Q: Do you find it easy or difficult to write Christmas songs? Why?
Christmas songs are an area that both excite and frustrate me. It’s exciting to dive in and try to find new ways to sing about the wonderful story of the Incarnation—when the Word became flesh, and as The Message puts it, God “moved into the neighborhood.” I made a Christmas record a few years ago (These Christmas Lights) and loved the process—especially having a specified theme to focus so intently on. The frustrating part for me, though, is that more than at any other time of the year, it seems people aren’t massively open to singing new songs—we want to sing the old favorites. Many of these carols are wonderful and for that reason have made it down through the years and have become a special part of our sung heritage. They are even known by people outside of church, which is a major plus in this moment. But the songwriter part of me definitely feels that tension in this season— when it becomes so hard to get any new compositions off the ground.
Fresh But Still Friendly
One filter I apply to both worship leading and songwriting is trying to express a “universal theme in a unique way.” So we’re attempting to take a big biblical theme but present it in a new way. Sometimes that fresh way is a brand new song, but in a case like this Christmas scenario, maybe it’s a brand new take on something that is ages old. Of course, we don’t want to get overly clever or experimental when reinterpreting an old carol, or we might end up actually making it inaccessible. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, Jesus’ charge to Peter was “Feed my sheep,” not “Try experiments on my rats!” So we’re trying to take the heart of an old carol, wrap it in something fresh, but still have it feel familiar and known.
One thing I think about is not just using Christmas carols that are merely storytelling songs. There’s always a place for that kind of song, of course—but at some point it’s important to move beyond that into a worshipful reply to the story. To my mind, some of the greatest Christmas hymns do exactly that—carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels” are great examples. They provide us with a powerful worship dynamic of breathing in wonder and then having space to breathe out our praise in reply.
Keep Unwrapping New Songs
So in summary, my main approach is actually to lean into the known Christmas hymns, and try to find fresh and beautiful ways to present them. But at the same time I won’t stop trying to write brand new Christmas worship songs, hoping they might somehow also become helpful on the journey. As a songwriter, I can’t quite be at peace with the fact that the Church hasn’t really had any new universally sung Christmas songs in the last hundred years!