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 12.

Best Christmas songs

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 'We wish you a merry Christmas' 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.'
For those wanting a festive singalong at home we named it one of the easiest pieces of Christmas music to play on the violin.

The Little Drummer Boy

Originally known as 'Carol of the Drum', this much-loved Christmas song was written in 1941 by American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis. It was then first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family. Who they? Why, the famous singing siblings immortalised in the much-loved screen musical The Sound of Music - one of the best film musicals of all time.

There have been numerous cover versions since, including a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale and this unusual but poignant 1977 collaboration between Bing Crosby and David Bowie:

And what's the song about? The singer recalls how, as a boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the birth of Jesus. He had no gift, but played his drum instead, earning a smile from Baby Jesus.

Jingle Bells

Some say 'Jingle Bells' 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 recognisable 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.

Have a piano at home and learnt to play when you were younger? Why not hold a family sing song and get playing as we named 'Jingle Bells' one of the easiest and best pieces of Christmas music to play on the piano.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

So claimed Andy Williams in his much-loved Christmas hit of 1963, and we're not about to argue.

The song featured in Williams' album of the same year, The Andy Williams Christmas Album - but not, yet as a single. That honour fell to another track on the album, Williams's cover of 'White Christmas'.

'It's the Most Wonderful Time' celebrates a wealth of activities associated with Christmas, from the telling of scary ghost stories, to sledging, roasting marshmallows and the singing of Christmas carols.

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 'Go tell it on a Mountain' 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.

Away in a Manger

For a long time 'Away in a Manger' 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.

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.

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Deck the Halls

Dating back to the 16th century, 'Deck the Halls' 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.

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 for 12 Days of Christmas; 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'.

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.

We named 'Silent Night' one of the greatest Christmas carols of all time

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 of 'O Come all Ye Faithful' is generally credited to John Francis Wade.

Wade's 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.

White Christmas

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.

Winter Wonderland

This song was born out of a poem by a man called Richard Smith, who wrote it in the winter of 1934, while staying in the West Mountain Sanitarium in Pennsylvania, where he was being treated for tuberculosis. He showed it to his friend, the song writer Felix Bernhard, who then composed a melody to go with the words.

Sadly Smith died the following year, aged only 34, but his poem lived on, even if the text was slightly tweaked in 1947: the parson, mentioned in the song's bridge, became a circus clown, while the promises made by the couple in the final verse were replaced with lyrics about frolicking.

What emerged was a seasonal song about playing in the snow - a little different from the romantic winter interlude that Smith had originally intended, but something with instant appeal for children. It remains one of the most popular children's Christmas songs of all time.

Find lots of lyrics to your favourite Christmas carols here



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.