10 most famous Christmas songs of all time

A round-up of our favourite Christmas tunes

Published: September 17, 2022 at 11:09 am

Whether you prefer carols, spirituals or the glossy sound of Hollywood, you'll probably agree that when it comes to finding a song to accompany the merriment of the Christmas season, we're spoilt for choice. So which are the best Christmas songs of all time? Here are our top ten.

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1. We wish you a merry Christmas

This old favourite probably dates back to the 16th or 17th century, when wealthy people of the community would treat carol-singers to snacks and drinks to warm them up on cold winter nights - hence the line about 'Figgy Pudding'. But it owes its current popularity to the Bristol-based composer, conductor and organist Arthur Warrell, who, in 1939, published the carol in an elaborate four-part arrangement for his own ensemble, crediting, as his source of inspiration, 'a West Country traditional song.'

2. Jingle Bells

Some say it was written to commemorate the annual sleigh races that took place around Thanksgiving in Medford, Massachusetts. Others say it was intended as a drinking song. And nobody is 100% certain where or when it was written. What we do know is that this jaunty little number was published in 1857, by the American songwriter James Lord Pierpont, under the name 'One Horse Open Sleigh,' and soon became one of the most performed and most recognizable secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. It was even broadcast from space in a Christmas-themed prank by astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra in 1965, with the help of a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells.

3. Go tell it on a Mountain

This moving African-American spiritual hymn, first published in 1907 by John Wesley Work Jr, dates back to the 19th century. Nobody knows exactly who wrote the hymn, which tells the story of the nativity. But it came to public attention in the late 19th century when an African-American a capella ensemble toured the country singing spirituals to raise funds for the newly-created college for blacks following the abolition of slavery.

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4. Away in a Manger

For a long time this carol was believed to have been written by the German religious reformer Martin Luther, and was known as 'Luther's Cradle Song'. However, since none of Luther's writings mention the song, and no German text for this song has been found from earlier than 1934, that theory has now been dismissed. It is now thought to have been written in the US, as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School's 1885 collection Little Children's Book for Schools and Families.

5. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

In 1939, Robert L. May, an in-house advertising copywriter for the US retail corporation Montgomery Ward, was asked to write a cheery children's book for Christmas shoppers, with an animal as its central character. He decided to write one about a big-hearted reindeer, testing it out on his four-year-old daughter Barbara as he completed each draft. It was a hit, and, nine years later, in 1948, May persuaded his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write the words and the music for a musical adaptation of Rudolph. The result was this winningly upbeat song, which has since become the second-most popular Christmas tune of all time, surpassed only by White Christmas.

6. Deck the Halls

Dating back to the 16th century, this Christmas carol wasn't always associated with Christmas. It is based on the tune of an old Welsh air, 'Nos Galan', which is actually about New Year's Eve. But in 1862, the Scottish songwriter and author Thomas Oliphant, who also wrote lyrics for Royal events and other important occasions, reimagined it in the form we know today, with English lyrics, rejoicing in the coming of the Christmas holiday and calling for decoration and merriment.

7. 12 Days of Christmas

This ruthlessly catchy carol - which first appeared in a 1780 children's book called Mirth With-out Mischief - has a bit of a hazy backstory. Some believe it originated in France. But most agree that it was designed as a 'Memory and Forfeits' game, in which participants would be asked to recall the lyrics and had to give their opponents a kiss or pay some other forfeit if they got them wrong. Over time we've seen many versions of the lyrics; some name the singer's mother as the giver of gifts instead of the 'true love'. But the version that most of us know was written in 1909 by the English composer Frederic Austin, whom we can credit with that distinctive drawn-out flourish on 'Five Gooo-oooold Riiiiiiiiings'.

8. Silent Night

Originally composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to German lyrics by Joseph Mohr, Silent Night ('Stille Nacht' in German) enjoys equal popularity in Germany and the UK, and was sung simultaneously by English and German troops during the World War One Christmas truce of 1914. Once a favourite of Frederick William IV of Prussia, it has a long list of famous advocates, among them Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole, who have all put their own musical spin on the much-loved carol.

9. O Come all Ye Faithful

This barnstormer, which traditionally brings Christmas concerts to a climactic conclusion, has been attributed to many composers over the years, including Handel, Gluck, Thomas Arne and King John IV of Portugal. But the text is generally credited to John Francis Wade, whose Adeste Fideles, consisting of four Latin verses, was published in a 1751 printed compilation called Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis per annum. It has since been translated several times into English, the most common version being that of 1841 by the English Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley.

10. White Christmas

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As a Russian-born Jewish immigrant living in the US, Irving Berlin did not really celebrate Christmas. Still, he clearly knew what he was doing when he wrote 'White Christmas' for the 1942 film Holiday Inn. One day Berlin, allegedly, told his secretary: 'I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote.' White Christmas - particularly in its unparalleled, best-selling recording by Bing Crosby - remains the most popular Christmas song of all time.

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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