Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Top 10 Favorite Christmas Songs

Now that I've given my least favorite Christmas songs the criticism they deserve, here's a list of my all-time favorites. I couldn;t narrow it down to just 5 in this case, so I went with a top ten. As with the "worst of" list, I did some research on each one. Sometimes, the origin stories of these songs were just as incredible as the songs themselves.

10. Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi)
Jazz musician Vince Guaraldi lent his talent to the iconic TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. While this particular snippet of the soundtrack eventually became the “Peanuts” theme song, it is forever associated with Christmas. It’s a bright, cheery piano number that never fails to make the season bright. In fact, The whole soundtrack CD is perfect background music for family holiday get-togethers.

9. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (Robert May)
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is a classic in spite of itself. It’s been commercialized to death, but its origin is a great Christmas tale if there ever was one. An employee at the Montgomery Wards department store in Chicago named Robert May was in a tight spot. It was the middle of the Great Depression, his wife had just died, and he didn’t have enough money to buy his daughter a Christmas gift. So he wrote her a story. An executive of Wards caught wind of it, and bought the story from May to distribute to kids who came to the store. After its initial success, the CEO of Wards returned the rights to the story to May, who promptly got together with his brother in law and wrote a song to go with it. May presented the song to country crooner Gene Autry, and it was a huge hit in 1949. The rest is history. Rudolph didn’t just save Christmas, he saved his creator too! Of course, it was also adapted to animation: twice. First, a straightforward adaptation of the book by Max Flesicher, and later the more familiar Rankin/Bass stop-motion film. This one is actually a two-fer...I like the original by Autry and feel the need to include it. But my favorite version is by Motown greats, the Temptations.

8. Frosty the Snowman (Jack Rollins)
After “Rudolph” proved to be a huge hit, Gene Autry wanted to find another Christmas song to turn into a hit. In 1950, he got one: Songwriter Jack Rollins came up with a song that told the story of a snowman who came to life with the aid of a magic hat. It’s pretty childish, especially by today’s standards…but the bottom line is that it’s a great Christmas song. Snow? Check. Happy children? Check. Christmas miracle? Check. It’s catchy as a mofo, too!

7. Here Comes Santa Claus (Gene Autry)
Gene Autry must’ve really liked Christmas music. It’s pretty obvious his wallet liked Christmas music too, considering he had a hand in three of the most iconic Christmas classics of all time. This was the first, though, and he wrote it himself after hearing kids chant “here comes Santa Claus!” in a Christmas parade. Many have tried, but nobody’s managed to top the original, either in performance or success. Like “White Christmas”, the first one to sing it always did it best.

6. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) (Mel Torme, Bob Wells)
Mel Torme and Bob Wells found themselves in the middle of a brutal heat wave in 1944. In an effort to keep cool, Wells decided to think of things that reminded him of winter. He wrote them down on a note-pad, and when Torme read it, he decided to sit down at a piano and turn it into a song, adding to the lyrics with his own cold-weather memories. They shopped it around and it was picked up by Nat King Cole, who turned it into a hit the following year. It’s one of the best Christmas songs ever created, and has always been one of my favorites.

5. Deck The Halls (Traditional)
This is a really old one. It dates back to 16th Century England, specifically Wales, and has been passed down through time. Even Mozart played it. There are a number of different versions of the lyrics, and it’s never been very popular as a recording, but it’s a song that just about everybody knows. The Christmas carolers of old sang it, kids today sing it, families gather around and sing it around the fireplace. And everybody puts boughs of holly in their homes on Christmas. I can't say I have a favorite version of it, they're all pretty much the same. But Nat King Cole did a good one. I'll give him another spot on the list.

4. Silent Night (Joseph Mohr, Franz Gruber)
This traditional hymn was written by a priest in Austria (Mohr) back in the 1800’s. So the legend goes, he brought it to teacher Franz Gruber and they composed it as a song that could be performed on a guitar instead of a traditional church pipe organ. One variation of its origin story is that this was done out of necessity, in a hurry because the church organ broke before a Christmas Eve service. It’s peaceful, beautiful, and tells of the birth of Jesus. It’s generally sung as a church hymn, although Bing Crosby’s take on it has always been my favorite.

3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings (Barenaked Ladies)
Technically, this is two songs in one. One is a traditional Christmas hymn, the other is an Epiphany hymn (about the Three Wise Men who followed the North Star to see Jesus.) The Barenaked Ladies got bitten by the Christmas bug in the late 90’s, and with help from fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan, and together they merged the two songs together and set it to a catchy acoustic guitar riff. I think it’s one of the best Christmas songs ever, even though it’s actually just a modern medley of two ancient songs.

2. White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
Irving Berlin wrote it, Bing Crosby took it from there. I don’t know anyone who hates this song, or anyone who doesn’t know it. When he wrote it (By a hotel swimming pool in sunny, warm Arizona), Berlin is quoted as having said: “I just wrote the best song I've ever written — hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written! In a way, he was right. After it first appeared as part of a group of songs in the 1942 musical film “Holiday Inn”, in which Bing Crosby performed it, it was released as a single recording by Crosby. It is estimated to be, to this very day, the best-selling single of all time. In any genre, by any artist. Many have covered it since, but none have surpassed Bing Crosby’s version in popularity. Because that would be impossible.

1. I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day (Longfellow/Calkin)
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this incredible song on Christmas morning in 1863. He’d had a rough couple of years leading up to it. The Civil War was in full swing, and he’d just gotten word that his son was wounded in it. His wife had recently died in a fire. There wasn’t any Christmas cheer for him that day…he’d given up all hope. That is, until he heard church bells. What he wrote is not one of the more well-known Christmas songs. It wasn’t even turned into a song until at least 10 years after it was written, by an English organist named John Baptiste Calker. It’s not especially catchy, it’s not about presents and Santa and cute snowmen. I’d gone my whole life without ever hearing it, or hearing of it…until 2 years ago when I stopped by the Starbucks in downtown Austin on a really cold day seeking warm liquid refreshment after picking up a gift for my grandmother. I heard it on the in-store music, asked what it was and was pointed to a compilation of new and old Christmas songs produced by Starbucks. Turns out it was performed by Sarah Mclachlan. It hit me hard. I’d had a pretty lousy year, the country was at war, and I was kind of down in the dumps. Call it a random discovery if you want. Chance, maybe. But when I heard it that day, I knew it was God tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me what Christmas is all about…just like the bells that inspired its author to write it in the first place. “And pealed the bells both loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Santa Claus is Coming To Town (Fred Coots/Haven Gillespie)

As originally written in the 1930's by 2 guys named Coots and Gillespie, it's just another Christmas pop tune about Santa Claus. I couldn't really give it a spot in my top ten because the song itself is nothing special. Everybody's performed it, and nobody cares. Except ONE version, and that's Bruce Springsteen's. The Boss started playing it at live shows with his E-Street Band back in the 70's and 80's around Christmas time, and it became their little tradition. He took an old chestnut and roasted it on an open fire. A real classic.


  1. For me, there's a distinct difference between Christmas songs and Christmas carols (songs of a strictly Christian religious nature). So I wouldn't include both on the same list.

    Regardless, I can't see where 'Jingle Bells' would be left off any list of Christmassy songs. It transcends Christmas, considering how it was used in a Roadrunner cartoon when "snow" from an ice-making contraption fell on the Coyote.

  2. These are just a list of my personal favorites. There are so many Christmas songs there's no way to put them all in a top ten! I also wasn't really trying to separate "carols" from "songs". That's just over-analyzing it all WAY too much!