What is the greatest Christmas song of all time?
Carol of the Bells
If this song gives you tingles every time you hear it, despite your claim that you can’t stand Christmas music, there’s a reason. The melody of this song is ancient, and comes from the Ukrainian tradition of the “Shchedryk,” or folk chant. This melody was officially composed into written music and lyrics in 1904 by Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky, and was first recorded in 1946 by the Robert Shaw Choral. It has been covered countless times since then by choral groups, bell groups, and instrumentalists all over the world, and even made into an epic Christmas medley, which we will discuss in a bit. There’s no doubt at all that this song is the absolute essence of Christmas; it is the feeling that you get from the Holiday, and the song is almost as timeless as the celebrations itself.
Year Written: 1904 | Original Artist/s: Written by Mykola Leontovych, lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky | Notable Covers: Many, most famously the Ukrainian National Chorus | Best Version (Date): The Robert Shaw Choral - original recording (1946)
Genre: Folk | Connotation: Ukrainian folk melody, mystery, classic | Popularity: One of the most famous Christmas melodies of all time. | Emotions: Happiness, joy, cheer, excitement | Fun Fact: This type of folk chant is a called a Shchedryk in Ukrainian and it is based on ancient melodies.
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Chances are, if you’re an American, you think of this when you think of Christmas. This song is special for so many reasons. First of all, the two writers, Bo Wells and Mel Torme, were not trying to write a Christmas song when they came up with this. They were sitting around snowballing (bad Christmas pun intended) ideas for songs in August, when it was terribly hot out. To try and keep cool, they tried “thinking cool,” throwing out things that made them think of winter:Jack Frost nipping at your nose, folks dressed up like Eskimos, etc. Before they knew it, they realized they had an awesome Christmas classic on their hands, and quickly got it all down. The songs was first and most famously recorded in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio, and their version was so good that they recorded it several more times, topping the charts with each recording. Due to the sensual nature of the song (this is actually considered proto-R&B) and the fact that so many listeners accepted a black singer as the vocalist, this is also an important song for Civil Rights. Not only all that, but this song just screams Christmas; you can’t listen to it without being transported to a winter wonderland. For that reason, it is a bit hard to enjoy outside of the Christmas context, unless of course you are trying to do what the writers were doing and “think cool.” But still, this is definitely one of the greatest Christmas classic penned of all time.
Year Written: 1946 | Original Artist/s: Written by Bo Wells and Mel Torme, first recorded by the Nat King Cole trio | Notable Covers: Mel Torme, countless others including Aaliyah, Clay Aiken, Julie Andrews, Jessica Simpson, Garth Brooks, James Brown, Glen Campbell, Chicago, Sheryl Crow, Daffy Duck, The Jackson 5 | Best Version (Date): Original (1946)
Genre: Pop, R&B | Connotation: Coziness, classic Christmas, definition of American Christmas | Popularity: The Nat King Cole version was so popular that he recorded it four different times. | Emotions: Sensuality, friendship, closeness, coziness, safety, warmth | Fun Fact: The song was initially written by the two writers in August as a way to keep cool - they were just throwing around phrases that would help them forget the horrible heat, and ended up writing a Christmas classic.
Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)
This rockin’ Christmas medley is very contemporary; it was recorded in 1995 by Christmas-themed symphonic metal band Savatage, and then again in 1996 with their name changed to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. As much as I would have loved to come up with a “greatest Christmas metal band of all time” list, I couldn’t because TSO are the only Christmas metal band of all time, but I think they are holding the title down pretty well. This particular song is a medley of “Carol of the Bells,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and a few other favorites. According to TSO, the song is based on the legend of Sarajevo (hence the subtitle), a famous cello player who returned home to the Ukraine during the Bosnian war in and was devastated to find his city war torn and in ruins during the Holiday season. As an active protest to the violence, he stood in front of both sides as they fought and furiously played all the Christmas songs he knew until they stopped, as the bombs burst and shots were fired behind him. This song really does invoke that imagery, and it is powerful, even if it’s now a staple for beer commercials. When it comes to Christmas songs that really rock out and don’t hold anything back, this is your best bet.
Year Written: 1995 | Original Artist/s: Savatage | Notable Covers: Trans-Siberian Orchestra | Best Version (Date): Trans-Siberian Orchestra (1996)
Genre: progressive rock, symphonic metal | Connotation: metal Christmas, epic Christmas, the ultimate Christmas song, guitar prowess | Popularity: Charted in the top 100 when first released as Savatage; made it into the same bracket the next year when the group changed their name to Trans-Siberian Orchestra; widely considered one of the best and only metal Christmas songs or more extreme and powerful Christmas ballads. | Emotions: Love, intense feelings, excitement, elation, passion | Fun Fact: The song is a combination of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Carol of the Bells" and other well-known classic melodies. The inspiration behind the song is a legend that Sarajevo, a great cello player, played Christmas songs relentlessly in the middle of battle during the height of the Bosnian War to get both sides to cease fire for Christmas.
This tune was originally written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and was first recorded by Bob Hope. This 1951 classic was initially penned for the film The Lemondrop Kid, but has morphed into one of the most covered and most played Holiday anthems of all time. Similar to “Chestnuts Roasting” this is one of those songs you can’t listen to without falling into a stupor of Holiday delight. It also brings to mind those annoying Salvation Army bells, reminding us that while the infernal jolly clanging might be maddening, it is good to drop in a dollar or two and make a difference around the Holidays.
Year Written: 1951 | Original Artist/s: Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, first recorded by Bob Hope | Notable Covers: Terry Wogan, Alan Jones, Bing Crosby, many others | Best Version (Date): Original (1951)
Genre: 50s pop | Connotation: nostalgia, Christmas cheer, old-fashioned American Holidays | Popularity: Did not top the charts until a cover version was released, but today is a very popular and classic Christmas song. | Emotions: Happiness, nostalgia, reflecting on the good and simple things | Fun Fact: Was originally written for the movie The Lemondrop Kid.
Everyone thinks of the Elvis version when they hear this song, and rightly so; it’s one of his best and his version is definitely king. However, the song was first penned by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, and recorded by the lesser-known artist Doyle O'Dell. There have been dozens of versions since, but Elvis’ was the one that inspired his film of the same name, and is still the best played and loved of all of them. Whether you’re blue around Christmas and missing someone or you just like the hidden “blue notes” that make this a hit with musicians, this is always a good one to enjoy during the festive season.
Year Written: 1948 | Original Artist/s: Written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, recorded by Doyle O'Dell | Notable Covers: Elvis Presley, Ernest Tubb, Hugo Winterhalter, The Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, The Platters, REO Speedwagon, Misfits, Polkadot Cadaver, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others | Best Version (Date): Elvis (1957)
Genre: Rock, Blues, Country, Rockabilly | Connotation: Rock n' roll era, blues, music fans, sad love song | Popularity: Each recorded version in the 40s and 50s made it onto the charts and was popular, but Elvis' version is by far the most well-known, and it still listened to today around the Holidays. | Emotions: Sadness, loss, missing someone, nostalgia | Fun Fact: The notes in the song are "blue notes," something a listener would only get if they are a musician and familiar with the blues scale.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Growing up, I took ballet, and my Holiday seasons were defined by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Casting and auditions were my Thanksgiving, meaning the season was just beginning, dress rehearsal was my Christmas Eve of anticipation, and opening night felt like Christmas morning. For any girls whose life revolved around this ballet, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance was the ultimate: the most beautiful, the most coveted part, and the catchiest tune to get you in the mood for that special time of year. Even for those who don’t like ballet, the song is immediately recognizable as a tune used in many films and commercials, and one of the staples of the Holiday Season.
Year Written: 1892 | Original Artist/s: Written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for the ballet | Notable Covers: Anyone who has ever performed the ballet | Best Version (Date): The classic playing with no additions (1892)
Genre: ballet, classical music | Connotation: mystery, beauty, ballet | Popularity: One of the best loved ballets of all time; the only well-known Christmas ballet | Emotions: love, mystery, magic, psychedelic | Fun Fact: The ballet was not performed outside of Russia until 1934, and was criticized in its early days for being sloppy or taking too many liberties with the original story.
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
This is such a well-loved Christmas classic that it’s become a bit of an aggravation today; it’s one of the most likely to get stuck in your head at the mall or be covered by a really untalented performer. However, believe it or not, at the time of its inception, this was actually a pretty groundbreaking classic. The song was written by Johnny Marks and recorded by up-and-coming singer Brenda Lee in 1958, at the height of the rock n’ roll craze. Although Lee’s voice sounds very mature on the recording, she was actually on 13 at the time it was released. Initially, the tune was a bit of a flop, but a few years later when her career took off, the song gained widespread success as well. So, next time you hear this blaring through the speakers at the mall, keep in mind that it was once of cultural importance.
Year Written: 1958 | Original Artist/s: Written by Johnny Marks, recorded by Brenda Lee | Notable Covers: Hundreds, notably The Partridge Family, Hanson, Toby Keith, Chicago, Jessica Simpson, Green Day, Alabama | Best Version (Date): Original (1958)
Genre: Rock, Country, Rockabilly | Connotation: Down-home good time, contemporary Christmas, American classic | Popularity: At first it only peaked at 14 on the charts, but when Lee's career took off it got really popular. Today, it is a very widely listened to Christmas song. | Emotions: Fun, good times, carefree, modern attitude towards Christmas | Fun Fact: Lee was only 13 during the recording, despite the way her voice sounds.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Competing only with “Blue Christmas” for this title, this may be one of the absolute best sad and sappy Christmas anthems to ever be recorded. The whole song focuses on how Christmas feels empty without a loved one by your side, and does a great job evoking the emotion of loneliness while still managing to have a Christmasy feeling about it. The song was originally written by Ellie Greenwhich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector to be sung by Ronnie Spector, but his delivery was not quite right for the overall feelings, and was instead initially recorded by Darlene Love instead. Her vocals are flawless on this masterpiece, and she inspired a generation of other singers, mostly female, to try their own hand at interpreting this classic work.
Year Written: 1963 | Original Artist/s: Written by Ellie Greenwhich and Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector, originally recorded by Darlene Love | Notable Covers: Tons, including Hanson, R.E.M., Smash Mouth, Mariah Carey, and more | Best Version (Date): Original (1963)
Genre: Rock, Classic Rock, Pop | Connotation: Sadness, loss, loneliness, rock n' roll, classic Christmas | Popularity: Was nominated by Rolling Stone as one of the best Christmas rock songs ever | Emotions: Sadness, loss, missing someone, nostalgia | Fun Fact: Was originally written to be sung by Ronnie Spector, but his delivery left something to be desired.
Happy Xmas (War is Over)
This rock classic by Yoko Ono and John Lennon may be one of the only Christmas protest songs to ever be written. The song focuses on feeing love and acceptance around the Holidays, and is one part sincere reflection and cheer, one part sarcasm about the selfishness of celebrating the season during tough times. The song is very moving, and features an entire chorus of singing children, in typical British fashion. This one is pretty good any time of the year, and packs an especially meaningful punch around Christmas time.
Year Written: 1971 | Original Artist/s: John Lennon and Yoko Ono | Notable Covers: Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Jimmy Buffett, Celine Dion, Johnny Logan, Carly Simon, Sarah Brightman, Jessica Simpson, Vanessa Carlton, The Alarm, Melissa Etheridge, Maroon 5, various Holiday compilations , Harlem Gospel Choir | Best Version (Date): Original (1971)
Genre: Rock | Connotation: Anti-war, protest song, alternative Christmas, peace and love, some sarcasm | Popularity: Came out and was number two on the charts in the U.S. and U.K.; still popular as an alternative Christmas ballad today with many covers | Emotions: Love and harmony for your fellow man, gratitude and joy for the Holiday season, sympathy for those touched by war and other hard times. | Fun Fact: The melodic structure of the song is identical to the song "Skewball," an old English ballad that was popularized by Woody Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary covers.
12 Pains of Christmas
Probably one of the most annoying songs to hear around Christmas, this Bob Rivers comedy classic pokes fun at the 12 Days of Christmas by instead pointing out all of the hassles and hated parts of the Holiday. I’m not sure that anyone really likes this song; it’s pretty grating on the ears, but it is funny, and a good lighthearted break from all the serious Christmas propaganda. I always thought this was a one-off, but it turns out that Rivers has actually recorded not one but five Christmas albums, total. They are all cheesy, and they all make fun of Christmas in a slightly dark and sardonic way. Well, someone had to do it!
Year Written: 1987 | Original Artist/s: Bob Rivers | Notable Covers: None | Best Version (Date): Original (1987)
Genre: Comedy | Connotation: Comedy, jovial anti-holiday sentiment | Popularity: The song did well as a comedy classic, and is loved today as a humorous and lighthearted Christmas song | Emotions: Humor, tongue-in-cheek, parody | Fun Fact: This is not a one-off; Bob Rivers released a whole album of this stuff called Twisted Christmas, and then followed it up with not one but four other albums, I Am Santa Clause, More Twisted Christmas, Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire, and White Trash Christmas.
GOAT Staff Score - Christmas SongThe candidates have been assigned a raw score across a range of criteria. The raw scores have been weighted to reflect the impact that each individual criterion has on the 'Final GOAT Score'. Only weighted scores are displayed in this table. -->TURN DEVICE SIDEWAYS TO VIEW ON MOBILE-->
|Popularity Today (20%)||Classic Status (20%)||Essential to X-Mas (20%)||Enjoyable Off-season (15%)||Musical Quality (15%)||Interesting History (10%)||Raw Score||GOAT Score|
|Carol of the Bells||5||10||9||4||9||10||47||775|
|X-Mas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)||10||9||10||2||2||8||41||720|
|Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy||2||7||3||5||8||9||34||525|
|Rockin' Around X-Mas Tree||9||4||7||3||3||2||28||510|
|Baby Please Come Home||3||5||4||7||5||5||29||470|
|Happy Xmas (War is Over)||4||2||2||10||4||7||29||440|
|12 Pains of Christmas||1||1||1||1||1||1||6||100|