Feature: Christmas Songs


  1. Christmas Songs: A History
  2. Christmas Discography
  3. Video: Making Christmas Songs
  4. Guitar Tutorials
  5. Christmas Pageant
  6. Media

Christmas Songs: A History
By Aaron Forney

“We wanted to make a Christmas record that had room for both nostalgia and cultural critique. To simply focus on the warmth of friends and family, and the mystery of Santa Claus, and the health rebellion of eggnog, would be an incomplete telling of the Christmas story. But simply to focus on the reality of perpetual war and human violence would make for a dark and sobering listening experience. We knew a balance had to be created.” – Dan Haseltine

Jars of Clay was at a crossroads. Their most recent release was both critically acclaimed and embraced by fans. Their opportunities for the future had just been vastly broadened. And yet before the next major album would be released, they would first look back to what shaped their identity.

The Drummer Boy EP was first released in 1995. It was re-released in 1997 with an altered tracklist.

There are two moments in Jars of Clay’s history that would fit this description. Clearly the first is 1995. Riding on the massive wave of their first album’s success, they followed it up with a 4-track Christmas EP, Drummer Boy.

The other, perhaps less obvious, came 12 years later in 2007. After releasing 7 studio albums accompanied by a number of EPs, singles, and contributions to compilations, Jars of Clay’s contract with Essential Records had been fulfilled and they opted to continue creating music under their own label, Gray Matters. Their first move as an independent band was to tackle a project that had long been rumored to one day be part of the Jars of Clay catalog: a Christmas album.

Integral to understanding the history of Jars of Clay, both Drummer Boy and Christmas Songs have been part of many Christmases since their respective releases. But to truly find the roots of the importance of Christmas music for Jars of Clay, the major Christmas releases found in Jars’ discography offers only a small glimpse. Join us as we dig a little deeper to uncover the true meaning of Christmas – or at least, the true history of Christmas Songs.

Contrary to popular belief, the Drummer Boy EP was not Jars of Clay’s first foray into Christmas music. In fact, while all of the songs from Frail eventually made it onto commercial releases, there is one early Jars of Clay song that was never released – possibly never even recorded! The song was called “Na Na Na,” but like another infamous unreleased Jars song (that shall remain unnamed, but we won’t blame you for guessing), it was never finalized. Eventually it was transformed into a “Christmas novelty song” known as “Kiss Me Slow (Beneath the Mistletoe).” Jars of Clay performed the song at one show in 1995 and it was never heard again. T0 read more about this historic concert (which was also Aaron Sands’ first performance with Jars of Clay), check out the concert review for 12/10/1995 in Issue 9 of Earthen Vessels.

Two other songs that were played at that same concert were the focus of Jars’ first Christmas release, Drummer Boy. The title track and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” were both given the acoustic guitar-driven treatment featured prominently on Jars’ self-titled album. The EP was rounded out with an acoustic version of “He” and a remix of “Drummer Boy”. (A revised version of the EP was released in 1997, dropping “Gentlemen” and “He” for a remix of “Blind” and the instrumental track, “Wicker Baskets.”)

Jars of Clay also performed an acoustic version of “O Little Town Bethlehem,” given a modern reworking from their college friend Byron Keith. Keith, who did bookkeeping for Jars at the time, had created the arrangement during his freshman year at Greenville College. Stephen and Dan provided guitar and engineering skills for Keith when he recorded his own version with Sarah Jahn on vocals. After Jars had moved to Nashville, they asked to use it in their shows, which Keith permitted. This acoustic version became a staple of Jars of Clay’s shows throughout the Christmas season for many years.

Jars of Clay’s relationship with Christmas didn’t end with the Drummer Boy EP.  One of Jars’ earliest and most beloved Christmas songs is their tribute to Nirvana and Rudolph (yes, you read that correctly). Highlighting Jars’ signature humor, “Smells Like Rudolph” was a light-hearted song about a “tiny reindeer and a fat guy” that meshed Seattle grunge and North Pole glitter. In other words, they sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the tune of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Despite Charlie Brown’s despair over the consumeristic nature of Christmas, Coca-Cola has firmly placed itself as Santa’s Christmas beverage of choice. And while Charlie Brown’s path wouldn’t cross Jars’ for another 11 years, Jars were tapped to provide a holiday jingle for the soft-drink company in 1996. The song’s music was from another self-titled era song that was never finished, called “The Healing”.

Sure, there’s another Christmas album from John Denver…but we find the artwork for this one more compelling.

A few years later, the band began covering Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” as a part of the tours supporting If I Left the Zoo. Intentional or not, the song’s familiar bass line would influence a contribution to the City on a Hill Christmas album. “Bethlehem Town” was released on It’s Christmas Time in 2002. A few years later, the band also recorded a cover of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” for the 2005 compilation album Come Let Us Adore Him: A Christmas Worship Experience.

Both Dan and Matt cite John Denver as an important part of musically framing their Christmas season while growing up (Dan would joke in a December 2014 Stage-It concert about getting the group to cover some of Denver’s songs: “I bring the John Denver”). So when the band took a turn towards a more folk/Americana approach on Who We Are Instead, it’s no surprise that they turned to Denver’s work for Christmas offerings. “Christmas for Cowboys” was recorded and released on Maybe This Christmas Tree in 2004. They also recorded “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” which was never given a proper release (perhaps because its content wasn’t deemed “safe for the whole family”). It eventually appeared on a very rare sampler put out by Nettwerk in 2005.

Jars of Clay had made a name for themselves with acoustic guitars, and when the season finally came to create a full-length Christmas album, Dan expected that same tone to drive the album. In an interview with John DiBiase of Jesus Freak Hideout, Dan remarked, “Initially I thought we’d make this super acoustic, beautiful kind of Christmas record… and I just found that most of my influences for Christmas music weren’t acoustic at all, with the exception of some of the John Denver stuff.” Still, the albums that shaped their childhood Christmases would also, in Matt’s words, “shape some of the aesthetic we were going for… a little bit of that kind of real classical, whimsical sort of Christmas.”

According to Matt, the song selection for 2007’s Christmas Songs came easily, and the eclectic nature of Jars’ influences, as well as their desire to feature songs that were “a little bit off the beaten path” (not unlike their aim for 2005’s Redemption Songs) led to a track list of original songs as well as reimagined covers of Paul McCartney, Shawn Colvin, Vince Guaraldi, and Sting. Keith’s version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was also at last given a proper release. The final version featured significantly more programming than the band’s early performances; an acoustic version was released as a bonus track for those who missed their original arrangement.

Additionally, for the first time since the Frail demo, instrumental tracks were incorporated into a Jars of Clay release. “The Gift of St. Cecilia” and “Evergreen” were described by Charlie as “hav[ing] a real longing in them”, which fit neatly into the overall thematic vision of the album. Dan described the tracks as “try[ing] to capture this idea of peace in a time of chaos, peace in a time of war.”

The closing track on Christmas Songs, which aims directly at wrapping up that theme, had its roots in Redemption Songs. The then-head of marketing for Provident Distribution suggested “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” be included on the 2005 hymn-centric album; however the record was already stuffed at that point. When planning for Christmas Songs, Jars found a place for it and used it to bring hope that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, goodwill to men.’

Feeling that Christmas Songs itself was getting too heavy, the band opted to publish an accompanying book, titled Peace is Here: Christmas Reflections, to share more of their thoughts on the importance of Christmas. Audio recordings of many of these reflections were made available via a tour-exclusive USB stick, and eventually a full audiobook was released as well.

“Drummer Boy” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” were also reimagined for Christmas Songs, and some of the string players who created the lush sounds of the self-titled album were invited back to record for Christmas Songs. Additionally, Christine Dente of Out of the Grey provided vocals for three of the tracks: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, “Christmastime is Here”, and the original song “Hibernation Day.”

Clearly Christmas songs have been an ongoing part of Jars of Clay’s career, but it was a pleasant surprise when a 3-song EP entitled More Christmas Songs was released in 2011.

More Christmas Songs was released in 2011 alongside Reinvent, Remember, Replay, a precursor to the “20” album.

Featuring 2 covers and a string-heavy original track, More Christmas Songs was a slightly lighter-hearted release than its predecessor. While not included on the EP, it was around this time that the band reimagined “In the Bleak Midwinter” as a more upbeat, acoustic version than the string- and horn-centric version found on Christmas Songs.

The beauty in the Christmas season is found in the deeper meanings – understanding the underlying aspects of the Christmas story, knowing the history behind a family ornament, or knowing the source of a song lyric. And while Christmas Songs is an integral part in many fans holiday preparations, it’s the deeper parts of the Christmas portions of the Jars catalog that truly paint the full picture of how Jars of Clay used the influence that Christmas music had on them to create an endearing place in Christmas playlists.