Christmas songs for children: our favourite 10...
Are these the best Christmas songs for kids? Or did we miss your favourite?
From the exuberance of 'Ding Dong Merrily on High' to the charm of 'Frosty the Snowman', there's so much about Christmas music that appeals directly to children.
But which are best children's Christmas songs of all time? We give you our top ten or you can grab a sneaky preview of our top five in the video below
Best Christmas songs for children
Good King Wenceslas
Written in 1853 by the English Anglican priest John Mason Neale, this carol is based on the life of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the Czech state, who was martyred after being killed by his brother Boleslaw the Bad. But for all its dark history, 'Good King Wenceslas' is still a good choice for children, thanks to its upbeat, simple melody which is based on the 13th century tune ‘Tempus adest floridum’.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
A nativity play staple, this exquisitely simple carol was originally written by Phillip Brooks for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish, Holy Trinity Church, following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865. In his lifetime, Brooks became better known for his later career than for his seven years in Philadelphia, rising to become Bishop of Massachusetts and, among other duties, delivering a sermon for Queen Victoria at Westminster Abbey. But 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', which, in the UK, is sung to the melody of the English folk song, 'Forest Green', is perhaps his most lasting legacy.
The Holly and the Ivy
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without 'The Holly and the Ivy'. For all that it has been subjected to countless arrangements and endlessly scrutinised for its coded messages about Christianity, gender and so on, its elegant surface simplicity and visually evocative lyrics make it a natural fit for children. The current popular version was collected in 1909 by the English folk song collector Cecil Charp in the market town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, England.
Ding Dong Merrily on High
Who can't get behind the sheer joyfulness of this little number? The perfect carol for a Christmas rock out, 'Ding Dong Merrily on High' epitomises the exuberance of childhood, based, as it is, on dance music. The melody, originally named 'Branle de l'Official' was found in a 16th-century book of French dance forms by the English composer and bell-ringing enthusiast George Ratcliffe, who decided to pair it with a bell-inspired text. The result was first published in 1924, with harmony later added by the Irish composer Charles Wood.
We Three Kings of Orient Are
John Henry Hopkins Jr, who wrote this hymn, was a man of many talents. After a stint working as a journalist for a New York City newspaper, he graduated from the General Theological Seminary in 1850, and became a deacon, author, illustrator, designer as well as a hymn writer. Yet it is 'We Three Kings of Orient Are' - written in 1857, when Hopkins was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania - for which he is best known. With its simple melody and evocative lyrics, that tell the story of the three wise men announcing their gifts to the baby Jesus, it's a firm favourite among children and a go-to for nativity plays.
Top 5 Christmas songs for kids
5. Winter Wonderland
This song started its life as a poem by a man called Richard Smith, who wrote it in 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 set out to compose 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.
The result was a seasonal song about playing in the snow - not quite 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.
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4. Santa Claus is coming to town
Even if it makes Santa seem a tad sinister, this has ranked among the most popular Christmas songs for children ever since it was written in 1934, by the American lyricist Haven Gillespie and songwriter John Frederick Coots, who apparently came up with the main melody in just ten minutes. Broadcast at the height of the Great Depression, one of its earliest performances included verses encouraging listeners to be charitable and help the less fortunate at Christmas.
Frosty the Snowman
The loveable snowman, with 'a button nose and two eyes made out of coal' first came to life during the Christmas season of 1950, when the American songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote this charming song. Following the success of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', which had been recorded by the singer Gene Autry the previous year, Rollins and Nelson proposed the song to Autry, who recorded it - and landed another hit. Frosty went on to appear in a children's book, and on television, while the song became a seasonal fixture - covered, over the years, by artists including Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole and Guy Lombard.
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 tune (also one of our 10 best Christmas songs of all time) 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.
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Come on the best kid's Christmas song ever couldn't be anything other than 'Rudolph, 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 (also one of our 10 best Christmas songs of all time) which has since become the second-most popular Christmas tune ever, surpassed only by White Christmas.
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.