One of my most successful posts last year was this one featuring ten of my favorite Christmas carols. Selecting just ten was a difficult process. I thought it would be fun to feature an additional ten this year. Consider it part of my present to you.
The songs are not “ranked” or listed in a particular order. I have done my best to search YouTube for videos so you can hear the songs if you wish. For “classic” songs not performed by the songwriter, I have indicated the artist.
Silent Night/Night of Silence
Silent Night was composed by Franz Gruber to lyrics written by a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr. It was originally performed in 1818 on Christmas Eve. Fitting, as it is often sung slowly as a beautiful lullaby, even though Gruber’s notes indicate it is to be played in 6/8 time instead of 3/4. I included the link to this video of his original version performed by Innsbrucker Capellknaben so you can hear the difference. Gruber did not write the song for harp, but I did not find any good videos with guitar. It is always interesting to hear how music changes as more people interpret a song over time.
I first heard Night of Silence when I performed it with a choir in college as part of our yearly festival of songs. Written by Daniel Kantor, this song is what is known as a quodlibet – a partner song that can be sung simultaneously with another song (you can thank me for that Scrabble word later). This version, by St. Olaf’s Choir, illustrates how this is achieved. Whenever I sing Silent Night out loud, I am hearing Night of Silence in my head; and when I am alone I usually choose to sing the latter.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
When I was growing up, attending St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church with my parents and older sisters, I knew it was Advent when this song was the opening hymn at mass. In the Catholic Church, Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It is a season of expectation and waiting in preparation of the birth of Christ at Christmas. As a child, singing this song at the start of mass meant Christmas was really coming – in less than five weeks! I associated it with many secular activities such as baking cookies, decorating and shopping for presents. Once I was older and took the time to really listen to the words of the hymn, I recognized the hope and promise included within them. Not only do we ask for God’s presence here among us, but we celebrate in the certainty that He will come. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
I first heard The Piano Guys while my sister Mary Jane, a talented violinist and dedicated music teacher, was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. I sent her a video, asking if she had seen them. She replied saying she had, and she was hoping they would do a Christmas album. In 2013, two years after her death, they did release a Christmas album, and every time I listen to it I think of her.
Ding! Dong! Merrily on High
This carol, with English words by George Ratcliffe Woodward set to a French dance tune from the 1500’s, was new to me when my piano teacher, Roberta, gave me a book of Christmas carols as a present in seventh grade. It quickly became a favorite and I asked her if I could play it the following year when she coordinated a Christmas recital for her students. The piano at my parents’ house shared space in “the piano room” with my mother’s sewing machine. Most of the time, Mom did not work if I was practicing. But there were times when she was busy with her sewing jobs and needed to be in the room while I was practicing. Mom is a singer, like me, and would hum or sing along with the music as I played. She liked the melismatic nature of the tune – with the “oh” syllable in “Gloria” being stretched across several notes in succession. I always think of her and I together in the piano room when I hear this song. To me, it sounds best when sung by a choir with an organ accompanying. Enjoy this version by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?
This song, written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, makes my list this year because of my best friend Stephanie. This is one of those songs that makes me think of her, no matter where or when I hear it. We were not quite teenagers when this song was released in 1984, and MTV had just come to our hometown. In addition, we had Friday Night Videos and USA Up All Night. This meant we never actually slept at “sleep-overs.” We stayed up in front of the television all night watching music videos. This video was excellent because in one clip we got to see all the music stars we liked – Wham!, Duran Duran, Sting, Paul Young and more. We would remind ourselves who was coming up in the next frame, making comments as we ate chips or popcorn in our pajamas. “Do you think they ever let Phil Collins out from behind the drum kit to sing?” “Do you think Sting asked to sing the lyric with his name in it?”
It has been years since I’ve actually watched the video, which I did repeatedly last week with much laughter. Who told Simon LeBon those contrasting stripes were a good idea? And I’m fairly certain that at one point in the early 80’s I had all three haircuts sported by the members of Bananrama in this video. While the song has been rerecorded several times, this is still the best version. It’s not Christmas until both Stephanie and I have heard this song in its entirety on the radio. This year it happened at 1:49 PM on Stephanie’s birthday, December 4.
Celebrate Me Home
Jazz pianist Bob James and Kenny Loggins wrote this song which appeared on Loggins’ debut solo album of the same name in 1977. It was never intended to be a Christmas song. I heard the song from time to time growing up, but it wasn’t until I was an exchange student in 1990 that the song began to have meaning. I was living with my second host parents, Kathy and Jack, for Christmas that year. Kathy and Jack were Americans who had decided to immigrate to Australia. Although they had been in Australia for more than fifteen years at the time I lived with them, and Jack had become an Australian citizen, most times it still felt like I was living with an American family. Kathy had this album, and listened to this song as we made cookies and popcorn balls because she said it reminded her of “home.” Now when I hear it I think not only of home here in the United States, but also my “home” in Tasmania and that wonderful Christmas in Australia.
Christmas Time is Here
In 1965, when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on television, many of the creators thought it would be a flop. Of course the special, featuring music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, went on to become one of the most-loved Christmas shows. I have always loved Peanuts and especially look forward to this show every year. The plot remains relevant, even though aluminum trees are no longer made. For me, the music is part of what makes this show so remarkable. If you take away the great score, with three original songs written by Vince Guaraldi, the film looses something. Yes, it is still a story of children learning what Christmas is all about, but some of the magic is missing.
This song in particular makes me think of the real meaning of the holiday. Lee Mendelson, the show’s producer, wrote the lyrics himself. Their simplicity matches the story told by the Linus and the entire Peanuts gang, and for me is best summed up in the final line: Oh that we could always see, such spirit through the year.
I Wonder As I Wander
I first learned of this tune in the sixth grade when I read the novel Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. The novel describes the sibling rivalry between two twins, Sara Louise (“Wheezy”) and the beautiful, talented and favored Caroline. I don’t know if I was mature enough to fully understand the book in sixth grade but Mom said I could read it, so I did. She also read it while I was reading it. It is the only novel I remember us reading at the same time. I thought she was reading it because her given name is Caroline. Looking back on it now, I think she was reading it so she could answer my questions when we talked about it.
In the novel, Caroline performs this song as a solo at the Christmas pageant to great acclaim. I had never heard the song. Roberta, my piano teacher, found sheet music for me but told me she felt the song was best if performed acappella. This version, performed by The Blenders, is one of my favorites. I first saw the group years ago on The Arsenio Hall Show and didn’t realize they were still making music. Thankfully, they are. If you don’t know more of their music, please take some time to acquaint yourself. After you finish this post. You might enjoy their version of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Bing Crosby debuted this wonderful song written by Irving Berlin on the radio in 1941. It has been featured in movies, television shows, and advertisements. Hundreds of artists have recorded it – it is the most recorded Christmas song according to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). And although I hate bitter cold winters and snow, even I enjoy a white Christmas. Yes, I know Christmas is not about weather, or where you are. But, there is something magical when snow drapes the pine branches and covers the lights on the trees, and crunches under your feet (or wheels). When the snow falls softly all around you as you look up at the sky to catch flakes on your tongue, it just feels like Christmas.
This song is a Basque Christmas carol. It describes the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would become Jesus’ mother. I first heard it performed by Sting when it was included in A Very Special Christmas, an album produced to benefit the Special Olympics. Sting also recorded it in 2009 for his On a Winter’s Night album. I included a link to that version below so you can hear the comparison.
Last year when I wrote this list, I mentioned how I find Mary’s story fascinating. Mary was asked to perform a monumental task, and accepted her role in God’s plan with grace. I often find myself struggling to accept those things I cannot change, so I doubt I could have said yes with such humility without asking a million questions first. No wonder she is referred to as the most highly favored lady.
We Need a Little Christmas
You may know the song, but did you know it first appeared in the Jerry Herman musical Mame. Angela Lansbury starred in the original Broadway production as Mame Dennis, a wealthy and eccentric bohemian living in New York City during the Great Depression. Mame’s motto (which I thought included scandalous language when I first heard it in elementary school), “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death,” has been quoted by many. In the musical, Mame’s nephew Patrick is entrusted to her after Patrick’s father, Mame’s brother, passes away. In the first half of the musical, Mame loses her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. She sings this song when she decides Patrick and her servants need some cheering up. I have included a recording of the original Broadway cast so you can hear the song as Jerry Herman intended us to hear it. If you only know Angela Lansbury as the voice of Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, you may be surprised to see her in the great costumes from Mame.
Right now, I feel we do need a little Christmas. Each day as I listen to stories of death, war and tragedy on the news, I silently pray for some holiday peace and goodwill to hurry up and get here. I know I can’t be the only one to feel this way. Maybe if we all think it, Christmas will come to those who need it most.
What songs are your favorite Christmas carols? Share them in the comments!