This time of the year, it’s almost impossible to listen to Christmas radio very long without hearing something sung by Amy Grant. The contemporary Christian artist has recorded three beloved Christmas albums and an additional dozen or so holiday songs not on those core CDs.
Her Christmas song that I find most moving and majestic, and almost spooky because of its piano intro, is largely relegated to Christian radio. Despite that, it’s been redone frequently, and it’s inspired a book of the same name that Grant wrote. Amazingly, it wasn’t even a Christmas song when it was first written! Here’s the story of my Christmas Song of the Day for December 19, “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song).”
We start with Chris Eaton. He is unusual because, in a genre dominated by Americans, he is a British composer of contemporary Christan music. Early in his career, Eaton was in a couple bands, but he also gained the attention of Cliff Richard, “The British Elvis Presley,” who also has recorded a lot of gospel and worship music over the years. In 1990, Richard had a #1 Christmas hit in England with Eaton’s “Saviour’s Day.”
Earlier, by 1985, Eaton was spending some time in Nashville, and he began working with Grant as a backing vocalist. On more than one occasion, he served as a member of her touring band, and it was on the tour for the hugely successful 1991 Heart in Motion album that Eaton introduced Amy to “Breath of Heaven.”
As the tour wound down, Grant had started assembling songs for what would become her second Christmas album, Home for Christmas. She loved Eaton’s melody and chorus, but as written, it was a celebration of God in nature and was in no way a Christmas song. Also, Grant was pregnant with her third child, which further inspired her. With his permission, she completely rewrote the verses to have it reflect Mary’s journey to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Grant left Eaton’s chorus basically as it was. (Eaton recorded his original lyrics on a solo album in 1995.)
When Home for Christmas was released in late 1992, much of the initial attention went to Grant’s cover of the 1990 David Foster-Linda Thompson song “Grown-Up Christmas List,” which was issued as a single. But “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” began to collect its own accolades; Donna Summer recorded it for her 1993 Christmas album, and Billboard magazine chose it as Contemporary Christian Song of the Year for 1994, a rare honor for a Christmas song. Its stature has only grown in the years since, but it remains mostly ignored by secular radio. Here’s Amy Grant’s original recording.