemporary Christian music. I’ll be forever grateful for my early education in The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, but even the cheesiest of Christian pop still holds a nostalgic place in my heart too. I adored Amy Grant and wanted to be just like her; I’m pretty sure the first concert I ever attended was with Wayne Watson, and I got to see Rich Mullins sing barefoot and perform the original “cup song” (“Screendoor on a Submarine”) live and in person.
Around Christmastime, when nostalgia already runs high, I start to miss some of my favorite old-school CCM Christmas songs that no longer get much airplay. So, today, I’ve narrowed it down to my top 5, with accompanying videos, so that you, too can remember the reason for the season in true 90s CCM style.
“Gloria (Angels We Have Heard on High)”
Michael W. Smith
Nothing says “Merry Christmas from 1989” quite so well as Michael W. Smith’s classic Christmas hits, “Gloria” and “Emmanuel.” Honestly, it was a toss-up for me between the two, but I went with “Gloria” because it’s so — well — epic. Fully orchestrated with choir, full rock band, 80s synth, and soaring strings, this piece is practically progressive rock. In one way, it’s a product of its time that perhaps should stay there with mullets and oversized bangs. But somehow, after all these years, the piece speaks to me, as I imagine a truly rad heavenly host belting out a powerful “Gloria!”
“Breath of Heaven,” Amy Grant
When Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas came out in 1992, my mom surprised me with the cassette as an early Christmas present. I’m sure I could still sing every word. The big single from that album was “Breath of Heaven,” a song I’ve had the joy of performing many times. The song is basically Mary’s internal monologue, though monologue becomes prayer as the overwhelmed young woman contemplates the enormity of the task she bears. The song has aged well, and more impressive singers than Amy Grant have taken it on, but for my money, no one’s performance is better than Amy’s. She’s understated, emotive, and believable. The only cheese here is the aged 90s synth. Otherwise, it’s a classic.
“Gotta Get Up (It’s Christmas Morning),” Rich Mullins
Rich Mullins never made a Christmas album, but he did give us one Christmas gem on the Liturgy, Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band album. Call me overly-sentimental, but this sweet little song, told from the perspective of a kid who can’t wait to open his Christmas presents, gets me right in heart every time. And the theology’s not bad either: “Oh I hope there’ll be peace on earth; I know there’s goodwill toward men on account of that baby born in Bethlehem.”
“Welcome to Our World,” Chris Rice
I’ve heard someone say that you can’t choose what you get famous for, and I imagine Chris Rice is a little annoyed that he’s most remembered for “The Cartoon Song,” but this gentle manger-side lullaby is a classic in its own right. As Rice welcomes the God-child into our humble earthly dwellings, he expresses the holy mystery of the incarnation along with our need for redemption in a few masterful pen strokes:
So wrap our injured flesh around You Breathe our air and walk our sod Rob our sins and make us holy Perfect Son of God Welcome to our world
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” Rebecca St. James
By the time Rebecca St. James’ Christmas album came out in 1997, she had gained a name as the CCM answer to Alanis Morisette. That’s sort of a shame, because much of her work stands on its own, especially this Christmas record. I immediately fell in love with her 90s rock take on this classic spiritual, and it entered the regular rotation of seasonal standards in my own Christmastime performances for many years. I love it just as much today as I did twenty years ago:
All my formative years with these original takes on Christmas classics and meaningful new Christmas songs planted a desire to one day make a Christmas album of my own. While the album is still a long way off, I do have a single to share with you today. It’s more folk rock than CCM, but it would bring me great joy if it made your Christmas season a little brighter. Take a listen here:
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.