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.
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.”
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.
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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.