The 10 best Christmas holiday songs

The holiday season for me conjures images of a mug of hot chocolate, a cozy fire, and the tranquility of snow falling. Cutesy songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” make fun sing-alongs, but I prefer tunes that convey the spirit of the season. What makes a great Christmas song? Melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics working together to capture a mood. Here is my take on the best songs that do just that.


Christmas Time Is Here
original: Vince Guaraldi
alternative: Dianne Reeves
Written for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” this mellow jazz number is the perfect complement to an intimate winter evening. I prefer the original version for piano trio, but the Dianne Reeves version offers a satisfying vocal interpretation.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
original: Judy Garland
alternative: Tori Amos
The song debuted in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” and quickly became a standard. There’s an underlying tone of melancholy, loss and absence that is glossed over in many renditions. The Tori Amos arrangement is particularly evocative, recorded after she lost her baby.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas
original: Bing Crosby
alternative: B. B. King
As with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this song is about absence during a time that celebrates togetherness. It became a hit when it first appeared in 1943 during WW II.

Sleigh Ride
original: Boston Pops, directed by Arthur Fiedler
alternative: Ella Fitzgerald
Originally composed as an orchestral piece by Leroy Anderson, lyrics were added in 1950, a year after it was first recorded. It perfectly captures the exuberance of a sleigh ride (although I can do without those versions that include the crack of the whip). The unusual A-B-A-C-C-A song structure sets it apart from most popular songs.

The Christmas Song
original: Nat King Cole
alternative: Manhattan Transfer
Like many of the classic Christmas songs, the commonly titled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” dates from the 1940s, when songwriting craft was high. The complex harmonies and chord progressions make this song stand out and keep it always fresh.

White Christmas
original: Bing Crosby
alternative: LeAnn Rimes
This 1942 Irving Berlin song has the distinction of being the best-selling single of all time, according to Wikipedia, and is frequently ranked as the number one favorite Christmas song. A version such as the one recorded by LeAnn Rimes can make you really hear the song with fresh ears.


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The words are a translation of a Latin text (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”) that is a collation of various Advent Antiphons. The music has unknown origins but is believed to stem from a 15th century processional for Franciscan nuns and may have roots in Gregorian chant. A solemn, profoundly spiritual piece of music.
Recommended version: Casting Crowns

O Come All Ye Faithful
A hymn tune from the 1750s based on an original Latin text (“Adeste Fidelis”) that possibly dates from the 13th century. The three repetitions of “O come let us adore him” is a well-crafted use of dynamics to build to a melodic climax.
Recommended version: King’s College Choir

O Holy Night
French carol inspired by the poem “Minuit, Chretiens” and written in 1847. Words to accompany the melody were not added until 1855. The music is dramatic and powerful, so the best versions underplay the drama rather than take it over the top.
Recommended version: Katharine McPhee

Silent Night
German carol written in 1816 (the words were written two years earlier). The English translation dates to 1859. A simple, peaceful melody that is a perennial favorite.
Recommended version: Gemini Soul

For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

Photo credit (ornament): Wikipedia, unrestricted use

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