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10 of the best holiday songs of all time

By Bryn McDougal

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24 2013 12:10 p.m. MST

While “White Christmas” reminds me of soldiers abroad, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” brings me joy for the soldiers who learn that war is over. What better holiday gift could there be than a world at peace. This contemporary piece is a staple on every modern pop star’s Christmas album, but that doesn’t diminish the sentiment this song expresses. I love the original John Lennon recording of the song, but if you haven’t heard of Jake Shimabukuro, you need to hear the collaboration he does with Yo-Yo Ma on this song. It is on his album “Yo Yo Ma & Friends Songs of Joy and Peace.”

Named after County Wexford in Ireland, “Wexford Carol” dates back to the 12th century. Like “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” it is one of the oldest European Christmas carols still performed. The piece was originally written in Irish Gaelic, although it is rarely performed or recorded in Gaelic. Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma recorded a lovely collaboration of this song on Yo-Yo Ma’s album “Yo Yo Ma & Friends Songs of Joy and Peace.”

Another ancient carol, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” or “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” first appeared in print around 1599 in the Speyer Hymnal. What is interesting about this carol is that it shares a tune with another, less-well-known Christmas hymn, “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” There are some really cool versions of this carol out there. Salt Lake Children’s Choir has a wonderful version available on Spotify. If you want a more folk-like version of the song, Sting has a great version on his album, “If on a Winter’s Night.”

When I think of Christmas music written in the United States, much of it tends to focus on the secular side of Christmas. Traditional carols often come from a European historical perspective. There are some poignant exceptions to this generalization, one of which is the traditional American Christmas hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander.” John Jacob Niles composed the piece around a fragment of song he heard a young girl sing in Appalachia in 1933. The choir of King’s College performs a great version. I love how the children in the choir sing the melody, which pays homage to the original discovery of the song. John Jacob Niles also recorded a version of the song that has a much more Appalachian feel than the versions that have been modified since.

Arguably the most well-loved Christmas song of the past 150 years, "Silent Night" was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011. Written by Franz Xaver Gruber with lyrics by Joseph Mohr, the song was first performed, appropriately, on Christmas Eve of 1818 in St. Nicholas Parish Church with simple guitar accompaniment. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has many great recordings of this song, which I love, but my favorite version of this song is the one we all sing together as a family each Christmas Eve.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of great holiday music, I hope you have time to listen to some of these songs while enjoying your time with friends and family this holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bryn McDougal lives in Magna with her husband and two sons (4 and 1). She sings with Utah Symphony and Opera. As the daughter of an English teacher, she enjoys writing, especially satire.

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