Daily Distraction: The 10th anniversary of the best Christmas album you've never heard
Ten years later, Hymns from Nineveh's 'Endurance in Christmas Time' perfectly captures the joy and longing of the season
"We’ve lost our fathers.
We’ve lost our mothers.
We didn’t quite think it would be this hard
to endure the Christmas time."
That's the first stanza of the leadoff title track from Endurance in Christmas Time, the 2011 album from Danish band Hymns from Nineveh. It's an opening volley well suited for the 2021 COVID holidays, and it also sent a clear message 10 years ago: This is not your typical Christmas fodder. These songs won't slot well alongside "Santa Baby" and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" on Sunny 95.
Once Thanksgiving hits, I'm ready for Christmas music, but I'm picky. I have a playlist of holiday tunes I'm constantly tweaking, and each year I'm reminded of how difficult it is to make a strong Christmas-themed album from front to back. Plenty of artists have written one-off holiday singles that hold up, but a full record of original yuletide jams without a few throwaways? That's a tall order of egg nog.
Endurance in Christmas Time is the rare exception. Singer/guitarist Jonas Petersen made a gorgeously layered folk-pop album that revels in the beauty of the Advent/Christmas season while also acknowledging that those twinkly lights only shine brightly because of a darkness that doesn't disappear when the calendar flips to December.
"Who can defeat the time we live in? Who can defeat the time we die in?" Petersen sings with Sufjan-esque falsetto flourishes on the title track. It's a Christmas album, so the answer to those questions is more than implied (see "The Boy in the Manger"), but Petersen is often content to leave you hanging. Advent, after all, is a time of waiting.
Yet joy always arrives. "Suddenly we hear/The kingdom is near/And Christmas is here," he sings on "Christmas is Here" as strings and droning harmonica give way to bells and tambourine and a Christmas choir.
For the full effect, these 13 songs are meant to be played in order. "Who Can Make a Woeful Heart to Sing," for instance, ends on the song's titular question, and the answer comes on the following track, "Colour Bird," which finds Petersen imploring a winged creature to bring him comfort and joy: "Winter bird, sing/Sing me a song about Nöel/Sing about the Nazarene/And his treasures in gold and myrrh."
Perhaps the idea of an infant savior born to a virgin 2,000 years ago doesn't resonate with you. Fair enough. But the message of hope amid sadness — of looking forward to better, brighter days — is a universal one, and few bands convey it better than Hymns from Nineveh.
Ten years after its release, Endurance in Christmas Time is still relatively unknown, but I'm hopeful more listeners will catch on. Do your part by clicking on the title track below and taking four minutes to embrace the joy and longing of the season.
I'll leave you with Petersen's words from the benedictory closing track, "It's December Again":
"It’s December again
let’s hope New Year will bring
strength to our weakened bodies, my friend.
Bent down by the battle
of the unsaid
let’s thrust all our worries
unto stronger shoulders.
Let’s say it is time
to mend what was broken
to lay down the knives
and let go of the wrath.
Let’s say it is possible
to stay together
just to be
and to come home.
Let’s say we were wrong about each other
when we said otherwise;
let’s kiss and make love!
Now I have said
what I had to say.
I stand naked before you.
I’ll stand and I’ll stay."