The 47 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 47 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? Here is our ultimate Christmas carol list
For a sneaky preview of their top 5 Christmas carols check out the video below
The best Christmas carols ever
47. Past three o’clock
It seems that the prospect of heaving oneself out of bed pre-dawn and experiencing the wintry magic that is the ‘hinds o’er the pearly dewy lawn’ doesn’t appeal hugely to our voting choral director so this didn't score highly. Can’t say we blame them.
Inspired by London Waits George Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the carol in 1848
46. While shepherds watched
for all those of us who once donned the compulsory dressing gown and tea-towel for the school nativity play, the low position
of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is hard to accept. OK. admittedly it is quite long, and doesn’t really do much over its six verses
45. The twelve days of Christmas
One of those festive things that, like turkey with all the trimmings, seems a great idea until you’ve got about halfway through. Once the swans have swum and the geese have laid, most of us, frankly, wish the maids would take their lords their leaping elsewhere.
Here are the lyrics to the song, 'The 12 Days of Christmas'
44. The holly and the ivy
Strangely the holly-based Sans Day carol won more votes from our choirmasters, than this one. Perhaps it’s because the verse and chorus sound almost identical – over five rounds, this gets a bit repetitive.
More like this
Here are the lyrics to 'The Holly and The Ivy'
43. I saw three ships
42. Joys Seven
The earliest known manuscript of this traditional folksong, dating from the 14th century, tells of just five joys enjoyed by Mary. Today, depending on where you are in the country, you may find versions with up to 12 joys, each listed in turn! In best King’s College, Cambridge tradition Stephen Cleobury has left his festive mark as director of music with a number of fine arrangements, this included.
41. This is the truth from above
Vaughan Williams heard this exquisite carol sung by a folk singer, one Ella Leather in Herefordshire in 1909. His subsequent unaccompanied choral setting with its poignant modal harmonies recounts the creation of man and Jesus’s promise of redemption. VW later used it to open his Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
40 Here is the little door
GK Chesterton’s beautifully crafted portrait of the Magi arriving at the stable is given a suitably intimate setting for unaccompanied voices by 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells. Overall, the mood is humble, peaceful and reflective, but woven in to the music are occasional references to the darker, more disturbing elements of the Christmas story. Stunning.
39 Quem Vidistis
Three of Poulenc’s four unaccompanied Christmas motets were voted into our top Christmas carols list). This one tells of the shepherds eagerly returning from the manger – the tentatively asked opening question ‘Quem vidistis?’ (Whom have you seen?) is met with the joyful answer ‘Natum vidimus’ (We have seen the Son).
38. Illuminare Jerusalem
A modern gem. Leading Scottish composer Judith Weir wrote this short anthem for choir and organ for King’s College, Cambridge, where it was first performed in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1985. Setting a medieval Scottish text, it has since enjoyed popularity both in the UK and beyond.
37. Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen
Composed in the early 17th century, Michael Praetorius’s Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen is one of those hymn tunes whose ‘tingle factor’ lies in the way that it instantly transports the listener back to a different era. English-speaking congregations are generally familiar with it in the guise of ‘A Great and Mighty Wonder'
36. Gloria from Puer Natus Est
Tallis’s 1554 Puer Natus est mass may have been a case of wishful thinking – was the 16th-century composer reflecting Catholic hopes that Queen Mary I would bear an heir? The work was written for a grand occasion at St Paul’s, reflected by Tallis’s use of full vocal forces throughout and long, arching phrases that fill the outermost reaches of even the most spacious cathedral.
35. 'Il est né le divin enfant'
A lovably earthly French traditional carol, in which we are joyfully invited to ‘Jouez hautbois’ (Play the oboe) and ‘Résonez musettes’ (Sound the bagpipe). Best enjoyed in its original language – though possibly not in Siouxsie and the Banshees’ dubious pop take on it, released as a single in 1982.
34. Adam Lay Ybounden
Written at very short notice in 1957 by Boris Ord, organist and choirmaster of King’s College, Cambridge, who then established his work for unaccompanied voice as a regular at the college’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is still frequently included in the service today.
33. Jauchzet, Frohlocket
At around eight minutes long, the exultant opening chorus to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio unsurprisingly finds itself included in many a Christmas carol service. ‘Triumph, rejoicing’ beam the choir, and even if Bach’s originally intended brass and percussion aren’t to hand, the music is still guaranteed to provide an almighty festive uplift.
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.
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
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...)
‘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...)
‘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
‘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...)
‘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...)
‘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...)
‘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
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 ...)
‘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...)
‘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...)
'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...)
‘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...)
‘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...)
‘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...)
‘Howells said this carol came to him as he was watching trains shunting on the Bristol-Gloucester line from his cottage window.’ (read more...)
‘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...)
‘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