Picture instead that magic moment – typically on Christmas Eve for many of us – when, with all the manic seasonal hustle and bustle done, one can actually sit down, pause a little and reflect on the occasion and what it really means.

A glass of something special usually helps as, of course, does the perfect choice of music. For this purpose, we asked ten of our writers to tell us about the albums that, year in year out and despite the passage of time, can always be guaranteed to get them into the Christmas spirit. Time to sit back and relax…

Best Christmas music

Praetorius’s Lutheran Mass

Memories as deep as any stir when I reach for conductor Paul McCreesh’s reconstruction of Praetorius’s Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning, ‘as it might have been celebrated around 1620’.

Holding the album is sufficient to conjure images of a winter visit made long ago to Roskilde Cathedral, where it was recorded in the early 1990s. And the sound of a solo voice emerging from silence to sing Martin Luther’s processional hymn Christum wir sollen loben schon is all it takes to rekindle childhood feelings of the wonder of Christmas.

The recording’s epic scale, with Praetorius’s music for antiphonal voices and instruments, preludes played on an organ originally built in the early 1550s and the overwhelming conviction of its congregational singing, dovetails with the music’s liturgical setting to create a uniquely sublime union of public celebration and personal reflection.

Andrew Stewart

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

Giant Christmas trees, gingerbread soldiers, dancing snowflakes, reindeer-drawn sleighs, a fairy-tale prince and a sugar-plum fairy: what more could you want?

Even if all the endless preparations have induced a Scrooge-like mood by 24 December, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is tailor-made to chase away cold-hearted cynicism and reinvigorate that festive spark. I return to this ballet like an eager child every year – perhaps because it’s a piece that was a soundtrack to my own childhood.

And while I also love Christmas music that creates a space for stillness, or contemporary carols that offer a fresh twist, the delight, magic and inventiveness of Tchaikovsky’s score is an ideal pick-me-up. This year, I’ll be indulging with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle’s sumptuous recording.

We named The Nutcracker one of the best Christmas ballets

Rebecca Franks

Howard Blake’s The Snowman

While not immune to the charms of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or the quirks of Iain Bell’s 2014 operatic version of A Christmas Carol, for me the festivities begin with the flurrying melodies of The Snowman, Howard Blake’s score to the 1982 animation.

From the first broken chords and arching theme through to the exquisite scene painting – the lumbering bassoon motif as the boy takes steps into the deep snow; the scurrying motorbike tune – and the glorious ‘Walking in the Air’ vocal solo by Peter Auty (and not Aled Jones, as is often thought – a seasonal snippet for those Christmas quizzes), it’s an annual treat that never disappoints.

Having been left cold by some of the stagings, I instead heartily recommend the now-widespread concert accompaniments to the film.

Claire Jackson

Leonard Bernstein's Christmas carols

My father revered Leonard Bernstein, so in 1963 when Lenny conducted a whole LP of Christmas carols the album was immediately purchased and played fortissimo at 8am on Christmas Day in the Morrison household.

My dad said it would ‘get us in the mood’. Not sure my mother agreed. They divorced soon after. Despite that, I still love The Joy of Christmas, first for its total flamboyance and secondly because it’s such an unlikely partnership.

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On one side, Bernstein, the ultimate hedonist and Jewish to boot; on the other, the abstemious and deeply pious latter-day saints of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And in the middle, the New York Philharmonic – bells, brass and gongs to the fore – belting out O Come all ye Faithful as if it was the end of Mahler’s Eighth, only less restrained.

Richard Morrison

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Being married to a German ex-chorister, my Christmas music is less Messiah than Bach’s glorious Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio) in a 1965 recording with the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter.

The soloists are outstanding, especially mezzo Christa Ludwig and tenor Fritz Wunderlich who, as the Evangelist, brings spellbinding storytelling to each word. From the exuberant opening trumpets and drums, the familiar story unfolds through recitatives, arias and singalong chorales, ending with the Three Kings. Richter’s ‘weighty’ approach is hardly fashionable – the recording is nearly three hours long – but is satisfyingly hefty. I ration the six parts over Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and each is long enough for a generous slice of homemade Christmas cake and glass of Glühwein.

Natasha Loges

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Rutter’s Star Carol

There is no greater communal Christmas joyfulness than John Rutter’s Star Carol. It’s the month-long soundtrack of Advent, tree-decoration and present-unwrapping in the season of John Rutter-mas for our family, the sonic consecration of the season.

Rutter’s own words are gilded with music of irresistible immediacy: the excitable sharing of the lines between male and female voices in the verses, the soaring octaves of the chorus, the rhythmic give-and-take of a hemiola or two, and the luminous dazzle of the orchestration.

And it’s all glitteringly revealed by the Cambridge Singers and City of London Sinfonia on The John Rutter Christmas Album. Of all the gifts of Christmas, none are as generous as this. Thank you, John!

Tom Service

Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony

The one piece guaranteed to conjure up the Christmas spirit for me is Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 A Carol Symphony, in a recording by the Pro-Arte Orchestra under Barry Rose.

Growing up, we listened to this disc every year and the work’s sometimes merry, sometimes melancholy interweaving of Christmas carols has an oddly potent effect on me even now.

Best of all is a section in the third movement which was used in the iconic 1984 television adaptation of John Masefield’s A Box of Delights (Wolves! Magic! Snow! Talking mice!). This twinkling orchestral arrangement of The First Nowell remains utterly spellbinding and evokes a wonderful sense of enchantment and possibility – just like the best sort of Christmas Eve.

Kate Wakeling

JS Bach's Magnificat

Though I’m not conventionally religious, the prevalence of gooey, tacky secular songs during the Christmas season does tend to put a damper on my festive spirits. So, I need a powerful and refreshing counterblast. The name that springs to mind is JS Bach, and within seconds I know what it has to be: the Magnificat.

The Angel’s appearance to Mary is, of course, where it all started. Aside from the theology, however, this compact masterpiece embraces a generous range of Bachian moods and colours, culminating in a display of radiant, trumpet-enhanced rejoicing that I’d take over Handel any day. Perhaps my very favourite moment, though, is the aria ‘Esurientes’, with its delicious final depiction of the rich being ‘sent empty away’. Remember the time when Christmas wasn’t pre-eminently about buying things?

Stephen Johnson

Vaughan Williams’s Hodie

I’m one of those who tends to leave everything to the last minute, so Christmas Eve is often an exhilarating whirlwind of shopping, wrapping and decoration.

For me, Christmas is a magical time of year, and I find myself craving simplicity in everything. So, when I finally sink into my favourite armchair, a glass of mulled wine in one hand and a mince pie in the other, there is nothing like the sound of pure-toned voices bathed in melodic and harmonic radiance to create the perfect atmosphere.

And for that I invariably turn to Vaughan Williams’s 1954 cantata Hodie, a largely neglected gem whose 16 sections include the sublime Choral ‘Blessed Son of God’ for unaccompanied chorus and an enchanting ‘Lullaby’.

Julian Haylock

Tavener’s God is With Us: Christmas Proclamation

God is With Us: Christmas Proclamation is one of Tavener’s most effective choral works – a trance-inducing chant building from a single line of rumbling basses to four-part harmonies topped by radiant trebles.

But Tavener has a surprise up his sleeve in the last 40 seconds – on the Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle’s Sacred Music by John Tavener album, the calm is shattered by an ear-splitting fff chord on the mighty Harrison & Harrison organ at the words ‘Christ is born’.

As parents of St George’s choristers who sang this annually, we knew exactly what was coming, but loved to watch one or two slumbering congregants being shocked awake by the blasts. It always put us in the mood for Christmas!

Amanda Holloway

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