If you were one of Christian music’s all-time biggest artists and you decided to “reinvent yourself,” would you publicly initiate that with a Christmas album? Or if you wanted to record a concept album calling the church to love the “least of these,” would you do that with a Christmas project? If you’re MercyMe or Steven Curtis Chapman, the response to these questions is, “Why not?” And hey, while they’re at it, they might as well do a Christmas tour for the first time, right?

Two of the biggest names in Christian music, Steven Curtis Chapman and MercyMe, are doing everything in their power to get fans into the spirit of Christmas as each has recently released a brand new collection of holiday tunes. Together they have announced a special “Christmas Tour” in the tradition of previous events by luminaries such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. For MercyMe, the diversion serves as a portent of things to come for the band and its next studio release, while for Chapman, the return to Christmas themes offers a chance to delve deeper into his increasingly important passion for family and ministry.

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree

For Bart Millard and his four-time platinum band MercyMe, several great reasons emerged to offer up a collection of Christmas songs this year. No. 1: “We love Christmas,” Millard says. “We absolutely love it.” In fact, the new record, "The Christmas Sessions" (INO), does not mark the band’s first attempt at holiday fare. “We did a couple of tracks for different things over the past few years, such as the "WOW Christmas" record and things like that. We enjoy visiting these traditional hymns and songs and changing them up a little bit. We had so much fun doing it that we found ourselves wishing we had a Christmas record of our own.”

The opportunity for MercyMe to do exactly that presented itself this year. “We hit a point after the release of "Undone" when we wanted to take some time off from the next big release,” says Millard. “So this whole year came wide open. We  thought, ‘If we’re ever going to do a Christmas record, now is the time to do it.’” The band began tracking last Christmas and put the finishing touches on the record this summer.

While in many ways "The Christmas Sessions" seems like the next logical step for the band, there is more to this little stocking stuffer than meets the eye. “It’s also a little bit of a foreshadowing,” Millard confides. “We were a rock band when we started 11 years ago. But we kind of became the ‘adult contemporary poster child’ when ‘I Can Only Imagine’ took off. We’ve wanted to gradually play more rock music than we have in the past, without shooting ourselves in the foot.”

In a practical way, the familiarity of the Christmas genre is allowing MercyMe to stretch its musical identity even before its next studio album (due in April). “The Christmas Sessions is the most ‘rock’ album we’ve done,” Millard explains. “It has all kinds of stuff on it, but we didn’t have to worry about which direction we went. We just made the record we wanted to make. It’s kind of a sign of things to come.”

Having the legendary Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman) at the production helm only adds to the intrigue. For while "The Christmas Sessions" certainly delivers on the promise of its title (including a stealth collaboration with Amy Grant on MercyMe’s version of “Silent Night”), the music definitely reaches farther into the rock category than people are likely to expect from MercyMe or Bannister, who will also produce the band’s 2006 release. “We said [to Brown], ‘We want to be a rock band, and you want to be a rock producer, so let’s just prove to people that we can do this.’”