I love Christmas. Love it. I enjoy the movies, the food, the lights, the aromas, and the general overall buzz around the holiday season. Now I grant you, commercialization has become an issue, and I sometimes feel that many of us get so caught up in the hustle and bustle that it all becomes one big pressure cooker instead of the sublime delight it always should be. And in an increasingly amoral society where Christianity has become an unlikely villain the true reason for the season is not only oftentimes lost, but sometimes overtly censored. However, be that as it may, I cannot control how others’ live their lives and I won’t let them spoil my joy.
A vital component to ones’ pleasure during this time of the year is the music. Christmas carols are just splendid. Some are soft, sentimental, and full of spiritual reverence. Others are amusing and frivolous. Our modern catalog of carols run the full width and breadth of an extensive range of genres and styles, but they all have one thing in common…they are beloved by the masses. And because of their popularity and flexibility most Christmas tunes have been covered by a plethora of artists over the course of the decades. So any particular song you like has probably been performed by everyone from country superstars to crooners to rockers to full orchestras. What I am presenting here is a two part special …my Top 25 Christmas carols.
When making this list I took several factors into consideration. Some songs are just so ubiquitous that one either loves them or hates them…period. Sometimes one particular version of a song is extremely memorable and has made it a holiday staple. I’m not discriminatory when it comes to subject matter. In other words, you will see some religious songs and some fun songs. There are particular artists that I tend to gravitate toward, and certain genres I like better than others. I like jazzy, bluesy versions of songs. I like big band or orchestral arrangements. I like crooners like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Harry Connick Jr., and Michael Buble. I like people who can actually sing…so it’s unlikely that any kind of post-modern rap, alternative, or bubblegum pop will frost my cupcake. I am also very fond of simple, stripped down instrumental interpretations…lyrics can be important, but not always necessary. Most of these songs have been around for many many many years, and I’m a huge advocate of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. I suppose I’m either old fashioned or a traditionalist, depending on the spin one chooses to utilize. At any rate, this is my list…one can either agree or disagree. Enjoy.
25 The Chipmunk Song
The Chipmunks were created in the late 1950’s and have enjoyed an on again-off again, intermittently successful career over five decades. As a child of the 1980’s I fondly recall the Saturday morning Chipmunks cartoon. But their first success is still their best…an almost too simple tune about being anxious (as most kids are) for Christmas to arrive and wanting toy planes and a hula hoop.
This is one of the oldest carols, having been written in the fifteenth century. Unabashedly and overtly delivering the message of the birth of Jesus and the gift of salvation to the world, it’s a tune supple enough to be energetically sung by a choir or congregation, or solemnly played by any manner of instrument.
23 It’s Beginning to Look Alot Like Christmas
Maybe this should more accurately be categorized as a pre-Christmas song, one intended to set the mood and prepare us for the onslaught. Most 21st century parents would give anything if all their kids wanted were hopalong boots or dolls that can talk as opposed to the mega-expensive video games, computers, and various other electronic toys today’s children demand, and a lesson in economics can be gleaned when pondering a “five-and-ten” in comparison with their modern counterparts, dollar stores. I dig almost anything that hearkens back to a less complicated time, even if, in reality, those times weren’t much less complicated. Perry Como and Johnny Mathis did the two best covers of the song.
I made this a tie for one reason. These three songs have a common thread…home. However and wherever one defines “home”, it’s where we want to be for Christmas. I’ll Be Home for Christmas was written and recorded during World War II and was extremely significant to soldiers and their families. Bing Crosby was the original artist, but I’m not married to that particular version per se…countless artists have done perfectly wonderful covers. Perry Como said it best in Home for The Holidays when he sang “no matter how far away you roam, if you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home”. Please Come Home for Christmas has a couple things going for it in my universe. It was originally a blues carol, and its best covers have been done by two of my favorite bands, The Eagles and Bon Jovi. The Eagles version is especially popular and usually in heavy rotation on your local radio station. These are melancholy songs, but that’s okay…Christmas is often a bittersweet season.
21 Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! / Meli Kalikimaka
Another tie, another reason. Both of these songs have attachments to movies. Let It Snow is played at the end of my favorite action flick, Die Hard, which I consider a Christmas movie even if no one else does. Meli Kalikimaka (Hawaiian for Merry Christmas) is prominent in Chevy Chase’s classic Christmas Vacation. Bing Crosby does the definitive version of Mele Kalikimaka, while Let It Snow is done best by original artist Vaughn Monroe but a viable alternative is the Dean Martin cover. Let It Snow is technically a winter song and makes no references to Christmas at all, but it has become so closely associated with the holiday season that it qualifies as a Christmas carol.
20 O Come All Ye Faithful/ Adeste Fideles
This isn’t a tie. It’s the same song in two different languages. Adeste Fideles was originally written…maybe…in the 13th century. No one knows for sure. It was translated into English as the more familiar O Come All Ye Faithful in the 19th century. The words of the song exhort us to celebrate the birth of Christ, to adore and behold The King. However, I have to say that the best versions of this song are audacious, grand, thunderous ensemble pieces by orchestras like The Boston Pops or the Mannheim Steamroller.
19 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
In the opening I spoke of some songs being ubiquitous during the Christmas season. This is a perfect example. With lyrics written in the 1700’s by Charles Wesley (brother of John, the founder of Methodism) and paired with music composed by Felix Mendelssohn a hundred years later, this is just one of those songs that IS Christmas. It speaks of everything Christmas should encompass: glory to The King (Jesus Christ, not Elvis), peace, mercy, joy, triumph, and righteousness. Like other songs it speaks about the birth of Christ and what that means to the world, and since that is the whole point of Christmas it’s fine with me if the message is rehashed in as many songs as possible. Off the top of my head I cannot think of one singular cover that stands out…they’re all great since it’s a pretty difficult song to mess up. It lends itself well to orchestral or instrumental versions, but choral versions with the words are probably my favorite.
18 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town / Here Comes Santa Claus
As we grow into adulthood our thoughts about Christmas begin to evolve. Those of us whose faith is extremely important understand and revere the fact that the birth of Christ is the centerpiece of the holiday. Adults who don’t consider themselves to be particularly spiritual appreciate things like home, family, and sentimental memories. But for kids Christmas is all about The Big Guy, the Jolly Old Elf, the fat man in the red suit…Santa Claus. So it makes sense that there would be a plethora of Christmas carols dedicated to Kris Kringle. The two most pervasive of these have been covered by an endless array of artists with mixed results, but they are so wonderful because they are so descriptive. They paint such a vivid picture of the mythology of Santa that anyone who doesn’t know the story can have it re-created in their mind just from these songs. Here Comes Santa Claus was written in 1946 by cowboy Gene Autry, who also sang the definitive version. About Santa, the singer sings “he doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same…Santa knows that we’re God’s children, that makes everything right…fill your hearts with Christmas cheer cause Santa Claus comes tonight”. What a great message. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town was written in 1934 and is a sort of cautionary tale for children. It warns them that Santa knows when they are sleeping and awake, knows when they’ve been bad or good, and will be making a list and checking it twice so he can divide it into two categories: naughty and nice. Call it gentle discipline or call it mind games…but it works and has scared millions of kids into being good little boys and girls. Bruce Springsteen might have the best known cover of the tune, but I think that’s simply because it’s so odd to hear such a gruff and tough rocker singing a children’s Christmas carol.
17 Away in a Manger
One of the seminal moments of the Christmas season for me is sitting in church during midnight service with nothing but the soft glow of candles in the window to light the sanctuary as the congregation softly sings. This moment usually encompasses three songs, one of which is Away in a Manger. Published in the late 1800’s, it has been credited by some to famed 16th century theologian Martin Luther, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement on the facts. At any rate, it’s a beautiful song that takes us back to the night of Jesus’ birth, the night He was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. The best covers of the song seem to be by country artists, possibly because the majority of them still seem to have some virtue remaining and are therefore capable of singing songs of faith with some sense of authenticity.
16 Joy to the World
Joy to the World is another song that have been adopted as a Christmas carol but wasn’t originally written as one. As a matter of fact, it’s actually about Christ’s Second Coming, not His first. Nevertheless, it is such an ingrained part of the holiday season that we won’t quibble over details. It’s a tune best performed in as loud and energetic a fashion as can possibly be mustered…afterall, the book of Psalms directs us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. So I tend to like boisterous choral or booming orchestral versions of the song. As a matter of fact, when it comes to Joy to the World I am not sure any singer or band could be subtle and hushed, although I am sure some have tried.
15 Carol of the Bells
I’ve seen the words, and they are quite lovely and appropriate. However, the best way to enjoy this one hands down is a strictly instrumental version. Carol of the Bells is a Ukrainian carol written early in the 20th century. I’m not sure where it ranks in general popularity since even if you do know the words (and most don’t) it’s not really something you sing as you trek thru the neighborhood on your annual church singalong…the pace is rather quick and not caroling friendly. But I like the tune a lot. It’s kind of a Christmas theme song, one of those tunes that you hear in commercials, in bumper music during talk radio shows, at the mall on the loudspeakers, etc. It’s everywhere, yet not so overdone that it grows tiresome. Plus I think I may have learned to play it in high school as part of the concert band’s holiday show.
14 Angels We Have Heard On High
You know this one…the one where the singer bellows out at the top of their lungs “Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!”. When sung by a great choir it’s absolutely beautiful, but even in just a commonplace group of worshipers or carolers it is usually sung with such fervent spirit that it doesn’t matter if not everyone can actually carry a tune. The aforementioned refrain is Latin for “glory to God in the highest”, which pretty much sums up what Christmas is, or atleast should be, about. I love orchestral versions of the song as well. The music lends itself well to things like French horns, cornets, and trombones. It doesn’t seem to get as much love as a lot of other carols, but I’ll take Angels over Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer or I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus any day.
13 Holly Jolly Christmas
A friend of mind in college once told me I looked like Burl Ives. I’ve always had an…ample…midsection, and at the time I was sporting a goatee.
Anyway, Burl Ives, as some may or may or may not recall, was a folk singer/actor/entertainer from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. But he is most likely best known to most, especially anyone under the age of 35, as the voice of Sam the Snowman, narrator of the perennial Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Even as an adult I cannot wait each Christmas season for that TV special. And even though Burl’s performance of the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn’t at the top of the list (more on that song later), he did contribute two other tunes…Silver & Gold and Holly Jolly Christmas. Holly Jolly Christmas could probably best be described as…catchy. It’s just got that kind of beat. And while some carols are melancholy, many show reverence to Christ, and others are plainly meant for kids, Holly Jolly Christmas is uplifting, positive, and fun without being the least bit childish. It talks about things like “the best time of the year”, “mistletoe”, “cup of cheer”, and “friends you know”. This is the kind of song that should put you instantly in a good mood no matter what’s going on in your life.
12 The Twelve Days of Christmas
First of all…yes…it’s not by accident that The Twelve Days of Christmas just so happened to end up at number 12. I’m poetic like that. Sue me. Secondly, a little refresher for those who might not know what in the world the 12 days of Christmas actually means. After all, we live in a world where we start “celebrating” Christmas almost before Halloween is over and these days almost certainly before Thanksgiving has even arrived. Of course by “celebrating” I mean retail stores and anyone else who has figured out a way to make a buck off of the birth of Jesus Christ. Anyway, originally the 12 days of Christmas were December 25-January 5, followed by Epiphany on January 6 (this is the day that the Magi, aka The Three Wise Men, arrived to visit the baby Jesus…not on Christmas as so many Christmas plays portray). Encompassed within this timeframe is Boxing Day on December 26. Contrary to what some may think, Boxing Day is not the day Canadians and Englishmen come bearing gifts to Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. January 5 was known as Twelfth Night and was the conclusion to the holiday season. The entire 12 days was a long festival of gift giving & merriment. So basically in the Middle Ages folks in England did what we do today, only they did it in 12 days instead of 2 months and they did it later. December 25 was the actual beginning of the season for them, whereas in modern times most of us are exhausted and ready for the whole ordeal to be over by the time the actual holiday arrives. What we call New Year’s Eve/Day was when they were really into the swing of things. By January 6 we’ve already moved on with our lives and those crazy cats were just winding down. Personally I’d LOVE to see our country revert back to this old fashioned way of doing things, but that and $2 will almost buy me a cup of coffee.
As far as the song, there is a modern folktale that says it was written in code to teach Catholics about their faith at a time when Catholicism was illegal. Supposedly the True Love is God, the Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus Christ, the Two Turtle Doves are the Old & New Testaments, the Three French Hens are The Trinity, the four colly birds are the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the Five Golden Rings are the Pentateuch or first five books of the Old Testament, the Six Geese-a-laying are the six days of Creation, the Seven Swans-a-swimming are the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord), the Eight Maids-a-milking are the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:3-12), the Nine Ladies Dancing are the Fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:19-23), the Ten Lords-a-leaping are The Ten Commandments, the Eleven Pipers Piping are the 11 faithful Apostles, and the Twelve Drummers Drumming are The Apostles’ Creed. Whether or not this story is accurate is unknown and quite honestly to me is irrelevant. Especially in an era when anything pro-God is treated dismissively the story is treated with a complete lack of respect. Even if the song wasn’t originally written for this suggested purpose I think it’s a great way to interpret it.
11 Silver Bells
How come the only time we hear bells is around Christmas?? Bells are quite charming and should be heard more often. However, the other 11 months’ loss is the Christmas season’s gain. Silver Bells was written in 1950, and unlike a lot of other Christmas carols that emphasize rustic, old-fashioned, pastoral settings this tune recognizes the hustle and bustle that overcomes a city during the holiday season. What’s funny is that a half century later even that description sounds quaint and charming. This song holds a special place in the hearts of millions of us who grew up watching the annual Bob Hope Christmas Special, which ran on NBC for over 40 years. Three traditions were a huge part of the Hope Christmas show: the introduction of the All America College Football Team, Hope closing the show with his theme song Thanks for the Memory, and a duet featuring Hope and a much younger, very attractive starlet singing Silver Bells. I didn’t realize until I was actually writing this how much of an indelible mark those specials made on me. The last one aired over 15 years ago and Bob Hope himself has been gone for about 6 years. Thanks for the memories indeed Bob.
- Spice up Your Holiday with Christmas Music Albums from around the World (thecontrapuntist.com)
- Carolers Beware: Cost of “Twelve Days of Christmas” Jumps (dailyfinance.com)
- A History of Christmas Carols – Their Origins and Significance (epages.wordpress.com)