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With the holidays upon us, Christmas carols are everywhere, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Duane Reade. And while I’m as big a fan of the holidays as anyone, I must admit: not all Christmas carols are created equal. Some are just as likely to remind me why I love the holidays as they are to turn me into a total Scrooge. So I put together a list of the 18 most popular carols and ranked them, judging based on catchiness, Christmas cheer, and my willingness to hear them blared on repeat over the loudspeakers in the mall.
Note: Christmas songs in the pop or jazz music canon, such as “Let It Snow,” “Last Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “White Christmas,” etc., don’t count as Christmas carols! A carol has to be traditional or biblical in nature. If less traditional holiday music is more your style, check out Come On And Jingle Bell Rock to These Holiday Albums.
18. “The Little Drummer Boy”
Sorry drummer fans, but this popular carol ranks absolute last on my list. More cloying than cute, more maddening than catchy, "The Little Drummer Boy" is the uncanny valley of Christmas carols. I’ve thought this song was a little weird ever since that episode of The Office where Angela sings it at karaoke.
17. “Silent Night”
I know this one is popular, but for some reason I find "Silent Night" a bit… sedate. I guess that’s because it’s supposed to be a lullaby, but it just doesn’t fill me with excitement for the holidays. A good carol should raise your Christmas spirits, not put them to sleep.
16. “We Three Kings Of Orient Are"
This carol, which tells the story of the Three Magi who gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh at his birth, is a little too dark and mournful-sounding for my taste. The three kings who are singing honestly don’t sound too jazzed about the prospect of the Nativity. I know that Christmas is a serious occasion, but "We Three Kings" just isn’t inspiring enough to rank higher.
15. “O Come All Ye Faithful”
"O Come All Ye Faithful" is nice, and it strikes the right tone, but it’s just way more forgettable than the rest of the carols on this list. Maybe the lyrics aren’t as memorable, or the melody just isn’t as catchy, but there’s something about it that doesn’t stick with you. However, a great arrangement does pop up by surprise in everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York!
14. “12 Days of Christmas”
The “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” of Christmas carols. This one gets points for being catchy and upbeat, but there’s only so much of it one can take before getting out the holiday spirit entirely.
13. “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
I go back and forth between thinking this song is genuinely exciting or just a little bit annoying, but it’s hard to argue with a straightforward call for peace on Earth. This contemporary carol also avoids the corniness of more recently written songs (see “Little Drummer Boy”) while escaping the stiff tone of older carols. It’s not a standout, but Carrie Underwood's version is enough to keep it out of the bottom tier.
12. “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)”
This lesser-known carol is actually pretty upbeat and tuneful, and once you hear it, it’s hard to get that springy little melody out of your head. The only reason this one isn’t ranked any higher is because I truly have no idea what these lyrics are talking about. Ships sailing in to Bethlehem, which is landlocked? I don’t know about the factual accuracy of this carol, but Sting definitely turns it into a jam in this version:
11. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”
10. “O Holy Night”
This carol, which was written in France to celebrate the renovation of a local church organ, is stealthily super inspiring. Weirdly enough, it’s been used in Christmas episodes on both Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock, both sitcoms about sketch comedy shows that debuted in the fall of 2006.
9. “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
No, not the excellent James Baldwin novel of the same name – I’m talking about the African-American spiritual about the Nativity, which has been recorded by Mahalia Jackson and James Taylor. This carol is just begging to be belted at a Madison Square Garden holiday concert, and it’s absolutely irresistible.
8. "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"
Like “We Three Kings,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” is in a minor key, but in this case, the sadness somehow works: to me, it conjures images of icicles glistening in the winter sun, or dark streets covered in fresh snow. This carol can even get a little jazzy, almost like a tragic ballad sung in a smoky nightclub – if you don’t believe me, check out this video of Hozier singing a cover of it in the BBC1 Live Lounge.
7. “Joy to the World”
Of course, I had to include this traditional classic; with a rousing melody that echoes the music of Georg Friedrich Handel, it’s one of the most singable and popular carols of all time. On repeat listening, it does sound a bit square, but the pep and positivity of “Joy to the World” is downright infectious.
6. “O Christmas Tree” (“O Tannenbaum”)
This song is so transportative: it always makes me feel like I’m by a roaring fire, sipping eggnog, and surrounded by loved ones (conveniently, the typical family holiday stress is edited out). Those first few notes – “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree” – are so uplifting, so simple, and so celebratory that this song can get me in the Christmas spirit even if I’ve been waiting on line at Macy’s for an hour and a half. Especially when it's given the Aretha Franklin treatment:
5. “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”
There’s no other way to put this: “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is my jam. This gospel number is, like “12 Days of Christmas,” a cumulative song, which means each time you sing it, you add another verse. But unlike “12 Days of Christmas,” this is totally welcome, because “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is awesome.
4. “Angels We Have Heard On High”
I have a soft spot for “Angels We Have Heard On High;” the icy melody is gorgeous, like a clear night sky full of brilliant stars. And don’t get me started on that descending melisma in “Gloria in exelsis deo,” which falls as gracefully as light snow. “Angels We Have Heard On High” isn’t just a great Christmas carol – it's an incredible song that evokes all the beauty of winter weather.
3. “Jingle Bells”
Did you know that “Jingle Bells” was originally written as a song for Thanksgiving? Somewhere down the way, it became a Christmas carol, and we’re all the better for it: “Jingle Bells” is upbeat, fun, and instantly recognizable. It’s one of the most popular songs ever, and it was even the first song broadcast from space. And if it’s good enough for space, it’s good enough for me.
2. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
There’s something about “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” that perfectly captures the dizzy excitement and abundant goodwill of the holidays, and I think it has the most triumphant and energetic melody of any carol on this list. That’s a roundabout way of saying that this song just makes me happy, and if carolers showed up to my door crooning this, I would definitely bring them some figgy pudding.
1. “Deck the Halls”
There can only be one: “Deck the Halls,” a Christmas staple made iconic by that singular refrain: “Fa la la la la, la la la la.” What’s more Yuletide than that? Gracious and exuberant in its celebration of Christmas, “Deck the Halls” takes the top spot on this list because it describes the best part of the holidays: decorating, dressing up, singing, and getting a bunch of stuff you don’t need. This traditional Welsh tune is the very spirit of Christmas: lively, festive, and full of light.
Thanks for reading, everyone! If you haven't gotten enough Christmas music yet, remember that there's a great collection of Christmas and holiday music available to borrow at the Library. And now, my bonus gift to you: Mariah Carey singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” but each time she says “Christmas,” it gets faster:
Happy holidays to you and yours!
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