10 of the best holiday songs of all time

By Bryn McDougal

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24 2013 11:40 a.m. MST

While taste in music can be highly subjective, there are definitely some holiday songs that represent both old and new traditions. With that in mind, here's a look at writer Bryn McDougal's list of some of the best holiday songs of all time.


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I know what you are going to say, the word best is relative, right? And hey, time is relative too. At this point, you are probably thinking this article has more relativity than an Einstein Rosen-bridge (insert nerd laugh track here). While that might be a little bit of an exaggeration, we all know that taste in music can be highly subjective. With that in mind, please enjoy perusing this list of some of the best holiday songs of all time.

With its roots likely dating back to the 12th century and the text possibly even as far as the 8th century, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” or “O Come O Come, Emmanuel,” is an ancient and moving celebration of the coming of Emmanuel. Depending on the performer, it can be upbeat and high energy or incredibly haunting and emotional. It’s amazing to think that versions of this song have been sung by many, many generations of people before now and will continue to be performed in countless iterations going forward. My personal favorite is the version performed by the King’s Singers from their album “Christmas.”

Written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, “One Horse Open Sleigh,” now known as “Jingle Bells,” was actually penned to celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. It is probably one of the most well-known of the secular holiday songs. Because of the infectious joy and childlike spirit that is captured, I cannot help but love the version that Andrea Bocelli recorded with the Muppets in 2009.

“Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour, when God as man descended unto us to erase the stain of original sin.”Sometimes artistic license can enhance the meaning of a song when there is a translation from one language to another. John Sullivan Dwight’s reworking of the words to “O Holy Night” or “Cantique De Noel” as it is called in the original French, certainly seems to stimulate strong emotions in the English-speaking world. One of the things I love about this song is how the words in both languages paint a vivid picture of the sacrifice of Christ. There are multiple versions of this song out there that I truly love (sorry, none of them include country, rap, electronic orchestra artists or the Wiggles). One of my favorites is the Cambridge Singers' version from their album “Cambridge Singers Christmas Album.” Ella Fitzgerald also sings a gentle and unassuming version of the song with a nice climax at the end. Her version doesn’t feel like it tries too hard to be epic like a lot of pop versions today.

Based on a book written by Robert L. May, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was popularized by Gene Autry and hit No. 1 in the U.S. charts the week of Christmas in 1949. Since then, the story of this plucky little reindeer has captured the hearts of millions of children worldwide (including me). It might not be the most complex musical masterpiece, or the most emotionally evocative Christmas song, but the message of an underdog who beats the odds is universal. I like the non-traditional feel of Jack Johnson’s version of the song from his album, “This Warm December: Brushfire Holiday Volume 1.”

Bing Crosby, now a Christmas staple in American households, popularized many holiday songs in his time, but one of the best of these is “White Christmas.” Part of that can be attributed to the fact that in watching the movie, “White Christmas,” you end up with the vivid picture of soldiers experiencing the longing to be at home with family during the holidays. It captures the desire to create and re-create wonderful memories of warmth and family. I think the Bing Crosby version will always remain one of the best, but I also like the jazzy feel of the Diana Krall version from her album “Christmas Songs.”

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