Finley: Christmas music can annoy, inspire

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

I admit to being a Scrooge about Christmas music (and probably a lot of other things.)

While “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a cleverly saucy number, I have heard it 1,000 times since October, sung by every male/female combo in the music business, including a pair of cartoon chipmunks.

Between the all-Christmas, all-the-time radio stations and the holiday tunes blaring in suburban shopping malls and now on the streets of downtown Detroit, I’ve grown a little frosty to the cat-and-mouse seduction. Take your coat off already. Or go home. Just keep me out of it.

By the time Christmas Day arrives, the joy has been beaten out of yuletide carols. I’ve been jingled and jollied to madness.

But it’s different with the holiday’s religious hymns. The one benefit of banishing Christ from Christmas in the pubic square is that you don’t grow as jaded to the music.

And some of the greatest music ever written has been inspired by Christmas, the religious holiday.

From classical arrangements to the simple songs in the holiday section of a church hymnal, the music created to honor the birth of Jesus covers the full range of musical expression. From the rapturous “Hallelujah Chorus” to the raucously happy “Joy to the World” to the passionately tender “O Holy Night,” the sounds of Christmas stir reflection, praise, faith.

They do for me as much good as a month of sermons. The messages of peace, hope and goodwill conveyed in the melodies stick in my head long after the notes fade. (Except for “Little Drummer Boy,” which I consider the “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” of religious carols.)

Those songs are here and gone in what seems a heartbeat. Unlike the tributes to Santa and Rudolph, the religious hymns surface only briefly for holiday concerts and church services. You have to go out of your way to hear them.

The big night for such music is tonight, when even the 24-hour Christmas stations work them into the cycle. But if you want to experience their true magic, I’d suggest doing so from a church pew, even if it’s the only time of year you sit in one.

Tonight, as the clock approaches midnight, the lights will dim in the church where I worship on Christmas Eve. Candles will touch person to person as the first soft notes of “Silent Night” begin playing. The poignant verses will release an emotional flood, raising every Christmas memory, happy and hurtful, from a lifetime of holidays.

I will hear in my head my mother singing in her high mountain tenor that filled her kitchen, as well as other voices long silent. Tissues will slip from pockets and purses.

Those moments of introspection will be suddenly broken with the rising strains of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” or “Joy to the World,” reminding that this is a day to celebrate, not mourn. And the worshipers will spill out of the church and into the first hour of Christmas Day, filled with the spirit of the holiday.

No Christmas dinner can nourish the body the way that music nourishes the soul.

After that, bring on Frosty and the unrequited yearnings for a hippopotamus. I’m good.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.