According to the Gospel of St. Luke, Christmas music began simultaneously with Christmas, with a choir of angels singing a text that is still sung today: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." The original music has been lost, but there is still plenty of classical Christmas music for those who want something more significant than "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
BACH -- "The Christmas Oratorio." This is not strictly an oratorio like "Messiah," but a collection of six cantatas for use at key points in the 12-day Christmas season. Such quibbles aside, however, the music is glorious. An excellent recording (among a half-dozen available) is that of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by Philip Ledger with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau among the soloists (Angel S-3840, 3 LPs).
BERLIOZ -- "L'Enfance du Christ." Hovering somewhere between opera and oratorio, this is a touching, marvelously fresh and appropriately simple musical narrative of the birth of Christ and the flight into Egypt -- a beautiful work and one not yet spoiled by over-familiarity. Colin Davis conducts a fine performance on Philips 6700106. Lower- priced recordings are Seraphim S-6125 and Nonesuch 73022. All three are two-record sets.
BRITTEN -- "A Ceremony of Carols." Benjamin Britten's setting of nine medieval and Renaissance carols, tailored to a traditional service of the Church of England, has some haunting music. One of the best recordings is also low-priced, with the choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks, on Seraphim S-60217.
HANDEL -- "Messiah." This is really music for Easter as well as Christmas, but it gets most attention this time of year. Among the 20-odd recordings, many are excellet -- for example, those conducted by Davis (Philips SC71AX300, 3 LPs); Mackerras (Angel S-3705, 3 LPs); Leppard (RCA CRL3-1426, 3 LPs) and Hogwood (Oiseau-Lyre D189D3, 3 LPs).
HUMPERDINCK -- "Hansel and Gretel." This opera for children, usually given at Christmas, can be enjoyed by anyone anytime. It has some of the prettiest tunes (rooted in German folk idioms) in all opera. Excellent recordings are conducted by Pritchard (CBS M2-35898, 2 LPs) and Solti (London 12112, 2 LPs).
TCHAIKOVSKY -- "The Nutcracker." A ballet that opens with a Christmas scene and tells about the adventures of a Christmas present, with music as delicious as bon-bons and candy canes. Among the excellent recordings are those of Dorati (Philips 6747257, 2 LPs) and Previn (Angel S-3788, 2 LPs). The superb video production featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland is available in Beta, VHS and LaserDisc.