Now, let’s not fight at Christmas. Peace on Earth, etc. I’ve often wanted to look at some of the most notable Christmas songs of all-time and so this is it. This is not necessarily a list of my favourites nor might they be yours. What I’ve tried to do is to pinpoint ten Christmas songs that rise above the rest. Ten that derive their “greatness” not only from the purity of their composition or the warmth of their lyrics but also from the fact that they have been revisited over and over again – and this is where they get the label “great“. I think we can agree that, if countless artists – singers, musicians, orchestras, etc. – think these songs are good enough to warrant putting their stamp on them, then we can take their word for it; these are the greatest Christmas songs.
Initially, I chose a group of songs and then weeded them down to ten. Then as I began to research these songs I discovered a 2017 article from Billboard.com that listed the top 30 Christmas songs ranking them by the number of times they’ve been recorded. My Top Ten didn’t exactly match this Top Ten but I’ve stuck to my list and added some of the data I found at Billboard’s site. Now, how to present them? Seeing I have the numbers, I’ll list them starting with the song that has been recorded the least of these ten and work my way to number one.
Along the way, I’ll highlight what I think are the finest recordings of these venerable songs and throw in a flyer worth mentioning, one with a different or a notable arrangement, maybe. I think you’ll agree that what we’ll end up with here are 30-40 of absolutely the finest Christmas recordings in history. I’ll include the song’s ranking on Billboard’s list along with the number of times it has been recorded – as of 2017. Did I miss any of your favourites? Let me know in the comments.
“Blue Christmas” (1948) — 14th / 42,375 recordings
First Recording: Doye O’Dell // The most notable Christmas song that belongs to the country music family, “Blue Christmas” was a hit early for a variety of artists such as Ernest Tubb, Hugo Winterhalter and Billy Eckstine. It became a standard when Elvis Presley included it on his 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album. King’s version was a #1 US Christmas single as well as #11 in the UK.
Dig These Versions: Elvis Presley // Dean Martin // Engelbert Humperdinck Then Dig: Sheryl Crow
“Silver Bells” (1950) — 13th / 48,440
First Recording: Bing Crosby and Carol Richards // Pop Christmas Quiz: who first sang this song? If you said William Frawley – Fred Mertz – than you must be a fan of the Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid. The song was written for that film by legendary composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and was given it’s first proper run-out by Hope and his co-star Marilyn Maxwell. It was initially called “Tinkle Bells” but it was thought that the word “tinkle” would bring to mind urination. Kate Smith’s 1966 version has been heard often.
Dig: Elvis Presley // Earl Grant // Kate Smith Then Dig: John Legend
“O Holy Night” (1847) — 12th / 48,655
First Recording: The song was first performed publicly by opera singer Emily Laurey. The first recording is thought to be from a “J. Thomas” in 1901 // The second-most cherished carol in history and a challenging piece to sing well. “Cantique de Nöel” from the French poem “Minuit, chrétiens” was given the English words we all know by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight. The words tell of Christ as man’s redemption. Perhaps the most stirring piece of music ever written.
Dig: Andy Williams // Nat ‘King’ Cole // Mario Lanza Then Dig: BarlowGirl
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943) — 9th / 56,552
First Recording: Bing Crosby // This was originally written to honour soldiers who were fighting overseas and longing to be with family for the holidays. Never has a song been so successful in achieving its aim. Years after it was written, Buck Ram, manager of The Platters, claimed that he had previously written a poem and a song with the same title and words and subsequently Ram’s name was added to the songwriting credit. Thanks in part to this song, Crosby was said to have “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era”.
Dig: Bing Crosby // The Beach Boys // Jackie Gleason Then Dig: Jimmy Buffett
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944) — 7th / 65,377
First Recording: Judy Garland // Another song written for a film, this chestnut debuted in Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland. The song had a pessimistic origin in that it was delivered during a point in the movie that found Judy and her sisters upset that their father wanted to move the family from their beloved home. The original lyrics by Hugh Martin were rejected and even his revised words were tweaked in later years. The first draft of the song featured the line “it may be your last / next year we may all be living in the past”. This was replaced with the more hopeful “let your heart be light / next year all our troubles will be out of sight”, a line that obviously would have had an emotional effect on soldiers of the time actively engaged in war and their families. Another original line – “if the Lord allows” – was changed to the non-religious “if the fates allow” though the original has been restored in versions by contemporary Christian singers. Sinatra took a hand when he recorded the song for A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. Frank didn’t care for “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and asked the lyricist Martin to “jolly up that line for me” so Hugh came up with “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”, a line that even Garland later adopted. Frank had been the first after Judy to take up the song (1948) and it has since been recorded by everyone from Dinah Shore to Sam Smith.
Dig: Frank Sinatra (1957) // Ella Fitzgerald // Lou Rawls Then Dig: Francesca Battistelli
“Winter Wonderland” (1934) — 5th / 70,471
First Recording: Richard Himber // Lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith – another of the many Pennsylvanians I encounter on my virtual travels – wrote the lyrics to this nugget while in a sanitarium suffering from tuberculosis. The poor guy died of the disease a year later; he was only 34. The unheralded Richard Himber was a bandleader, violinist and…practical joker. His sense of humour was apparently legendary and consisted in part of throwing food at the ceiling and at customers in Toots Shor’s. There were two sets of lyrics for this tune, one for adults that featured references to a parson who could perform a wedding ceremony and one for kids that spoke of playing in the snow, making snowmen that looked like circus clowns; some versions – like that of Johnny Mathis – combine the two sets of lyrics. The same year it debuted, it was recorded by Canadian Guy Lombardo who’s version was a hit. It was another twelve years, though, before it was revisited with versions by the Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer and Perry Como. I happened to notice that no one seems to have released a version of “Winter Wonderland” in 1957 but beyond that it has been revisited every year since ’34. Seems particularly since the turn of the century it has been recorded often. For example, I see 40 versions in 2010 alone. Add 33 in 2011, 35 in 2012, etc…
Dig: The Ray Conniff Singers // Eurythmics // Ray Charles Then Dig: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
“The Christmas Song” (1946) — 4th / 80,064
First Recording: Nat King Cole Trio // I need write little about this gem. One because I have already. Two because most know that Mel Tormé and Robert Wells wrote it on a sweltering day in Los Angeles and then gave it to Nat Cole who recorded it four times, making it a standard. His definitive 1961 version is one of the finest recordings ever. Nat Cole’s sole Christmas album is wonderful while not sensational. His immense Christmas rep comes basically from this one song. But what a song. There are scores of instrumental versions of this song which speaks to the universality of Tormé’s composition.
Dig: Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) // The Ames Brothers // The Hollyridge Strings Then Dig: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
“Jingle Bells” (1857) — 3rd / 89,681
First Recording: First performed by Johnny Pell (1857) and first recorded by Will Lyle in 1889 // James Lord Pierpont wrote the song in 1857 borrowing lyrical images from other songs of the day, many that celebrated the joys of winter sports. The song has the unfortunate history of having been first performed by Pell who was a popular blackface minstrel of this time. While not explicitly tied to Christmas, it became associated with the season at the turn of the previous century. It is among a very small group of songs that are the most known and commonly sung songs in history. It was recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1889 but no known copies exist. The fact that an 1898 recording by the Edison Male Quartette still exists is staggering. “Jingle Bells” has been a part of recorded music since the very origins of recorded music.
Dig: Bing Crosby // Dean Martin // The Brian Setzer Orchestra Then Dig: José Feliciano
“White Christmas” (1942) — 2nd / 128,276
First Recording: Bing Crosby // “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote” Thus spake Berlin. Apparently Irving Berlin knew he had written a beauty. What else can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said? It is the preeminent secular aspect of the season and it is a treasure that has thrilled generations now for almost 80 years. The master of Bing’s original 1942 recording was used to press so many records that it was damaged and Bing subsequently re-recorded the song in 1947 and this is the version most commonly heard today. Written for the film Holiday Inn, the song went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. “White Christmas” was a #1 song for Papa Bing – not only in ’42 but also in 1945 and 1946, becoming the only song to have three separate appearances at the top of Billboard’s chart. The numbers speak for themselves; Crosby’s version of this song is the biggest-selling single of all-time with sales of over 50 million copies. The Guinness Book says that all versions of the song – over 128,000 – and albums amount to over 100 million units sold. The album of Bing’s that it was on, Merry Christmas, was released in 1949 and has never been out of print. In typical Bing fashion, Crosby always downplayed his part in making this a classic instead giving credit to Berlin and the song itself; “a jackdaw with a cleft-palate could have sung it successfully”. Thing is, no other version but Bing’s is really remarkable although the song is always nice to hear.
Dig: Bing Crosby // Andy Williams // Jimmy McGriff Then Dig: Korla Pandit
“Silent Night” (1818) — 1st / 137,315
First Recording: First performed by the authors in 1818; first verified recording by the Haydn Quartet in 1908 // I wrote an article on “Silent Night” to commemorate its 200th birthday in 2018 so I’ll be quoting largely from it. I mean, if I have to quote from someone… Written in Austria as “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” by Father Joseph Mohr who took the words to schoolmaster and organist Francis Xaver Gruber, asking Gruber to compose music for guitar accompaniment. The song was then debuted Christmas Eve at St. Nicholas parish church. The song gained popularity through traveling singers and through church singing throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Once again, we have Bing Crosby to thank for popularizing this song in America and Bing’s recording is one of the biggest-selling records in history. Virtually every – but not all – Christmas albums feature this song but perhaps more important than that it has been sung by many people in their homes with their families or in churches during Christmas Eve services. There is perhaps no other song as universally cherished as “Silent Night” and, as our numbers show, no song has been recorded more than this one.
Dig: Bing Crosby // Harry Connick, Jr. // Percy Faith & His Orchestra Then Dig: Zach Gill
For you perusal, here are the Top Ten songs from Billboard’s list of the most-recorded Christmas songs that I did not include on my list:
- “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” — 10th // 54.446
- “Joy to the World” — 8th // 59,767
- “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” — 6th // 68,669