Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album and the hidden power of deep tradition

I remember when Bruce’s Christmas album came out in 1993. I was a foreign Canadian in Philadelphia, USA, and one of my mates mentioned it. Bruce’s voice is distinctively Canadian besides being distinctive, period, and I wasn t sure Bruce on Christmas would be a hit. Since Bob Dylan has now done a Christmas album, clearly, even talk singers can do one. Nat King Cole rules no more.

It’s been four or five years since finally I got the Bruce album and I like it better every year. Bruce’s album is catholic in the sense that catholic means “universal.” He covers an array of cultures and dives down into time as well, so you have the church across the globe and across times singing with him. Christmas has been celebrated in Quebec with the Huron, in the South — and Bruce thows in no sleighbells sentimentalia. The album is straight celebration and worship.

Open a new tab and listen to snips at

The songs I m appreciating most this time around are the medieval ones. Check out “Down in Yon Forest.” Here are the lyrics:

Down in yon forest be a hall
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Tis is coverleted over with purple and pall
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, in that hall is a pallet-bed
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Tis stained with blood like cardinal-red
Sing all good men for the new born baby

And at that pallet is a stone
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
On which the virgin did atone
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Under that hall is a gushing flood
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
– From Christ’s own side, ’tis water and blood
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Beside that bed a shrub-tree grows
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
Since he was born it blooms and blows
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, on that bed a young squire sleeps
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
His wounds are sick and sick, he weeps
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, hail yon hall where none can sin
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Cause it’s gold outside and silver within
Sing all good men for the new born baby

The Cockburn project page at  says this is not merely Renaissance era or medieval but positively ancient. Since the blood of the king is to be spilled to fertilize the ground, I daresay it plugs into traditions predating Christianity by thousands of years.

But the point for me is that the world of the song is Christianized through and through. I would argue that it is not syncretism, though I can imagine someone thinking so.

If the history of the world up to Christ prepared for Christ, then prechristian traditions can be restated in fully Christian dress. Christianizing was the Christian strategy for Hallowe’en — and for December 25th itself! Old time refusniks like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or independent Baptists or the teenage me refused its legitimacy, but the older me thinks that if the church could truly christianize Plato and stage a cultural takeover, then why should I object to the Northern tribes receiving the same treatment. (I know, deep waters here.)

The reason why enacting the Christian story has now become important is because Christians need to recover a zone in which they act out the reality of their faith.  I ve been impressed for five years plus by “How the World Lost Its Story,” the Robert Jenson’s 1990s article in First Things. Jenson is a Lutheran, meaning that formal worship and the seasons of the Christian year are regularly observed. The Reformation put away all those Catholic images and even the reality of the Supper in exchange for a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. True!

Yet maybe Christians all need to think again. In giving up much of the embodiments of the faith, Protestants left themselves without key resources that make the church a real counter-society, not merely, as the Protestants willing became, a chaplaincy to a society thought to be Christian.

(“How the World Lost Its Story” is at )

There is a deep well in Cockburn’s song selection. Sing these songs with Bruce and you are transported to a world where the next big thing is nowhere near as important as the One Big Thing, that is, salvation, Christ, God, redemption, love, hope, trust, keeping faith.

Even Christmas is a holdover from an earlier era. It is like a white-wedding-dress wedding. Both are still done, regularly, every year, without comment, accepted, expected. But the spirit has mostly gone out of both.

In our utilitarian culture, Christmas is the time that retailers make the bang that’ll keep the stores open through to June. We all need R n R, and Christmas is that — an end of year time for family and friends to renew acquaintance and hoist some brand names together. -Too rich a statement you think?

How much more profound is the real Christmas, precursor of the real Easter. How miraculous, so far from the merely mundane? How much more identity-and-life-affirming are Bruce’s songs compared to “Dashing through the snow…”

To get through the present confused era, believers will need more and more retrievals — dustings off, refurbs, re-statements –as well as active resistance movements in the form of freshly imagined songs and enactments of our faith. Doing it alone is not going to cut it for believers. Too bad we can’t get a bunch of us together and sing Bruce’s songs in the flesh with a guitar or two and a ginger ale. The order of the day is real celebration.


3 thoughts on “Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album and the hidden power of deep tradition

  1. Thanks for this Ted. The breadth of Bruce’s Christmas album is indeed one of the remarkable things about it.
    And yes to retrieval, though I’m not so sure about the whole Platonic heritage. Might be best to leave it in the past.

    • For sure. Plato is history. But the battle for a renewed Christianity will be an intellectual battle too as it was in the beginning. I m enjoying C N Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture at the moment — a Newbigin citation — and also much stimulated by a new book by C Mathews Republic of Grace, (Eerdmans) which is an Augustinian approach to the new dark ages. Also enjoying your company through the Cockburn book!

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