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What defines a Christmas classic?
Some songs get remade year after year, while others languish on forgotten recordings
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Months before Christmas, the director of the Northwinds Symphonic Band is surrounded by holiday music as he and his musicians rehearse for the group’s annual concert.

But as Christmas approaches and radio stations start to dedicate their playlists to more and more Christmas music, Ron Evans opts to drive in silence. He saves listening to the canned Christmas music until Dec. 24, as he finishes has last-minute errands before the big day.

“I get enough overload in rehearsing the Northwinds band, and we have to start so early,” he said. “So it doesn’t seem like it’s in the season yet.”

Nevertheless, Evans says there are some Christmas songs that are simply classics and he’ll never get tired of them.

For example, the Northwinds Symphonic Band’s recent Christmas concert featured three different arrangements of “Silent Night.”

“And each one had its own personality,” he said. “One was traditional ‘Silent Night,’ another was a jazzy ‘Silent Night,’ and then there was the Mannheim Steamroller ‘Silent Night,’ which just held the audience breathless.

“It was one of those times that everybody was just spellbound.”

But what is it that makes a Christmas song a classic?

“If I knew, I’d write one. I’d write a great one,” said singer/songwriter John Berry, who recently brought his Christmas tour to Pearce Auditorium in Gainesville. Berry hit it big more than a decade ago with his version of “O Holy Night,” and has released a few Christmas albums since then.

But even with seasoned veterans such as Berry, the idea of what makes a Christmas song stand the test of time can be an elusive one.

“Traditional would be ‘The Christmas Song,’ ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ kind of song,” he said. “Or, ‘Oh Holy Night.’ That particular one would be more of a religious-based Christmas song. (Or) ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas,’ for example.”

David Burton Brown, director of music and the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, looks to very specific religious-themed songs when picking Christmas tunes for weekly church services.

Specifically, he said, the music focuses on advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ arrival.

“We sing hymns like ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’” said Brown, who also plans the music for special services. “I personally like it better because ... it’s like stepping into Christmas a little at a time.”

Berry cited a more recent Christmas tune when listing his favorite songs for the holiday — his “My Heart Is Bethlehem,” with lyrics such as “My heart is Bethlehem/I will make room for him/this humble dwelling of a place made worthy of his grace.” Although it’s a newer song, he said he likes its traditional sound.

Evans noted that “traditional” sound also made it easier to translate a song into multiple genres and styles. For example, the multiple variations of the classic “Silent Night” at the recent Northwinds concert.

“White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” are two other can’t-miss classics, he cited, along with a couple by songwriter Leroy Anderson.

“I love the Christmas carol medley by Leroy Anderson called ‘Christmas Festival.’ It is timeless and it’s probably played more than any other selection in the Christmas season,” he said. “Also, his ‘Sleigh Ride’ is extremely popular and is played generally in addition to ‘Christmas Festival.’”

Although Brown said he didn’t have a specific favorite, he did say classic Christmas songs have already proven themselves over time.

Newer songs, he said, will prove worthy of the “classic” label over time, too. But not all of them.

“Time makes that decision on its own; none of us really do,” he said, of knowing what makes a song a classic. “There is a lot of music written today. Some of it will survive 10 years; most of it won’t.”