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Best Christmas Carols: 20 Singalong Celebrations Of Faith And Festivity
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List & Guides

Best Christmas Carols: 20 Singalong Celebrations Of Faith And Festivity

Songs of good cheer with serious messages to impart, the best Christmas carols are winter warmers that never fail to lift the spirits.

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Whichever way you look at it, Christmas is a time for celebration. For some, it signifies a period of carefree partying – a much-needed beacon of good cheer brightening the sunless winter gloom – while for those of the Christian faith, 25 December marks the birthday of their redeemer, Jesus Christ. The soundtrack to Christmas is a distinctively seasonal one, and for many people, especially in Northern Europe and North America, the best Christmas songs tend to be about snow, sleigh bells, mince pies, Santa Claus and Christmas trees. But in truth, there’s nothing more Christmassy than hearing – or even singing – a traditional carol, and the best Christmas carols are guaranteed to invoke the spirit of the season whose message is peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

So put on your Christmas hats, lubricate your vocal cords with your tipple of choice, and check out the best Christmas Carols of all time. Expect singalong songs of hope, faith, redemption, peace and, ultimately, celebration.

Listen to the classic ‘Christmas At King’s’ album here, and check out our best Christmas carols, below.

20: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Though it was first published around 1760, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman – whose title translates into modern English as something like “may God grant you peace and happiness” – is based on a traditional song from the British Isles that probably dates from a much earlier time. Charles Dickens name-checked the carol in his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, and it was later quoted in Silas Marner, George Eliot’s 1861 novel. It was also heard as part of Gustav Holst’s Christmas-carol-inspired 1910 choral fantasy, Christmas Day, and in recent times there have been notable cover versions by Garth Brooks, Barenaked Ladies and Randy Travis.

19: Good King Wenceslas

Always guaranteed to start a rousing singalong, Good King Wenceslas embodies the spirit of Christmas and charts the journey of a philanthropic Bohemian monarch – recently made into a patron saint in the Czech Republic – who braves inclement weather to give alms to a poor peasant. The song’s melody dates back to the 13th century, though the lyrics to the version we know as one of the best Christmas carols came much later, penned in 1853 by the English hymn-writer John Mason Neale.

18: Ding Dong Merrily On High

Famous for its infectious Latin refrain – “Gloria, Hosanna in Excelsis!” – Ding Dong Merrily On High has secular roots and took its melody from a 16th-century piece called Branle De L’Official, which originally appeared in a book on dancing called Orchésographie, by the French cleric Jehan Tabourot, written under the anagrammatic pen name Thoinot Arbeau. Almost 400 years later, George Ratcliffe Woodward, an English composer who was also a passionate bell-ringer, wrote words to the melody and published them in 1924 in The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-Two Songs For Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons. Its place among the best Christmas carols has been secure ever since.

17: I Saw Three Ships

Though this traditional folk-song-based Christmas carol was first published in 1833, it is thought to be much older, and different versions of I Saw Three Ships are known to have existed in various parts of the British Isles. The fact that its lyrics describe three ships sailing into Bethlehem, which was 20 miles away from the nearest large body of water, has led to much speculation. One theory is that the ships refer to the Magi’s camels, which have often been described as “ships of the desert”.

16: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks tells the story of an angel informing some shepherds of Jesus’ birth. It has English folk-song roots, but its text is attributed to Nahum Tate, an Irish writer who was England’s poet laureate in the late 17th century. The words have been adapted to several different melodies; in North America, they are sung to a melody by George Frideric Handel which was adapted by Lowell Mason in 1821. In the UK, the carol uses the melody to the 17th-century English hymn Winchester Old. It’s a favourite in the Yuletide repertoire of the long-running King’s College Choir, Cambridge, who have recorded multiple versions that vie for inclusion among the best Christmas carols. The jazz singer Bobby Darin also recorded While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks on his 1960 Christmas album, The 25th Day Of December.

15: O Come All Ye Faithful

The provenance of this early 18th-century popular carol, whose original Latin title was Adeste Fideles, is shrouded in mystery. At various times, O Come All Ye Faithful has been attributed to a number of different writers, including two English composers (John Francis Wade, who published the first English version in 1751, and John Reading), King John IV of Portugal and even an anonymous Cistercian monk. The modern UK and US versions use an arrangement by the noted British choral master Sir David Willocks, which King’s College Choir, Cambridge, have recorded many times. There have also been many recordings over the years by pop acts, including Elvis Presley and US country singers George Middleman and Faith Hill.

14: Away In A Manger

You know Christmas is imminent when this gentle Nativity carol can be heard in the shops. According to a 1996 Gallup poll, Away In A Manger was voted joint second in a UK survey of the best Christmas carols, but it originates from outside of Britain. For many years, the song was believed to be the work of the German religious reformer Martin Luther, but it is now considered to be of North American origin. Melody-wise, the UK and US versions are markedly different; the former is based on William J Kirkpatrick’s Cradle Song from 1895, which is an adaptation of an earlier Jonathan E Spilman melody, while the latter adopted the melody from the slightly earlier Luther’s Cradle Hymn, by James R Murray.

13: It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

The original version of this North American carol was composer Richard Storrs Willis’ setting of an 1849 poem by Edmund Sears, a Massachusetts pastor who wrote about a warring world oblivious to the Christian messages of peace and love. More familiar to UK audiences is a slightly later version dating from 1874, which is based on Noel, a melody adapted from British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. It Came Upon The Midnight Clear has proved immensely durable over the years, and those who have recorded it range from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to the gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who gave the song a contemporary sanctified makeover in 2000.

12: Once In Royal David’s City

This well-loved carol tells the story of Jesus’ Nativity and began life as a poem by Cecil Francis Alexander, who published it in her 1848 book, Hymns For Little Children, a collection of verses for Sunday schools (the book also included her most famous hymn, All Things Bright And Beautiful). The following year, the prolific English hymn composer and organist Henry John Gauntlett – who claimed to have written a hymn a day for 27 years – came across Alexander’s words and set them to a hymnal he had already composed called Irby. The first recording of the carol dates from 1948, when King’s College Choir, Cambridge, recorded it for EMI under the direction of legendary choirmaster Boris Ord.

11: The Holly And The Ivy

Nicknamed “Christ’s thorns”, the leaves of the evergreen holly bush have had a Christian association since medieval times, but their link to Christmas dates from the 19th century. That’s when the first written references to this English folk carol appeared, though it’s thought the song’s origins could be much older. The Holly And The Ivy’s melody was first published in folk-song collector Cecil Sharp’s 1911 anthology English Folk-Carols. In the late 20th century, the song appeared on Christmas albums by a variety of pop artists, including Bing Crosby, Steeleye Span and the late Natalie Cole, and it remains fondly thought of as one of the best Christmas carols of all time.

10: O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Like many of the best Christmas carols, two different versions of this beloved song exist, one catering to a North American audience, the other to a British one. The words to O Little Town Od Bethlehem were penned in 1868 by an Episcopal clergyman from Massachusetts called Phillips Brooks and set to music by his collaborator, organist Lewis Redner, to the melody of a tune called St Louis. In the UK, the carol is known for a different melody, called Forest Green, a folk song by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, adapted in 1906 from a rural ballad called The Ploughboy’s Dream. Later in the 20th century, English musician Chris Eaton modernised it via a new arrangement and called it Little Town, which was recorded by Cliff Richard and Amy Grant.

9: Coventry Carol

A favourite in the repertoire of Cambridge’s King’s College Choir, this haunting English carol dates from the 16th century. It got its title after being performed regularly in Coventry, England, in a popular Nativity play called The Pageant Of The Shearmen And Tailors, part of the city’s guilds pageants which began in medieval times. Coventry Carol’s words, thought to have been written by Robert Croo, describe King Herod’s massacre of the innocents in the wake of Jesus’ birth.

8: O Come, O Come, Emanuel

In terms of its origins, this haunting hymn, with its Latin text and monastic plainsong-style melody, is the oldest entry in this list of the best Christmas carols. Some have estimated that it may have begun life in a monastery some 1200 years ago, but it wasn’t until 1861 that an English translation was written. O Come, O Come, Emanuel, which can be sung at Advent as well as Christmas, is a staple in the Christmas repertoire of King’s College Choir, Cambridge. In popular music, there have been versions by Whitney Houston, Sufjan Stevens and Irish singer Enya, who recorded a haunting interpretation for her 2008 album, And Winter Came…

7: The First Noel

The word “Noel” (also spelled “Nowell” or, in France, “Noël”) is a synonym for “Christmas” that dates as far back as the Middle Ages. Though often deemed French in origin, The First Noel is believed to have begun life as a Cornish folk song until becoming more widely known after it was first published in the 1823 book Carols Ancient And Modern. Several singers have taken it into the pop charts, including Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and US country singer Gabby Barrett, whose 2020 version charted in the US and Canada.

6: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

The American Civil War was the background for this 19th-century carol, whose words were adapted from the 1863 poem Christmas Bells, by US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Written after his wife had died and their son had been wounded in battle, Longfellow’s poem has been set to music several times, first in 1872, by John Baptiste Calkin, an English organist whose version became the standard. Bing Crosby further elevated I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day’s position among the best Christmas carols when he scored a hit with the tune in 1956, though he revamped it using a new melody written by US songwriter Johnny Marks. The Californian indie-pop band Echosmith put their own spin on the song in 2013.

5: In The Bleak Midwinter

The music for the most famous version of In The Bleak Midwinter was written in 1906 as a piece called Cranham (named after a Gloucestershire village), by the British classical-music composer Gustav Holst, famous for writing the well-loved orchestral suite The Planets. The words came from a poem called A Christmas Carol, by the 19th-century romantic poet Christina Rosetti. Another English composer, the less familiar Harold Darke, set Rosetti’s words to a different melody in 1909. Though it’s not as well-known as Holst’s original, Darke’s adaptation is a favourite of King’s College Choir, Cambridge, who perform it every Christmas.

4: Joy To The World

They say a good tune lasts forever, and that rings true for this enduring entry among the best Christmas carols. Written way back in 1719, Joy To The World has the distinction of being the most-published Christian hymn in North America. The words were penned by an English minister called Isaac Watts, and the tune we associate with it, written by US composer Lowell Mason, did not come along until over a century later. Those from the pop world who have helped immortalise the song range from smooth crooner Nat King Cole to country icon Johnny Cash and soul star Whitney Houston.

3: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

This joyful carol, which describes angels praising God and is based on a New Testament quote from the Book Of Luke, originally bore the title Hymn For Christmas Day when it was published in Methodist minister John Wesley’s 1739 book Hymns And Sacred Poems. Its writer was Wesley’s brother, Charles, though another Methodist minister, George Whitefield, later modified the song’s lyrics. The music for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing came much later, in 1855, when English organist William Hayman Cummings adapted it from German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s mid-19th-century piece Festgesang. Pop versions have been recorded by Frank Sinatra and even The Everly Brothers, who included Hark! The Herald Angels Sing on one of the best Christmas albums of all time, 1962’s Christmas With The Everly Brothers And The Boystown Choir.

2: O Holy Night

A meditation on how Jesus’ birth redeemed humanity, O Holy Night is a popular carol that began life as Cantique De Noël, an 1843 text written by French wine-seller Placide Cappeau. It was set to music four years later by his friend and composer Adolphe Adam, and debuted by opera singer Emily Laurey in the town of Roquemaure, in the South of France. In 1855, North American minister John Sullivan Dwight helped popularise the song overseas by writing English words, and during the American Civil War it became an anti-slavery anthem. In recent times, several US artists have taken O Holy Night into the charts, among them Mariah Carey, Martina McBride and, in 2017, Josh Groban, who featured it on his album Noël.

1: Silent Night

Topping our list of the best Christmas carols is this evergreen Yuletide favourite. Originally titled Stille Nacht, it dates from 1818 and was written by two Austrians, composer Franz Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr. Almost a century later, in 1914, Silent Night was famously sung during the “Christmas Truce” of World War I, and the deep-voiced crooner Bing Crosby sold a whopping ten million copies of the song when he recorded it in 1935. More recently, Michael Bublé – who was inspired to become a singer after hearing Crosby’s White Christmas album – recorded a version that was included on his 2011 best-selling holiday album, Christmas. The same year, UNESCO declared the carol “an intangible cultural heritage”.

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