Few things set the tone for Christmas like holiday music.
Whether it's a worshipful carol like "Silent Night," a traditional song like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," the classical sounds of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," any fun Santa-themed tune or even "The Grinch Song" from the cartoon "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," musical artists have created an almost limitless supply of yuletide melodies with the power to spread holiday cheer.
This is especially true for artists and musicians who, sooner or later during their careers, for better or for worse, produce a Christmas album. Even pianist Jim Brickman, who is Jewish, has released as many as five Christmas albums, according to a 2015 article in the Hartford Courant.
"It's funny how Christmas became part of my life," Brickman said in the article. "I really love it or I wouldn't make the Christmas albums or go on the Christmas tours. In some ways, playing Christmas songs live is my favorite thing to do. It has a completely different feel from everything else. There is an energy at my Christmas shows. It brings out multiple generations. It's an event."
In that spirit, the Deseret News recently reached out to several artists, including David Archuleta, Piano Guys' Steven Sharp Nelson, Ryan Shupe of Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband, as well as others, asking each to identify a favorite Christmas song, to describe a Christmas tradition involving music, and discuss the key ingredients of a toe-tapping Christmas album.
'O Holy Night'
What do Nathan Pacheco, Ryan Shupe and Gentri (the gentlemen trio made up of Brad Robins, Casey Elliott and Bradley Quinn Lever) have in common?
They all adore the hymn, "O Holy Night."
Pacheco's favorite rendition of the hymn is performed by his friend, David Archuleta.
"There's something about the emotion that it captures in the music, the feeling of reverence and awe that helps me feel the spirit of Christmas more than anything else," Pacheco said.
Robins of Gentri agreed.
"There’s something about the timeless beauty of the song that seems to capture everything sacred and magical about Christmas," Robins said. "The way that it builds and seems to seek after Christ is inspiring."
Three artists — pianist Paul Cardall, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker and Mannheim Steamrollers' creator and composer Chip Davis — all love the classic song "Silent Night."
"It has such incredibly sacred text, an inspiring melody and lovely story," Baker said.
The Nativity story behind the "Silent Night" is also inspiring to Cardall, who said the hymn reminds everyone that Jesus Christ brought silence into a noisy world.
"This piece is so simple and yet the message is divinely inspired," Cardall said. "The piece reminds us to be calm and enjoy heavenly peace. This simple hymn is a testimony of Christ's purity and glory."
For Archuleta, the former American Idol runner-up and returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Joy to the World" is "the perfect explanation of what Christmas is all about and why it is such a wonderful time of year," he said.
Nelson, cellist for The Piano Guys, has many favorite Christmas songs but said his playlist turns to the sacred as the holiday draws near. He especially loves the song "Still, Still, Still" because of its message and because his mother used to sing it to him.
"My mother used to sing it so beautifully and so vividly that you felt as though you were there actually there that still night," Nelson said.
Michael McLean, composer and mastermind behind "The Forgotten Carols," has two categories of Christmas songs, "the ones about the season and the ones about Jesus," he said. His favorite seasonal song growing up was Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" because it combined a perfect voice with a spectacular arrangement, he said.
"Two measures in and I just feel Christmas in the air," McLean said.
In the songs about Jesus column, McLean favors "The Little Drummer Boy."
"It's about how we can uniquely show our love for Jesus based on the gifts we've been given," he said. "I'm sure my love for the song influenced me when I started writing 'The Forgotten Carols' back in the day."
Jason Deere of Nashville Tribute Band is moved by the backstory and lyrics of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," he said.
"To me, this song is history, patriotism, hope, faith and belief all wrapped into one perfect holiday package," Deere said.
Fond Christmas traditions
When it comes to Christmas traditions, each artist can recount similar experiences of gathering family and friends for singing carols or playing instruments.
The Baker family, including their four children, often performs during the holiday season.
"I love Christmas because, for a season, the world listens to and rejoices in music about the Savior," Baker said. "What makes these performances even more enjoyable is that our four children perform all these Christmas shows with me, so I am able to share these sacred music experiences with my family."
In the Nelson family, members brings their voices and instruments on Christmas Eve to form an impromptu, eclectic orchestra and choir, Nelson said.
"We play and sing through all our favorite Christmas carols interspersed with solo pieces family members have prepared," Nelson said. "Performing music together unifies us and enables us to be more in tune with the submissive splendor of the Savior’s birth."
Before 1991, McLean produced the films "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and "Nora's Christmas Gift," both featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Since then, a huge chunk of his life and career have been connected to performing "The Forgotten Carols" around the country.
"The memories of those performances have been perhaps the greatest blessing of my life," McLean said.
The most cherished Christmas memory for Davis involves the sights, sounds and smells of seeing his mother play the organ in the church across the street from his boyhood home in a small Ohio farming community.
"As a little boy, it was so magical — the glow of candle lights and smell of fresh pine boughs that decorated the church," Davis said. "The rest of the evening was a mix of special food, the Christmas tree and family faces. It is a memory that has always stayed in my heart."
The Archuleta family used to go Christmas caroling, each member wearing a red and white Santa hat. They prepared to sing in a three-part harmony and performed in hospitals and care centers, Archuleta said.
"I loved how much everyone enjoyed it," Archuleta said. "We always felt good."
Christmas album essentials
There are several keys to producing the kind of Christmas album that no one will get sick of hearing, according to this panel of artists.
The list of essential elements includes creativity, entertainment, spirit, heart and nostalgia, the artists agreed.
"For me, a great Christmas album is one that rewards every listener and reminds me of what Christmas is supposed to feel like," McLean said.
It needs to have a fresh sound, Deere said.
"The world can never have too much Christmas music," Deere said. "However, if you want to make Christmas music that lasts a while, you better entertain people and give them something they haven't heard before."
For Davis, a catchy album stirs up joyful Christmas memories of things like family parties and opening presents.
"I have always been drawn to instrumental music because it allows the listeners to use their imagination and come up with their own memories and storylines," Davis said. "An important creative aspect for me is that the listener or audience during a performance becomes part of the music. I think that’s why our music has become a holiday tradition."
Baker and Archuleta agree that a sensitivity to what Christmas is all about — the birth of the Savior — is the most powerful element of a good album.
"I think the greatest Christmas albums are created by musicians and producers who believe in the Savior and are creating a Christmas album with the purpose of praising and worshiping the Lord," said Baker, who prefers music that is classical and sacred. "These albums are more powerful and authentic, and often more successful than those albums that have other purposes."
"Christmas is about time with family and loved ones, and about the birth of the Savior," Archuleta said. "If the music can remind the listeners of each of those important memories, then I'd say the music has done its job."