I am a sucker for a well-written song. The combination of good writing and moving music is almost guaranteed to make me emotional. It’s my one weakness and the only way to crack this hardened shell of my cold cold heart. Wedding day? Nothing. Birth of my kids? Nada. Death of relatives? A stone. But play a sad song that has poignant lyrics? Yeah I’ll probably blubber.

There is a beautiful Christmas song by the indie group Over the Rhine, an Ohio-based folk band, primarily consisting of the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. They began as an indie band, formed in the late ’80s, before getting picked up by IRS records. Virgin later acquired publishing rights but most recently they’ve been self-publishing their work through their own label, Great Speckled Dog.

Despite consistently recording and releasing music for thirty years, they’ve flown under the radar compared to major artists and groups. All the same, they have a devoted (but small) following who swear by their music. And what is their genre of music?


There’s no better word to describe it. At times it’s bluesy, at times folk, sometimes country, and sometimes soul, but no matter what style they play in, their tone never changes. The sound may change, but the emotion stirred by their music is consistently nostalgic, melancholic, and yearning. They have a pair of stellar Christmas albums, Snow Angels and Blood Oranges in the Snow that are anything but conventional or traditional. The songs are more about the Christmas season and the feelings and memories it conjures up more than anything else.

Among their holiday songs is a beautiful one with wonderful spiritual application. It’s called “First Snowfall.” I could link the song right here but I’d rather you just read the lyrics, first. I’ll interject here and there with comments…

The Christmas decorations
Look ragged and rusty;
A little sooty with coal dust;
Santa’s missing an eye.

The neon sign flickers
On the cinder block tavern
By the Salvation Army
And the plumbers supply.

The old downtown mission
Has John 3:16 painted
In all capital letters
Above cans full of trash.

But the paint is all peeling;
Broken glass on the sidewalk
Glitters like chandeliers
Somebody smashed.

And my soul feels as empty
As a brown paper bag;
The drained bottle inside it
Bought with bummed change

40 ounces of liquor
For 30 pieces of silver;
And your temporary suicide
Has all been arranged.

So the first verse basically tells the story of a person that has made a lot of bad choices in life. He’s a drunk, a bum, a beggar, homeless and alone. He finds himself in an alley in the city, slowly killing himself with alcohol and depression. He feels like Judas every time he goes back to the bottle, betraying himself, the family he fled from, and his God above. It’s a grim picture, but then something happens that changes his perspective…

It’s like an angel starts singing
An old Gospel song
In that part of town where
No angel belongs.

But what is this music
That falls on my ear?
It’s the very first snowfall
Of a very long year.

The refrain describes the feeling of hope that stirs within this otherwise hopeless bum. It’s like the song of angels, despite coming from a bad part of town ‘where angels fear to tread.’ And what is the music? It’s the very first snowfall of what, to him has been, a very long year. I think every one of us can agree 2020 has been a very long year. We haven’t seen our very first snowfall yet, but we can pretend and through music we can be transported to a place where the snow falls in early December. What is the spiritual power behind the image of snowfall? How about: “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18b).”

Back to the song…

I’m so far from home
And all that’s familiar;
Every prodigal knows
How this story goes.

Was I just runnin’ from what’s
Too dark to mention,
Or were angels escorting me?
God only knows.

So help me Maria
We heard the same call;
Our hearts felt as free
As a dove newly flown.

When a big city beckons
Ah you just can’t imagine;
You’re left with no choice
Yeah, you just have to go.

The singer—the beggar—puts himself in the shoes of the Prodigal Son, tempted to fly away from home and enjoy freedom. Well, like the prodigal, freedom and fun soon run out. And now the singer is destitute and alone. He feels hopeless, but again finds a reason to hope…

It’s like an angel starts singing
An old Gospel song
In that part of town where
No angel belongs.

But what is this music
That falls deaf ears?
It’s the very first snowfall
Of a very long year.

The final verse of the song…

There’s two stray dogs runnin’
In Newport, Kentucky;
They’ve got a secret
No one else knows.

This old dirty city
Is cleansed of its sin:
We’re all light-hearted lovers;
We’re all beautiful beggars;
We’re all innocent children;
As soon as it snows.

It’s here where the snowfall imagery is brought into the Biblical context. The sight of the snow blanketing the city where this beggar is living brings to mind the hope for a new beginning. The trash and broken glass that was described in the first verse is now covered by the pure white snow, and it makes the beggar realize he too can be covered, and made again into an innocent child.

It’s like an angel starts singing
An old Gospel song
In that part of town where
No angel belongs.

But what is this music?
Are these God’s silent tears?
It’s the very first snowfall
Of a very long year.

It’s a beautiful song, not quite Christmassy, but certainly wintery. And, when I’m low on sleep and feeling extra melancholic, it easily moves me to tears, not just because it’s wonderfully written and performed, but because it reminds me of the power of redemption, and the promise that all of us, no matter how stained and seemingly-ruined our lives may be, can have our sins covered and made white as snow.

~ Matthew