For parents of young children, the highs and lows of the holidays can be like an anxiety dream in which all the kids' birthdays converge on the same day. The anticipation, excitement, sleeplessness, exhaustion, and anti-climax (followed by the devastating realization that it will be a whole year before it comes round again) grow exponentially as the season builds. These emotional peaks and valleys can be smoothed if the child latches on to an album of holiday music and listens to it with awe and happiness over and over. If parents are really lucky, they may find the music as likable as their kids do. The following CDs have a good chance of making that particular miracle happen.
Arthur's Perfect Christmas (Rounder Kids) is a new release sure to hold a grade-schooler's attention with its energy, silliness, and because of most kids' familiarity with the characters from the popular PBS series. As Arthur's family gathers for their own Christmas festivities, they learn how and why other types of winter holidays are celebrated. Songs for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, even Sweden's St. Lucia's Day are interspersed with Christmas standards, in jazz, rock, and traditional styles. Some lyrics have been altered to please the 7-year-old listener, but most of the selections are seriously good by anyone's standards. One skippable lapse: D.W.'s punk version of "Silent Night."
Rachel Buchman's Shine Little Candles, also new this year from Rounder Kids, is set at a Hanukkah party where children quiz the adults about the holiday. The answers to the kids questions are the occasion for traditional holiday songs in Yiddish, English, and Ladino (a form of Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews), as well as several songs based on the Hebrew Daily Prayer Book. Buchman keeps the learning fun, seamlessly integrating history, rituals, and the spiritual meaning of Hanukkah into the strong story line. The musical presentation is upbeat, with compelling vocals, mostly Buchman's, supported by children's voices, guitar, violin, accordion, and bells.
For an album that's all music, and all Christmas, all the time, check out the joyful new For Unto Us a Child Is Born (Twin Sisters), full of original, old-fashioned rock and roll (drums, guitar, keyboard, sax, pennywhistle, and flute), capably and clearly sung by children. Uplifting and infectious, occasionally incredibly sweet, it is reminiscent of the best of "Godspell."
A Child's Hanukkah (Music for Little People), featuring the Jewish Wedding Band, tells a story centered on the music and food of Hanukkah. A wise uncle visits the family and answers the children's questions while Mom makes latkes. The music continues to bounce along in the background during conversations, keeping the atmosphere festive and the family on the brink of dance. Sephardic percussion, flamenco guitars, and klezmer clarinet bring an exotic flavor that reminds us that Jews have settled all over the world. Many of the songs are traditional, but most of the singing is done in English. Kids are bound to be entranced by the gaiety and accessibility of this CD. A Child's Celebration of Christmas (Music for Little People) makes for some very strange bedfellows. This is the first and quite probably only time you'll hear RunDMC and Pete Seeger on the same album. The eclectic mix can have obvious strategic advantages, especially in families that include ultra easily bored preteens. Parents might not totally appreciate the barking-dog version of "Jingle Bells" but will be rewarded for their patience by Stevie Wonder's irresistible "Everyone's a Kid at Christmas Time" and the bone-chillingly beautiful folk song "Nothing but a Child" by Robin and Linda Williams. Other artists include Odds Bodkin, Chuck Berry, the Jackson 5, and the Beach Boys.
Sharon, Lois, and Bram keep the tempo lively and do not digress into explanations on Candles Long Ago--Songs for the Chanukah Season (Drive Entertainment and Elephant Records). Some are traditional, others, like their imaginative version of Tchaikovsky's "Winter Sweet" (sic), are not. Strong on entertainment value, this might be a good first step to more enlightening and educational fare down the road and is not the least bit hard on grown-up ears.
Lastly, a quick reminder of some slightly older CD's that are deservedly on their way to becoming classics:
Tom Paxton's A Child's Christmas is a gem. Paxton's lighthearted lyrics and imagination, as well as an obvious empathy with kids, make this an album that all generations can appreciate. And the lively folk melodies can really get under your skin.
John Denver brings depth and sweetness to A Christmas Together, the album he did with Jim Henson's Muppets.
Nick at Nite's A Classic Cartoon Christmas has songs from yearly Christmas cartoon specials that many grown-ups and kids will recognize. Jimmy Durante ("Frosty the Snowman"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio ("Charlie Brown"), and the original "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are some of the big draws.