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What Are the Best Christmas Songs Ever?

Photo courtesy of Spotify.

Last year in this space, I presented a column entitled “What Are the Top Ten Christmas Movies Ever?” That piece seemed to generate a solid modicum of interest, debate, and enjoyment. So now I’m taking on perhaps an even more difficult subject for ranking: what are the best Christmas songs ever?

When I began doing research for this commentary, I thought, oh boy, what have I gotten myself into? The sheer volume of music associated with Christmas and the holiday season is staggering. Therefore, I have chosen to break down my list into two categories: Traditional Carols and Pop Culture. Without further ado, let’s see what little Richie has produced from his Christmas stocking pertaining to seasonal tunes.

TOP 10 TRADITIONAL CAROLS

  1. “O Holy Night” – Originally set to music in 1847, this magnificent carol reflects on the birth of Jesus as humanity’s redemption. The first time I remember hearing it was at Christmas Eve service at my church, First Methodist in Pascagoula when I was 10or 11, sung by Roma Rea Fleming, a college student with the voice of an angel. I’ve been hooked ever since.
  2. “Joy to the World” – This is a classic English anthem daring back to 1719, and is the most published Christmas hymn in North America since the beginning of the 20th century. I mean, you get to really belt this one out, and the words are so uplifting: “repeat the sounding joy…,” “He rules the world, with truth and grace,” and so on. No, we’re not talking about the 1970 Three Dog Night number here.
  3. “Silent Night” – German Franz Gruber composed this one in 1818 (“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”), and it endures as a revered hymn to this day. During my family’s annual Christmas Eve carol sing when I was growing up, my Uncle Burt, who had usually had a cup of cheer or two, would invariably come up to me during the run of songs and say “Richard, tell ‘em we have to do “Silent Night”.
  4. “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” – I always really liked this one, which goes all the way back to the 1650s. The ending refrain is memorable: “Oh tidings of comfort and joy / Comfort and joy / O-o-h tidings of com-m-fort and joy.”
  5. “Jingle Bells” – OK, this is the first one that creates a couple of questions. Since it has no original connection to Christmas, does it actually belong here? Should it be in this category, or the Pop Culture segment? I say yes to both: (1) Come on, it is a Christmas song. (2) Look, it goes all the way back to 1857 (first American-written of those mentioned so far), and, again, we all pretty much think of it as a carol.
  6. “The First Noel” – Although English in origin, the name comes from the French word noel , meaning “the Christmas season”. It has one of the best chorus sections ever.
  7. “Good King Wenceslas” – Stirring story here about a Bohemian (now Czech Republic) king who goes on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Steven (second day of Christmas). “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither”. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
  8. “Deck the Halls” – This Welsh melody dates all the way back to the sixteenth century. “Tis the season” has become synonymous with the Christmas and holiday season, and who doesn’t like “Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la”.
  9. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – Yeah, this one gets parodied a lot, but it’s a classic example of a cumulative song, the current version first appearing in England in 1909. Plus, you gotta admit that it’s fun to envision “ten lords a-leaping” and the always famous “partridge in a pear tree”. Over the years and to this day, our family’s Christmas Eve sing-a-long concludes with “The Twelve Days…,” with different folks taking on one day apiece.
  10. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – Another good tune to blast out at the end of a carol sing. How many times do you get to sing, “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding… we won’t go until we get some, so bring it right here”?

Honorable Mention: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings,” O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Christmas Tree,” and so many others.

TOP 10 POP CULTURE CHRISTMAS SONGS

  1. “The Christmas Song” (1945) – Many, including me for some years, didn’t know this was the title of the Nat King Cole classic. But when you hear “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” “Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,” “And so I’m offering this simple phrase, from kids from one to ninety-two,” you’re there.
  2. “Holly Jolly Christmas” (1964) – With the peppy lyrics and the pleasing tenor of Burl Ives, this one has always helped put me in the spirit: “Ho ho, the mistletoe / Is hung where you can see / Somebody waits for you / Kiss ‘er once for me.”
  3. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934)- This seasonal staple has many variations, and my favorite is by Bruce Springsteen in 1975. His throaty, upbeat rendering, with the saxophone accompaniment of the late, great Clarence Clemons will get you going.
  4. “The Little Drummer Boy” (1941)- Several adaptations have been done for this haunting strain, and I give the nod to the Harry Simeone Chorale piece from 1958. When I was in high school and college, and a bunch of us would be riding around during the holidays with the radio blasting rock tunes, whenever “The Little Drummer Boy” would come on, we’d get quiet and listen peacefully to every word.
  5. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” (1963)- This wistful carol “(They’re singing Deck the Halls/But it’s not like Christmas at all/’Cause I remember when you were here/And all the fun we had last year”) by Darlene Love, the original “Christmas Queen” is a must-hear every year. My guy David Letterman used to take care of that by having Darlene come on his show right before Christmas each season to knock it out. ( His other cool seasonal tradition was to have the late Jay Thomas come on and throw a football to knock the meatball off the top of the set’s Christmas tree—but I digress.)
  6. “All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994)- I will say that we’re getting a bit overserved with this one by Mariah Carey (and others; I actually prefer the Vince Vance and the Valiants rendition), considering how many times it’s played during the holidays. But it is a strong song, and its use in the movie “Love, Actually,” a personal favorite, is superb. 
  7. “Feliz Navidad” (1970)- All right, the lyrics are pretty repetitive, but Jose’ Feliciano got it right and gave us a really catchy one. I always like the “prospero ano y felicidad” ( a prosperous year and happiness) refrain.
  8. “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” (1971)- Bet you didn’t have this Cheech and Chong recording on your list. It’s a hilarious routine by the stoner duo with Cheech trying to explain the concept of Santa Claus to a clueless Chong. Had to put one outlier on here—pull it up on You Tube and see what you think.
  9. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958)- Had to include one of the old rock ‘n roll seasonal tunes, and this one edged out “Jingle Bell Rock”. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing Brenda Lee yell out “You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear/Voices singing let’s be jolly/Deck the halls with boughs of holly”.
  10. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944)- Legendary songstress Judy Garland introduced this emotional rendering in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”. The final stanza kind of constitutes the musical equivalent of a warm hug: “Someday soon, we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow / So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

Honorable Mention: “Santa Baby,” “Christmas in Dixie,” “Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas,” “Meli Kelikimaka,” “Do You Hear What I hear,” and, again, so many others.

So, there you have it: the Richard B. Lucas Top Christmas Songs of All Time List. Like I always say, your list certainly may vary, and that’s totally understandable. I’ll wager that we all have several that we agree on, and the neat thing is that there are so many to pick from.

For now, I would like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and Happy New Year. Pick out your favorite Christmas melody, and sing it out, loud and clear.

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Written by Richard Lucas

Richard Lucas is a native and lifetime resident of Pascagoula. He is a Pascagoula High School graduate and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Mississippi. In 2017, he retired from Singing River Health System after a 36-year career as Director of Communications. He recently had a ten-year run as a weekly sports columnist for The Mississippi Press.

Richard and his wife Mary Jon, a retired school librarian, have been married for 43 years. They have two sons, Cooper and Wesley, and two dogs, Bea and Lily. The Lucases attend First United Methodist Church in Pascagoula. In retirement, Richard remains active in community affairs, serving on boards and committees such as The United Way of Jackson and George Counties, the Pascagoula Strategic Planning Committee, the Jackson County Historical and Genealogical Society, Pascagoula Main Street, and others.

Richard Lucas may be contacted at [email protected]

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