The 32 best Christmas carols of all time
Here's a list of the best-ever Christmas carols for the festive season, as voted for by 50 top choral experts from across the UK and US. Do you agree with their choices?
Christmas carols. Without them, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas. From angel-singing, bell-ringing ebullience to deep, spiritual contemplation, nothing can match the Christmas carol 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 Christmas carols of all time? We reveal the top 32 Christmas carol songs, as voted for by 50 top choral experts from around the world. Do you agree with their choices or have we missed your favourite Christmas carol?
For a sneaky preview of their top 5 Christmas carols check out the video below
The best Christmas carols ever
32. Ding Dong Merrily on High
'Glo-o-o-o-o-o-orr, o-o-o-o-o-orr, o-o-o-o-o-orr, o-o-o-o-o-oria, Hosanna in Excelsis!' Need we say more?
Here are the full lyrics for Ding Dong Merrily on High', if you want to know what's sung between the glorias' and Hosannas'!
31. Gabriel's Message
Chortling choristers love it for the sheer amusement of singing 'Most highly flavoured gravy' in place of the intended words. For the rest of us, the gentle ebb and flow of this Basque tradition folk carol, which describes the story of Gabriel's annunciation to Mary, has a uniquely haunting quality.
Here are the lyrics to The angel Gabriel from heaven came' also known as 'Gabriel's Message'
30. Wexford Carol
Dating right back to the 12th century, the 'Wexford Carol' comes from the town of Enniscorthy in, yes, County Wexford, Ireland.
Beginning 'Good people all, this Christmas time' it has become familiar to many today through John Rutter's beautiful arrangement of 1978, which begins with a melodious, if frighteningly exposed, baritone solo.
29. Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
'Elizabeth Poston rediscovered this early American text, which recalls the world of the Shakers,' composer John Rutter tells us about this 1967 carol, 'and set it to music so simply that it's difficult to believe no one thought of her tune before (a perfect choral setting too, not a note too many). Spellbinding, magical, unique.'
Here are the lyrics to 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree'.
28. This Little Babe
Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols for treble voices and harp had an unlikely genesis, written as it was on a Danish cargo ship crossing the Atlantic in the Middle of World War II - in the mid-summer! From it comes 'This Little Babe' in which the choir divides thrillingly into a rapid three-way canon over furious harp rhythms.
It should, reckoned Britten biographer Humphrey Carpenter, be sung with 'all the vigour of a pillow fight'.
27. I Wander as I Wander
In North Carolina in 1933 a girl called Annie Morgan caught the ear of folklorist john Jacob Niles as she sang a garbled version of an Appalachian folksong.
Paying her to sing it again, Niles wrote what he heard down and filled in the gaps. Arranged by several composers since, 'I Wander as I wander' has proved a draw for choirs the world over.
26. Away in a Manger
'Away in a Manger' may be one of the simplest carols of all, whether to sing, play or learn - but none the worse for that. A particular favourite in primary schools, where many parents over the generations have found themselves shedding a proud tear or two in that 'I love thee lord Jesus' solo verse...
We named 'Away in the Manger' one of the easiest pieces of Christmas music to play on the piano and violin
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 Christmas carol’ (read more about how the carol Silent Night was composed here...)
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...)
List of our top 20 Christmas Carols
20. Hodie Christus Natus est by composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
‘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 favourite Christmas 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 by composer Poulenc
‘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 about the carol and lyrics here...)
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 about the 'Sussex Carol' and find its lyrics here ...)
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 about the Christmas carol and the lyrics here...)
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 Christmas carol 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...)
The top 5 Christmas carols of all time
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 about the Christmas carol here...)
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 about the Christmas carol here...)
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.
Discover the lyrics to, and the story behind, your favourite Christmas carols here