January 19, 2021

My “December” Playlist


Winter Landscape: Cold, Early Winter, Shalum Shalumov

On Sunday, Advent begins. My annual habit has been to listen to only Advent and Christmas music from the beginning of Advent to the end of Christmastide.

This year, I am adding at least one playlist that consists of seasonal music about the coming of winter in our hemisphere and in our hearts. I have worked on it this past week and refined it a couple of times in preparation for our Thanksgiving trip later in the week, and thought you might be interested in seeing it.

Music is the soundtrack of my generation’s life, and many of us have been making “playlists” of favorite songs since the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders and then cassette mix-tapes. A playlist like the one I’m presenting here today is not simply a list of recorded songs, it is a window which allows a glimpse into the heart of the one who has put it together.

These are not just songs I like about December and the coming of winter — rather, they help define “winter” for me. They reflect the creational, cultural, and emotional contexts in which I think about the redemptive events we celebrate during the month.

With that in mind, here is my “December” playlist…

1. A Hazy Shade Of WinterSimon & Garfunkel
We start with the upbeat, jangling sounds of Simon & Garfunkel at their sixties folk best, as they capture the spare, windswept landscape wondering, “What’s become of me?” “Look around, leaves are brown. There’s a patch of snow on the ground…”

2. Winter Birds, Ray Lamontagne
LaMontagne gives us a lovely, intimate winter ode that contrasts the dying of the year with warm, life-sustaining love.

The winter birds have gone back again
Here the sprightly chickadee, gone now is the willow wren
In passing greet each other as if old, old friends
And to the voiceless trees it is their own they will lend

The days grow short as the nights grow long
The kettle sings its tortured songs
A many petaled kiss I place upon her brow
Oh my lady, lady I am loving you now

3. A Long December, Counting Crows
“I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower, Makes you talk a little lower…” Why? Because this time of year contains the paradoxes of this song — a growing darkness and isolation mixed with the hope of new beginnings.

4. A Roving on a Winter’s Night, James Galway, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
A traditional winter folk song, with fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and James Galway’s sweet flute playing. “A roving on a winter’s night, And drinking good old wine, Thinking about my own true love, He broke this heart of mine.”

5. White Winter Hymnal, Fleet Foxes
Kids “all swallowed in their coats” playing the snow. Pure joy. What could be better?

6. Snow, Loreena McKennitt
An ethereal meditation on a walk through the winter landscape:

The road before me smooths and fills
Apace, and all about
The fences dwindle, and the hills
Are blotted slowly out;
The naked trees loom spectrally
Into the dim white sky.

…Then all is silent and the snow falls
Settling soft and slow
The evening deepens and the grey
Folds closer earth and sky
The world seems shrouded, far away.

7. Snow On High Ground, Nightnoise
An lovely Celtic instrumental to prolong our meditation on the season’s scenery.

8. Icicles, Patty Griffin
A tender, intimate song for when “we just want a little sun for ourselves.”

9. Winter, Bill Staines
Bill Staines has been a favorite folk singer of mine for over thirty years now. From New Hampshire, he knows about winter, and knows how to sing about it with wistful charm.

10. Sometimes In Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears
From BS&T’s iconic second album (it won the Grammy over Abbey Road), this was the only song not featuring David Clayton Thomas on vocals. Steve Katz wrote and sang this poignant tune, which finds him walking through “snow and city sleet,” longing for lost love.

11. December, David Gray
“What happened to the skies? December.”

12. I Am a Rock, Simon & Garfunkel

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

classic. essential. winter. listening.

snow leaf13. Frozen Charlotte, Natalie Merchant
One of my favorite female vocalists from the 90’s, Natalie Merchant sings this lush wintry song of waiting.

Still as the river grows in December
Silent and perfect blinding ice
Spring keeps her promises
No cold can keep her back
I want you to remember me that way

14. Song For A Winter’s Night, Gordon Lightfoot
Another classic folk song about winter, the Canadian troubador paints a picture of longing for the warmth of love amid the chill: “I would be happy just to hold the hands I love, On this winter night with you.”

15. Sister Winter, Sufjan Stevens
I fell in love with Tracey Thorn’s cover of this song last year. This year I’m spending time with Stevens’ moving original. Amazing.

16. Caroline I See You, James Taylor
I was married in the month of December long ago, so I had to save room on my list for this lovely, sentimental December love song by my all-time favorite singer-songwriter. “Make it melt like chocolate.”

17. Bells Of New York City, Josh Groban
A cinematic song of New York City in the wintertime, captured marvelously by Josh Groban.

18. Cold as It Gets, Patty Griffin
A song that puts the “bitter” in bitter cold. Hunker down ’til it passes.

I know a cold as cold as it gets
I know a darkness that’s darker than coal
A wind that blows as cold as it gets
Blew out the light of my soul

19. Getting Ready For Christmas Day, Paul Simon
We need an uplift after Griffin’s dark meditation. This one does the job, with its exuberant beat, Simon singing the blues, and samples of black preaching urging us to keep the faith and get ready for the big day.

20. River, Joni Mitchell
This is the classic December song for those mourning lost love and wishing they could just skate away. No one could ever cover this song and make it sound as heartbreakingly beautiful as Joni Mitchell’s original rendering. Gives me chills every time.

21. Every December Sky, Beth Nielsen Chapman & John Prine
Stop and take note. This is my favorite lyric of any December song. Profoundly beautiful and hopeful. (Here’s a LINK to a YouTube video of Beth Nielsen Chapman singing this treasure.)

Every December sky
Must lose its faith in leaves
And dream of the spring inside the trees.
How heavy the empty heart,
How light the heart that’s full.
Sometimes I have to trust what I can’t know
Sometimes I have to trust what I can’t know

We walk into Paradise;
The angels lend us shoes.
‘Cause all that we own,
We’ll come to lose,
And Heaven is not so far
Outside this womb of words.
With every rose that blooms
My soul is assured
It’s just like a song I’ve known
Yet still unheard.

And every leaf of fire lets go,
Melting in the arms of earth and snow.

And if I could hold you now,
You’d enter like a sigh.
You’d be the wind that blows
The answer to “why?”
You’d be the spring-filled trees
Of every December sky.

22. Get Me Through December, Alison Krauss
Sometimes this is all we can pray: “Get me through December, So I can start again.” And no one but Alison Krauss can pray it with such delicate grace.

23. New Years Day, Mary Chapin Carpenter
One of our very best songwriters leads us to a hopeful ending: “I dwell in possibility, On New Year’s Day.”


Header Art: http://www.alfaart.org/our-artists/shalum-shalumov


  1. Great list. “A Long December” is my favorite on there.

  2. I first heard River a few years ago on a podcast (yes, it was done by Joni Mitchell).

    I’ve been beating on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on my contra alto. It’s slow, but it’s coming. Other than that, I’ve been getting familiar with the Johnny Marks canon of Christmas songs (he wrote most of the Rudolph songs as well as others such as “A-Carolling we Go”), and other classics I somehow missed learning like “Angels from the Realms of Glory”. Just ’cause I don’t believe, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the music!

  3. Randy Thompson says

    Here’s my playlist, although I’m going in a more classical direction.

    In no particular order:

    1. Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

    2. Frederick Delius’s North Country Sketches

    3. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony (#3)

    4. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

    5. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols

    6. Bach’s Magnificat

    7. Vivaldi’s Gloria

    8. Any Christmas music conducted by Robert Shaw or John Rutter.

    9. Any Christmas music recorded by an Oxford or Cambridge college choir

    10. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. (All the better if you can see the New York City Ballet perform it–in New York, in December, and preferably after they’ve lit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center!.)

    I realize, of course, that no one asked for this list, but I offer it anyway, as an invitation to explore music that seemingly gets less and less attention.

    And, by the way, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

  4. Traditionally, I start the season the day after Thanksgiving. This year, because I work on Thanksgiving, and we’re celebrating on Saturday, it will be Sunday. Most of the listening will probably be the seasonal “traditional Christmas” music station on our cable TV.

    In other words, I’m long overdue for a “playlist” recording.

  5. “Scarlet” by U2 (best played on Christmas Eve). There is but one word in the song and that word is: rejoice. Over and against a staccato, militant drum beat that sounds like the Roman Imperial army preparing for war, this one word rings out again and again; and in that single word, I hear the voices of the angel choirs declaring this too shall pass.

    • Great addition! I can hear it now: “Rejoice…!” Twang, twang, badada-bad-um. That song is off their most overtly Christian album, “October.”

  6. No Over the Rhine?

  7. A very happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

    December music? This is a favorite of ours (just ‘skip’ the commercial):

  8. Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message.”

    And…nothing says “winter” to me like Sibelius’ Second Symphony. Still, cold, dark… and at the end, the brightness…

    Happy Thanksgiving-


  9. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
    Sung by Dio.

  10. In the bleak mid-winter time. Both arrangements.

  11. I love the Trans-Siberian Orchestra this time of year.
    Especially “Old City Bar” and “Prince of Peace”

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. And how can we forget John Denver in his “Season Suite” which contains the songs “Summer” “Fall” “Winter” “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everybody Goes to Mexico)” and “Spring.” ?

  13. You might like “The Fallow Way” by Judy Collins.

  14. great list , and addition of ‘TSO’ also Canadian Brass and Mannheim Steamroller are a part of mine.God Bless!

  15. No Thanksgiving playlist could be without Arlo Guthrie and Alice (remember Alice?):

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