The 25 greatest Christmas carols of all time

We take a look at the best songs of the festive season, as voted for by 50 top choral experts from across the UK and US

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The 25 greatest Christmas carols of all time
Top Christmas songs of all time
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Carols. Without them, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas. From angel-singing, bell-ringing ebullience to deep, spiritual contemplation, nothing can match them in terms of creating an atmosphere – whether echoing through a vast cathedral, or sung by children in a nativity play, their power to move can be simply overwhelming.

But what are the truly great carols of all time? We reveal the top tunes, as voted for by 50 top choral experts from around the world.

 

25. Silent Night

‘On Christmas Eve 1818 priest Joseph Mohr turned up on the doorstep of his friend Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to write a carol’ (read more...)

 

24. The Lamb

‘Few composers writing in recent years have had as big an impact on the British choral scene as Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)’ (read more...)

 

23. Three Kings

‘When Worcester Cathedral’s organist Ivor Atkins came across Cornelius’s 19th-century song ‘Die Könige’ he knew he had struck gold’ (read more...)

 

        

22. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen!

‘Ebeneezer Scrooge took exception to this traditional English carol in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, reacting so furiously to it that the carol singer on the other side of the door ran away ‘in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost’’ (read more...)

 

21. The Sans Day Carol

‘This beautiful Cornish carol first came to light during the 19th century. A Mr WD Watson, so the story goes, heard it sung in St Day – Sen Day in Cornish – a village named after a Breton saint’ (read more...)

 

20. Hodie Christus Natus est

‘Best known for his finely wrought keyboard works, early 17th-century Dutch composer Sweelinck also wrote some heavy-weight choral music, of which this joyful carol is one of his best examples’ (read more...)

 

 

19. No Small Wonder

‘After a soft organ introduction and an opening line sung in unison, the choral texture blossoms into four parts as the carol’s narrator marvels at the miracle of Christmas.’ (read more...)

 

18. The Little Road to Bethlehem

‘British composer Michael Head, who gave piano recitals in factories during the Blitz, hit the right note with this charming miniature for four-part choir, written around 1946.’ (read more...)

 

17. Hodie Christus Natus est

Poulenc’s joyous Hodie Christus Natus Est brings the Frenchman’s set of Four Christmas Motets to an ebulliently rowdy conclusion.’ (read more...)

 

 

16. There is a flower

‘Named ‘the world’s greatest living composer and conductor of choral music’ by US television station NBC, there’s no denying Rutter’s skill at seducing both choirs and audiences alike’ (read more...)

 

15. O Magnum Mysterium

‘Did 16th-century Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria study under the great Palestrina? While we can’t be sure, the fluid counterpoint of his 1572 motet O Magnum Mysterium is worthy of the Italian master himself.’ (read more...)

 

 

14. Hark the Herald Angels Sing

‘In 1739 Charles Wesley wrote a Christmas hymn that began ‘Hark! how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings’, the first incarnation of what is now Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’ (read more...)

Listen to our playlist of the Greatest Christmas carols of all time here:

 

13. O Magnum Mysterium

‘Of Poulenc’s four Christmas motets, the first is the most solemn, the most haunting and has consistently proved the most popular since they were published in 1952.’ (read more...)

 

 

12. Sussex Carol

‘From the cheery opening ‘On Christmas Night’ to the final triumphant ‘Amen!’, this carol is one of celebration.’ (read more...)

 

11. Once in Royal David’s City

‘Every year, one King’s College, Cambridge chorister is chosen to open the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols with the exposed solo verse of Once in Royal in front of a packed chapel… and several million radio listeners.’ (read more...)

 

10. What Sweeter Music

‘American readers might have first heard this exquisite miniature masterpiece in a Volvo advertisement, yet it was originally written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge for their 1987 service of Nine Lessons and Carols.’ (read more...)

 

 

9. Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

'Few carols have words that can be traced back as early as this. ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ was written by Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, who lived in northern Spain from, roughly, 350 to 400 AD.' (read more...)

 

8. O Come all ye Faithful

‘The one hymn without which a Christmas service wouldn’t seem complete. What is it that makes it such a perennial favourite?’ (read more...)

 

 

7. There is no Rose

'Of the countless settings of this medieval text, in which a rose represents the Virgin Mary, it’s those by Benjamin Britten and John Joubert that have become modern classics.' (read more...)

 

6. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

‘Though thought to find its roots in the world of medieval mystery plays, this Cornish carol was first published in 1833, when it appeared in William Sandys’s volume Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern.’ (read more...)

 

5. Lully, Lulla

‘The Coventry Carol, which dates back to the 16th century, is about as dark as Christmas carols get, with its doomladen words depicting a mother’s fears for the fate of her child as she lulls him to sleeps.’ (read more...)

 

 

4. Bethlehem Down

‘The outward beauty of Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, combined with a very English sort of introverted melancholy, complements the sombre yet reverent mood of many a traditional candle-lit carol service.’ (read more...)

 

3. A Spotless Rose

‘Howells said this carol came to him as he was watching trains shunting on the Bristol-Gloucester line from his cottage window.’ (read more...)

 

 

2. In Dulci Jubilo

‘Its ancient German tune has become familiar in many guises, such as the famous Bach Christmas organ chorale prelude, the hymn ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’ or even Mike Oldfield’s 1975 chart hit.’ (read more...)

 

 

1. In the Bleak Midwinter

‘Does any other carol get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively as In The Bleak Midwinter? Christina Rossetti’s poem of 1872 is nigh-on perfect as a carol text’ (read more...)

 

What do you think of the expert's choices of the 25 greatest carols of all time? Did they miss out your favourite? Comment below and tell us what you would have had on the list.

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