Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas

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(Warning: Contains spoilers for those who still believe in Santa Claus)

Bob Dylan’s album Christmas In the Heart struck me both strongly and delightfully upon the very first listen, and it continues to strike me that way after many further spins. However, rather than try to make a grand case here as to why others ought to like the album (I know that some people love it and some people feel quite otherwise) I’m just going to explore why it seems to work better for me personally than most Christmas albums. I do suspect that how I have inwardly responded to it is true for quite a few others as well, whether or not they have analyzed it for themselves in the same way I do here.

First, I feel I need to make some general observations regarding popular Christmas music, from the point of view of a Christian believer, and indeed on how Christmas is generally celebrated in the culture I call my own. Bluntly speaking, Christians have to sometimes wonder if it is more than merely coincidental that the name Santa is an anagram of Satan. The Devil himself, after all, could hardly have come up with more effective competition for the story of the birth of Jesus (the incarnation of God, according to Christian belief) than the story of Santa Claus, or “Father Christmas” as he’s usually referred to across the pond. A story of God’s love for humankind, so poignantly evoked by the gift of his son and that son’s humble birth in a stable, is shunted to the side in favor of a story that seems to be all about the acquisition of material things (i.e. toys and gifts) through the magical power of a fictional fat man in a red suit. We know how the myth grew out of the story of a Christian saint by the name of Nicholas, but the past hundred years of super-powered pop culture have certainly eliminated all vestiges of Christianity from the tale. Storybooks, cartoons, films, toy figures and countless costumed men in retail stores have provided a rich and constantly-expanding alternative narrative for Christmas. It is one that also seeks to co-opt elements at the heart of the Christian story of Christmas: concepts like goodwill to men, generosity, selflessness, kindness and miracles, yet all the while leaving God out entirely. In place of the Christian story of the miracle of the incarnation of that God we have, well, the miracle on 34th street. There is of-course plenty that’s good and sweet and uplifting about the Santa myth; in a way, however, that’s what’s so bad about it.

Then there’s also that rite of childhood when — sometime between 6 and 12 years of age, for most — you realize that there is no Santa Claus. It was only a myth that the grown-ups told you to make Christmas fun and magical. (Or was it just to amuse themselves?) Now, you get to play along for the benefit of the younger kids. Yet, if Santa Claus and all his many trappings amount to just a feel-good pack of lies, then what of that other story you were told alongside this one — the one about the baby in the manger and the shepherds and the three kings and so on — what of that? Is that feel-good story so much more credible?

This tension of the competing narratives of Christmas is felt, inevitably, in the songs of Christmas. There are on the one hand the hymns about Jesus and Bethlehem, and then there are the songs of Santa and his reindeer and his lists of the naughty and the nice. Treading the middle ground are secular songs of the season such as White Christmas and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Yet every time that someone records an album mixing these various Christmas songs together, the implicit question for the listener is this: Which is it? Am I supposed to be happy because Santa Claus is coming to town, or because Christ is born in Bethlehem? Is it all about the chestnuts on the open fire, or does it matter more that God and sinners have been reconciled? Of-course you can just shrug it all off to get along, and that’s exactly what we do. And if you’re a musician like Frank Sinatra, you might make one side of your album (A Jolly Christmas) the “secular” side and one the religious side, just to keep things nice and clean. Others have recorded Christmas albums that are exclusively religious or exclusively secular in nature.

The question I’m approaching here, however, is this: If you’re Bob Dylan, what do you do? What did he do?

The first time I heard Christmas In the Heart from start to finish I thought to myself that it was the only time I’d heard an album of all kinds of Christmas songs like this where there seemed to be a unity of spirit throughout. There didn’t seem to be a tension between the lighter Santa songs and the holy hymns. Although distinct in nature, they seemed to be coexisting just fine, and even complementing one another. I didn’t immediately know why this was. I figured at first that it was just my innate enthusiasm for Bob Dylan himself that was blurring my perceptions, and making me enjoy everything in such good humor. But after repeated listening to the album as an album, from track 1 through track 15, I believe I have a better understanding of why this particular Christmas album has been working so especially well for me.

Dylan didn’t write any of the songs, of-course, and he doesn’t take any significant liberties with the lyrics. His creative latitude is therefore confined to his own performance of the songs (how he sings the words), to his choice of which lyrics he sings (some of these songs have quite a lot of verses which are not sung in every rendition), to his musical arrangements, and finally to the way in which he sequences the songs on the album.

All of these elements — performance, selected lyrics, arrangement and sequencing — are at play, I think, in the first track of the album. I would in fact argue that Here Comes Santa Claus is the crucial song. (I enjoyed writing that sentence — when else would you get the chance?) I believe that it sets the tone and the stage for the rest of the record, and that this is no accident at all.

I never gave much thought to this particular Christmas song before hearing Dylan’s version. If you put a nickel in me and asked me to play Here Comes Santa Claus, my mental jukebox would have coughed up the version by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans — one of Phil Spector’s Christmas classics. That’s the one that had been embedded in my brain as the essential version, for whatever reason. The record includes those elements of childlike perspective and irresistibly over-the-top pop production that distinguish Spector’s greatest hits. I liked it and still do.

One thing I’d never have said, however, was that Here Comes Santa Claus was any kind of religious song. Yet, hearing Dylan’s rendition, I could not help but be struck and suprised by how it seemed to point the listener not only up the chimney towards the descending fat man but also quite firmly towards the sky above and the Man Himself, so to speak.

And when you listen to the track with this in mind it’s by no means rocket science to detect how Dylan does it, especially when compared to other versions. The Phil Spector version, for instance, does not even include the lines about how we should “follow the light” and give “thanks to the Lord above.” Bob B. Soxx and her Blue Jeans just ditched them, with Phil at the controls. Dylan’s version, by contrast, not only includes these lines, but repeats them, and indeed concludes the song with them. That sequence goes like this (with a lovely kind of call and response between Bob and the backing vocalists):

Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

[slower and with emphasis] Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

Even Gene Autry’s original version, while of-course including these lines, does not repeat them and does not conclude with them, reverting instead to those reindeer, bells and stockings for the final refrain.

If we just follow the light: these are the words that seemed worth repeating to Bob; these and Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / ’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight. I do believe that the deliberate emphasis of this perspective, in the very first track, makes a real statement and offers the listener a special way of grasping all that follows. It’s an interesting concept, after all: “Let’s give thanks to God for Santa Claus.” Santa Claus, as mentioned, is a myth, and one which often seems to be crowding out the religious story of Christmas. What this line, however, is suggesting to us, I think, is that to the extent the story of Santa lifts hearts and brings smiles, it is a good thing, and, like all good things, we have reason to be thankful to the Lord above for it. Santa, for all his occasional flaws and those of his agents in Hollywood and beyond, came out of the spirit of Christmas, and at its best the story promotes kindness, generosity and love. These are all gifts from God and we do well to enjoy them while remembering their source and giving those appropriate thanks.

You might say that this is a lot to take from these two lines of the song, but I do believe that the repetition and slow emphasis of these lines in this performance is precisely inviting the listener to meditate on what it means to give thanks to God for Santa Claus.

And as goes Santa, so goes the rest of Christmas — the secular, the silly and the otherwise: the silver bells, those chestnuts, the sleigh bells, the snow, the sardonic Christmas blues of Sammy Cahn, and even the great big coconut tree on Christmas Island. All of these funny, warm-hearted and mixed-up things also provide their own reasons for being thankful to God, without whom, after all, none of this would be happening. Dylan’s special rendition of Here Comes Santa Claus has offered us the right spirit in which to enjoy all of Christmas, and all of Christmas’s songs.

Christmas In The Heart by Bob Dylan - back cover
The concluding emphasis of the song (on thanking God) also reflects back, by the way, upon lines which we had already heard and will hear again when we replay the track. Earlier in the song, there is the line, Santa knows we’re all God’s children / And that makes everything right. There’s also, Hang your stockings and say your prayers / ’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight. Before, these lines went by fast and might not have seemed to signify much, but thanks to the emphasis on thanking God in Bob’s conclusion, their import is amplified. Suddenly it seems as if Here Comes Santa Claus is really a religious song masquerading as a song about the obese red-suited elf. Dylan’s arrangement and performance of the song has done nothing if not gently lift the mask.

Another line that may have seemed less significant before is that “follow the light,” as in Peace on Earth will come to all / If we just follow the light, which Dylan’s arrangement also repeats and emphasizes. A meaningless platitude? Well, light has a great deal of significance, and perhaps this song, and in particular Dylan’s version of it, is comprehending that.

If the light passed us by that time, however, the very next track makes sure we don’t miss it. On the almost-too-sweet evocation of the birth of Christ that is the song Do You Hear What I Hear, Dylan sings all of the lyrics as laid out in the song but manages to get across his emphasis in his performance. It is in the startling and dramatic way in which he sings the final word of the song, that word being light. The last verse of the song as written expresses the words of an earthly king (perhaps one of the Three Kings?) who announces “to the people everywhere”:

The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

On Bob’s final repetition of that line, and specifically on the word light, he raises his voice and his pitch in a way that is altogether impossible to miss. (It is, in fact, a point at which many people — philistines, of-course! — would simply run from the room or take an ax to the speaker cables.) He is reaching for something he simply can’t achieve, judged by any normal standard; his voice breaks — it is either unseemly or very nearly so. The listener wonders: Doesn’t he know he didn’t make that? Doesn’t he know that he couldn’t make it? Why did he even attempt it?

But the word echoes in the listener’s head. It cannot but, after that vocal effort. The word is light.

Follow the light

He will bring us goodness and light

In an interview quite a few years ago, Bill Flanagan observed to Bob Dylan that someone who knows the Bible will hear Bob’s songs one way, and someone who doesn’t will hear them in a different way. These aren’t Dylan’s songs, but he’s the same Bob, and certainly he knows his Bible, and I do think that he knows what he’s doing with these words.

Light shows up in the very first words of God as given in the Bible. That’s in chapter one, verse three of the Book of Genesis. In context, the first four verses go like this (RSV):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

The first reported words of God are something of special importance, one would think. And light, as any physicist will tell you, is a big deal.

And for Christians, there are no more fundamental words in the New Testament to tell who Jesus Christ is than the opening verses of the Gospel of John, starting with “In the beginning was the Word.” From verse two:

He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Repeatedly throughout the Bible, light is associated with God and with all that is good that comes from God. It would be beyond me to even begin a litany of such references, but here’s just one more from the Book of Daniel, chapter two, using the KJV here:

Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his:

And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:

He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.

(Dylan fans might also recognize some of the words above from a song Bob sang on stage during those gospel years.)

With the references to light and its association with God which Bob Dylan emphasizes in his rendition of the first two songs, again the listener is receiving a suggestion, similar to the one given by the lines Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / ’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight. In this case we’re being reminded — at a minimum — that all light comes from God, and indeed all that is bright and cheerful and warm. And we do well to thank God for that light, and to follow that light.

And indeed, Christmas is full of light, as are the songs of Christmas.

Christmas eve will find me / Where the love light gleams

Hang a shining star / Upon the highest bough

Strings of streetlights / Even stoplights / Blink a bright red and green

And to the earth it gave great light / And so it continued both day and night

Tiny little tots with their eyes all aglow …

I do believe that thanks to Dylan’s emphasis in the first two tracks of this album, the listener is invited to be conscious of the fact that all of these lights, both the grand and the subtle, reflect back upon and truly emanate from that first word of God.

In the final song of the album the light comes full circle, so to speak. That’s the song O Little Town of Bethlehem, and these lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

In Dylan’s recent interview about this album, again it’s Bill Flanagan asking the questions, and he puts it to Bob that he sounds like “a true believer” when he sings those lines, The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight. Dylan responds simply, “Well, I am a true believer.” The simplicity of that statement hasn’t prevented elaborate parsing by some. Even simpler is the great and lovely “amen” with which Bob closes this song and the album. Hearing it, this listener receives a suggestion that the entire album might have been a prayer or a hymn of sorts. Certainly I’ve never heard a Christmas album on which all of these quite different kinds of Christmas songs live together so well, and seem to make so much sense in sequence. I do think it is the special achievement of Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart, and it is quite an achievement at that.

All of this is not to ignore other musical elements of the album, which I think some critics have underrated or dismissed too quickly. Aside from the freshness which Dylan’s very particular vocals bring to these old songs, the musicians are very far from sleep-walking through the process, bringing out the real strengths and dignities of even some of these old Tin Pan Alley type Christmas tunes, which sadly get performed so often with so little feeling. The production is both immaculate and witty.

And with all of that said, I’d have to be a Grinch or a Scrooge to give the album any other rating than the one below.

Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
10 Out Of 10 Lead Pipes
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!

Available from Christmas In the Heart

9 Replies to “Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas”

  1. Fine review Sean! I couldn't help but keep going back to James 1:17 in the Bible. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." What also came to mind while reading is the work of the painter Thomas Kinkade and how the emphasis of light in his artistry has truly made his work stand out, as well.

  2. It's definitely a special album – can't remember last time I enjoyed listening to Christmas music as much.

  3. I also felt a continuity in the album. Secular songs and spiritual/Christian just melded in the message which came through joyfully and triumphantly!

  4. Wonderful review, Sean. Well written and very insightful. Although Bob has sung, "I've already confessed, don't need to confess again…" maybe he did, anyway.

  5. Sean, wonderfully put. I was struck in precisely the same way to the point that with every Christmas card (Wisemen following the Star) I wrote I inserted a copy of CITH along with a donation form for Feeding America. The salutation on each read, “Peace on Earth will come to all…” and the closing, “Who laughs this way? Enjoy.” Both, of course, were intended to compel the recipient to listen to find the meaning. A Blessed Christmas to you and yours. Amen.

  6. Thanks, Sean, for a thoughtful commentary. I attended the discussion between Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz at the Philoctetes Center here in Manhattan recently. Both men respectfully acknowledged Bob's belief in God while disclaiming such belief for themselves. Faith is an invitation and many of the songs speak to that as well. "Do you hear what I hear?" is one faith-fiilled person beckoning another to listen. The drummer boy is asked to come to the manger; the wise men travel from afar having responded in faith to a cosmic sign; silver bells announce the news and direct our attention, albeit obliquely, to this holy day. The angels say 'Hark!' and so does Bob. Pay attention to this feast and feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, bury the dead… It's all or nothing. Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the great trifecta. Merry Christmas to one and all.

  7. After reading a few dozen reviews by critics who seemed bent on trying to make us believe that Dylan only recorded "two or three Christian records" and he has long since abandoned such foolish thoughts, It is nice to finally read a review by a person who can actually listen to lyrics.

  8. Wow, what an amazing review! I really enjoyed it. I have loved Bob since I first discovered his music around ’72 or so. I became a Christian in ’75 and always prayed for him to be saved. I gave up t.v. and Rock music at that time and so didn’t hear about his conversion right away. When I did, it was a sister who posted it in the hallway of our building. I went out and bought the album, “Saved.” I cried with joy! I was so happy that Jesus found him and he finally got to know the same peace in his heart that I did.

    One day, while living with other Christians in NYC, a sister who I was especially close to came home from work to tell me that she ran into Bob in Central Park. She said he was rather incognito and sort of appeared to look like a homeless man, or something like that she said.. perhaps she said he was wearing a hat, it’s hard to remember exactly, now but it was a Summer evening. She said she just caught his profile, and recognized him. She said “Bob, is that you?” He stopped and they chatted for a few minutes. She asked him how he was doing in his walk with Jesus, if he was hanging in there or having a trying time.. something like that. He asked her what she was listening to on her walkman. I think she said it was the Pretenders. Anyway, his answer was that if she wanted to know how he was doing, to listen to his music. That you could always tell that by listening to his music. She told him that her room mate (that’s me) was praying for him, and has been for years.

    That’s all I remember now. Your review reminded me of that. So I think you are right.. his music is once again revealing how he’s doing.. or believing.

    Love you still, Mr. Dylan.. after all these years. I wonder how many other soul mates you have out there besides me, Bob. I hope we finally meet in Heaven, by the Grace of God.


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