On Facebook for the past several days, I’ve been counting down my 50 favorite Christmas songs. Coming up with the top 50 songs wasn’t terribly difficult. I’ve identified roughly 375 different contenders, though I’m only familiar with a little more than 200 of them. A good number of the Christmas songs I know were easily disqualified because of the unpleasant visceral reaction they cause.
Ranking the top 50 on the other hand — beyond a few that consistently rise to the top — was a difficult task. Still, there’s a kind of double-edged fun to assembling a list like this one: 1) Comparing and debating the rankings with friends; and 2) The fluid nature of the list, in part because of new songs discovered that upset the balance. If I do this again, the 2013 edition might look somewhat different.
Some of the songs you see below contain video links, either because the song may be less familiar or because it’s a rendition I particularly like. So without further ado, here in descending order is the current list of my 50 favorite Christmas songs:
1. O Holy Night / Cantique de Noel: Whether in English or the original French, the transcendent melody and text, along with the worshipful response it evokes, cannot be topped–especially in the hands of a gifted and dramatic tenor voice.
2. Hallelujah Chorus, from Messiah: Not strictly speaking a Christmas song, but frankly, I don’t care. Perform this majestic piece any time of year with an able choir and orchestra, and I’m happy with the glimpse of heaven it provides.
3. Hark the Herald Angels Sing: This song may suffer from over-familiarity. Stop and give the words a close look/listen. No other Christmas carol packs such theological significance into every meaningful, spirit-lifting phrase.
4. O Little Town of Bethlehem: I admit this song has quietly ascended my personal list over the years, especially after reading this 2005 Cal Thomas column. No other song so poignantly calls us back to the core Truth of Christmas amid the commercial bustle and din that threatens to drown it out.
5. Gesu Bambino: A beautiful setting that softly summons us to come and “adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
6. Silent Night, Holy Night / Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht: If you had to take one song and say, “this is Christmas,” you go no further than this Franz Gruber classic. It simply must be in the Top 10.
7. Carol of the Bells: A modern iconic piece that is enjoyable to listen to in many variations.
8. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: What can I say? It speaks to my sentimental side, makes me think of friends and loved ones of Christmases past. (Original Judy Garland lyrics, please.)
9. Coventry Carol: A haunting, unforgettable melody that sets the Nativity scene as beautifully as any written.
10. Glory to God, from Messiah: Led in by the soprano, you almost can close your eyes and envision the chorus of angels awing the shepherds that ancient sacred night. After several years of attending the Boulder Messiah Singalong, I am now thoroughly convinced that the piece should be taken at a slower, more regal tempo than it is typically treated.
11. O Come, O Come Emmanuel: No quibbling about Advent vs. Christmas songs. It all fits here… It’s my list, after all. Only slightly less haunting and beautiful than #9.
12. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: Appealing textual imagery that fits an equally appealing melody.
13. Mary’s Little Boy Child: A relatively modern piece with a distinctive Caribbean sound that lifts my spirits whether delivered slow and solemn or fast and carefree.
14. I Wonder as I Wander: Yes, I’m a sucker for the haunting Christmas melodies. This one gives good reason to be truly reflective about the Yuletide’s true meaning.
15. And the Glory of the Lord, from Messiah: Yes, I’m also a sucker for the Messiah. When listening to the entire oratorio, this early piece almost always sets the tone for me, nearly as reverential as #2.
16. O Come, All Ye Faithful / Adeste Fideles: Rightly recognizable as a song that declares “this is Christmas,” closely behind #6.
17. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: A Civil War era song that climbs the list because of its triumphant final verse, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep….
18. Sleigh Ride: The answer to “Boston Pops plus Christmas equals?” Sit back and enjoy a 1948 piece that has aged into a seasonal classic.
19. In the Bleak Midwinter: Some of my friendly critics believe it should rank higher. Maybe next year it will.
20. Sweet Little Jesus Boy: Definitely the best Christmas piece from the Negro spiritual genre, one that humbly captures the lasting significance of the Incarnation.
21. Joy Has Dawned Upon the World: A contemporary Christmas classic, penned by our generation’s greatest hymn-writing duo — Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. It’s good to become familiar with this song and the powerful message it packs.
22. Still, Still, Still: Bring out the boys choir, the original German text, and take in the peaceful essence of the season.
23. Do You Hear What I Hear?: An explicit cry for peace, this song just celebrated its 50th anniversary. I have to say it’s grown on me in the past few years to make its way onto this list.
24. Good Christian Men, Rejoice: Perpetually high on the Christmas choral repertoire.
25. The Christmas Song: “Jack Frost nipping at your nose….” You just can’t go wrong with so many good versions of this sentimental classic and its evocative imagery.
26. Joy to the World: Overdone, but still very good.
27. Christmas Time is Here, from A Charlie Brown Christmas: As an adult, it makes me feel like a kid again around Christmas, even if for a brief few moments.
28. Hear the Lamb a Cryin’: A penetrating and contemplative song that brings to life the humility embodied in the Incarnation.
29. White Christmas: It was written by the Jewish-American Irving Berlin, but the song belongs to Bing Crosby.
30. Angels We Have Heard on High: Gloria In Excelsis Deo… every Christmas needs this song.
31. Mary Had a Baby: The soprano section makes or breaks this African-American Christmas classic.
32. Away in a Manger: Either of the well-known versions will do, but I prefer the Kilpatrick tune. With young children in the house, singing in church Christmas programs, I simply must have a soft spot inside for this one.
33. Go, Tell it on the Mountain: Another relative newcomer to the list. If it doesn’t have a booming bass voice belting out the verses, then it drops precipitously.
34. Celtic Advent Carol: Maybe the least well known piece on the list, you may have a hard time getting this recent song out of your head, after listening to it a couple times.
35. I’ll Be Home for Christmas: Another bow to the sentimental.
36. O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion, from Messiah: “Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”
37. Linus and Lucy, from A Charlie Brown Christmas: No words needed. This time of year my kids request me to play this piece on the piano more than any other. It’s fun, and you can’t resist the urge to dance like a “Peanuts” character.
38. The Birthday of a King: A refreshing piece that I think is not sufficiently appreciated.
39. Ding, Dong, Merrily on High: “Hosanna In Excelsis”
40. Jingle Bells: A gratuitous addition, perhaps, but there are only a couple of versions that I truly enjoy (including the one linked — there’s something about Nataly’s voice).
41. The People That Walked in Darkness, from Messiah: Rare is the piece made for the skillful bass to go to town, and for the listener to enjoy, AND set to Scripture.
42. Home for the Holidays: A piece that would rise and fall on the list based on my level of sentimentality, though it falls below #25 and #35 for reasons that I cannot quite articulate.
43. Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song): A contemporary piece that humanizes the Christmas story like almost none other. In my estimation, much better than “Mary, Did You Know?”
44. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: Like #2, it’s strictly speaking not a Christmas song. And the melody is often overplayed. But it had to go on the list somewhere.
45. Bring the Torch, Jeanette Isabella / Un flambeau, Jeannette Isabella: I suppose this song might be higher on the list if the lyrical context were more easily grasped.
46. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen: I’ve slowly come to appreciate the irony of this song’s rich, joyful message harbored in a minor key.
47. Of the Father’s Love Begotten: Fit for a male a capella choir, this piece solemnly and neatly fits the Holy Birth into the larger scope of the eternal Christ, an incomprehensible mystery.
48. For Unto Us a Child is Born, from Messiah: “The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”
49. The Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night): I have a feeling this song will ascend the list in 2013.
50. Angels, From the Realms of Glory: The least appreciated of the common angel-themed carols, it nonetheless carries a sturdy message and a catchy tune.
Honorable Mention: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; Here We Come a Wassailing; How Great Our Joy; It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas; Love Came Down at Christmas; On This Still and Silent Night; Once in Royal David’s City; Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town; What Child is This?
What am I missing? Where did I go wrong? Hopefully this list helps to expand your Yuletide musical horizons a bit, and we’ll see what 2013 brings. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!