Thirty years after recording “Slow Train Coming” in Alabama in May 1979, Bob Dylan went into a recording studio in California in May 2009, after ending his fine European tour in Dublin. In October 2009, a collection of fifteen cover songs was released. Eleven of these songs were written and first recorded in the second third of the 20th century, and most of these eleven are songs a young Robert Zimmerman would have been familiar with in Minnesota. So most of them are recorded by Bob Dylan with rather traditional arrangements, reflecting both what kind of “Christmas” music and what kind of “Christmas” lyrics America came up with during that time.
According to some of these songs one could get the impression that Christmas really is about Santa Claus and his bag that's filled with toys, about building a snowman in a winter wonderland, about happy crowds mingling, doing window shopping, before rushing home with their treasures to the sound of silver bells; or about hanging stockings on a great big coconut tree, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire; that Christmas really is about reindeer sleigh, come our way, ho ho ho, cherry nose, cap on head, suit that's red, special night, beard that's white. Some people might think that Bob Dylan believes that Christmas really is about all that. But I don’t think he does.
It is obvious to me that not one of these eleven songs from the mid 20th century would have been out of place on Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour”; but interestingly enough only one of these songs, “Must Be Santa”, was presented there, with exactly the same non-traditional arrangement from 1991, which Bob Dylan covered on his album. To my ears those eleven songs are beautifully delivered by the able musicians, the background singers, and Bob Dylan himself, whose ragged voice remains to my ears the most interesting instrument in music history, even if he would have recorded a selection of words from his local phone book, or any old restaurant menu.
Whoever has visited this website since June 2000 would know however that my main interest in Bob Dylan are those songs which do not only reflect the times we live in, but those songs which reflect and convey timeless biblical truth. And seen in this light those eleven songs from the second third of the 20th century, beautiful as they are, are mere window dressing in comparison to the four real Christmas songs on the album, positioned as tracks 4, 8, 12, and 15. Those four songs are recorded in a slightly more serious style, and they were not written to be recorded soon after, as they are much older than any commercial recordings in history.
These four songs are well known hymns from the 18th century, or in the last case the 19th century, and even though Bob Dylan is not giving any credit to the actual writers or composers of those hymns, which are all four only listed in the minute print of the credits as "Traditional, arranged by Bob Dylan", and even though only some verses of each hymn are recorded, nevertheless those four songs are sung by Bob Dylan with a sincerity which conveys his genuine understanding of the true meaning of Christmas and the biblical truth it is based upon. Some however do not think he is serious here, maintaining that Bob Dylan is faking it with these heartfelt renditions of those hymns.
According to those four songs one could get the impression that Christmas really is about Christ, born in Bethlehem, about peace on earth and mercy mild, about God and sinners reconciled, about all nations rising in joy proclaiming the birth of Christ, coming to adore this Christ as Lord, confessing that the King of Israel is born in this little town of Bethlehem, where the hopes and fears of all the years are met; that Christmas really is about the wondrous gift, which is silently given, as God imparts to human hearts the blessings of all His heavens. Some people might think that Bob Dylan does not believe that Christmas really is about all that. But I do think he does.
Bob Dylan could easily have chosen to record a few more mid 20th century songs like the other eleven for “Christmas In The Heart”; but he chose instead to record those four old hymns which do reflect the biblical story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The way in which Bob Dylan sings these hymns conveys that he really is “a true believer”, as he confirmed it in the only interview he gave in connection with this album. Some will still insist that Bob Dylan is faking it, and that he does not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ any longer. If however he would not be a true believer, then he never was; for where a meek soul receives Christ, as He enters in, He is coming to stay.