By Dai Bando updated 12/20/2021
There are five new additions to my annual “Greatest Christmas Songs” list, now thirty songs in total! This is disconcerting, since my original raison d’être was asserting that there are only about ten good Christmas songs. Then ten became fifteen, then twenty-five, and now thirty.
So, I appear to be wr…wr… challenged, in my original belief.
We lost some wonderful musicians and performers from the list this past year, notably Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains and Nanci Griffith. Rest in Peace and thank you for the music. Loved you both.
Below is the list, updated with new hymns, traditional carols and pop songs.
30. “Simple Gifts” performed by YoYo Ma and Alison Krauss
“Simple Gifts” is special to me because it was performed at my daughter’s annual school holiday concert, called “Lumina”. The senior girls would sing in candlelight procession entering a building packed with smartly dressed parents and grandparents – none wearing face-masks, because this would’ve appeared nutters ten years ago. Ah, 2011 … the memories!
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848. The lyrics are:
“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Finding ourselves “in the place just right.” What could be a more wonderful Christmas gift than that?
On this recording, Yo Yo Ma contributes his masterful cello playing while Alison Kraus adds her typically sublime vocals. Such an extraordinary ode to simplicity!
Now, a Christmas Quiz:
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by:
A. Barbeque Bob
B. Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett
C. Bumblebee Slim
(Answer at the end of the list. Duh.)
29. Auld Lang Syne” performed by Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown
I find New Years as much a spiritual time as Christmas, perhaps even more-so. This version of Robert Burns “Auld Land Syne” includes both Burns’ original Scottish melody, as well as the familiar Guy Lombardo update. “We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet” – how beautiful! I was fortunate to see the late Johnny Cunningham and Irish singer Susan McKeown perform together at a small garden concert some years ago – a treasured memory. Rest in Peace, Johnny. Slàinte Susan!
28. “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” performed by Brenda Lee
I first heard this novelty when it was featured in the 1988 film The Accidental Tourist, with actress Geena Davis singing these goofy lyrics while baking Christmas cookies. At the amazing age of nine (!), Brenda Lee recorded “Lasso Santa Claus” – two full years before recording her better-known hit “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree.” The only younger performer on my list here is probably “Cindy-Lou Who” who sings backup on “Dah Who Doraze”, but since the Whos’ ages are measured in ‘dog years’, she was technically seventy-five.)
I love the musicianship on “Lasso”, notably Nashville legend Don Helms playing that tasty double-neck steel guitar (Helms played in Hank Williams band and recorded with Hank, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash.)
I also I love the woke lyric:
“Then I’ll take his bags of toys and run
And bring to all the kids who don’t have none”
Hellsyeah, Brenda! Power to the people. Stick it to the man!
#27 “Snowfall” performed by Ahmad Jamal Trio
Written by husband-wife team of Claude and Ruth Thornhill, this song is perfect for your Christmas cocktail Jazz party. Your guests will ask, “Is this a bonus track from Charlie Brown’s Christmas?” And you can pour a martini and reply, “I should say not! This is a 1958 live performance by the Ahmad Jamal Trio !” (If in Glasgow, add “… ya clueless bawbag!”)
“Snowfall” has been recorded by Tony Bennet and Wes Montgomery, as well as “Enoch Light and the Light Brigade” and NRBQ (wouldn’t those two bands have been a great twin-bill live show?)
Ahmad Jamal’s evocative instrumental version is my favorite rendition of this tune. You can almost see the snowflakes falling – am I right?
#26 Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel (traditional)
I’ve seen it written that this hymn has an “undeniably spooky quality to it” and I can’t disagree. Why spooky? The music is set in a minor key, and the lyric speaks of “mourning in lonely exile”, a mention of a ransom, and who is this mal hombre Emmanuel, anyway?
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophesied messiah is called Emmanuel, which means means “God is with us.” I like that. It’s exactly where God oughta be.
Original titled “Veni Veni Emmanuel” this dates back to the twelfth century, and as we all know, the good Christians of 12th century really had their shit together when it came to producing beautiful hymns, majestic cathedrals and bloody crusades.
Most Christmas hymns have an upbeat tempo but the “mingled joy and sorrow performed in a minor key” may be precisely why I love this one.
The darkness in this song agrees with Christmas in the age of Covid. Yet the song reminds us, God is with us.
Listen to the eerie church organ in this recording by The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. I almost expect to see the camera pan to reveal Vincent Price playing!
More about this song at America: The Jesuit Review
25. “2000 Miles” – The Pretenders (1983)
A beautiful Christmas song by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, written for the band’s founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott who died 1983 at 25 years old, the year the song was written. (Robbie McIntosh replaced him and plays magnificent lead here.) Chrissie’s vocals and Robbie’s guitars create a holiday masterpiece that’s full of both melancholy and hope.
“And these frozen and silent nights
Sometimes in a dream
Outside under the purple sky
Diamonds in the snow
Chrissie’s heartfelt lyrics remind me of Pablo Nurado’s poem about death, grief and ultimately living, The Dead Woman:
“Forgive me If you are not living
If you, beloved, my love,
If you have died
All the leaves will fall on my breast
It will rain on my soul all night, all day
My feet will want to march
to where you are sleeping
But I shall go on living”
24. The Wexford Carol (traditional)
This is one of the oldest carols, originating from County Wexford, Ireland. The recording is from The Chieftains “Bells of Dublin” LP which I consider indispensable for holiday gatherings.
We lost both Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, and Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in 2021. They were each such great ambassadors of their particular brands of folk music. Rest in Peace.
23.“River” – Joni Mitchell (1971)
One my very favorite performers from the ‘60s, Joni Mitchell wrote this heartbreaking song which first appeared on her classic album ‘Blue’. I love “River, “from the ‘jingle bells’ piano intro to Joni’s lyric “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Who hasn’t wished for this during this Covid winter?
22. Jingle Bells (with “Batman smells” verse)
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. I believe Pierpont’s song is best appreciated when performed by frozen-mitten wearing kids singing at the top of their lungs, and adding the “Batman smells” verse.
What 5th grade boy hasn’t sung “jingle bells, batman smells” while huddled in the wintry schoolyard with his pal Tommy, lusting after Mrs. Fouch – the only teacher at St. Peters who wasn’t a nun. (OK, maybe that was just me and Tommy Tanner, but you get the idea.)
The first version of the Batman Smells verse surfaced in the 1966 Christmas season when the Batman TV show (with Adam West – the greatest Batman) was becoming a massive hit. “Batman Smells” was further glorified by Bart Simpson in “The Simpsons Christmas Special,” in December of 1989. Lisa Simpson was undoubtably wishing for a river she could skate away on.
21. “Greensleeves” (traditional)
I fell in love with this song at the afternoon matinee showing of “How the West Was Won” at the the Warwick Cinema, back when and a box of popcorn cost 50 cents and the longer movies such as this one had “Intermissions.” In the 1962 movie, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Home in the Meadow,” which was essentially the music of “Greensleeves” with American frontier lyrics added by Tin Pan Alley songman Sammy Cahn. What’s that got to do with Christmas? As Yukon Cornelius might say, “Nuthin!” But read on!
The original “Lady Greensleeves” was an English folk song dating back to 1580. There is a some belief that the ballad was actually composed by Henry the VIII who was an accomplished musician before he got fat and nasty. (He was said to be a wiz on the tennis court, too – imagine that!) Now, at that time in England, to label a woman “green sleeves” was meant to suggest she was prone to enjoying a roll around in the grass (getting green stains on her… well, you get the idea.) So this song was a 16th century “I’m too sexy for my shirt.”
Fast forward to 1865 when Christian hymn writer William Chatterton Dix thought it prudent to remove the randy “greens sleeves” reference altogether and rename the song “What Child Is This?”- a question that can indeed follow a roll in the grass, I suppose.
I love Greensleeves best without any lyrics – either played unadorned on acoustic guitar or the orchestral version by Ralph Vaughan Williams. And thank you Debbie Reynolds, mostly for giving us Carrie Fisher. What child was that one!
20. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” Jimmy Boyd (1952)
Jimmy Boyd was only 13 when he recorded this naughty little gem. The Catholic Church condemned the song for implying even a “tenuous link” between sex and the religious holiday, and radio stations in several markets banned it for some time. Under the mistletoe, Mommy not only kisses Santa, but tickles him. And Daddy never suspects a thing – pathetic cuckhold that he clearly is.
19. “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” – Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Bowie disliked “Little Drummer Boy” and insisted on infusing the “Peace on Earth” tune to create this beautiful medley. Bing was a complex guy – a lousy father and skirt-chasing boozer – but as an old man, he was hip enough to sing a Christmas medley with Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Love this still!
18. “Baby Its Cold Outside” – Duet by Ray Charles/Betty Carter
This is such a great song, and there’s been lot’s of fine versions over of the years, including over the end-credits of the sometimes-hilarious movie “Elf.” But no version can touch this one by Brother Ray and Betty Carter. I particularly love Betty’s vocals on this. Are the lyrics offensive in the year of #METOO ? #perhaps
17. “Carol of the Bells” (composed by Mykola Leontovych)
This song is based on a pagan folk chant welcoming Winter Solstice. It was Christianized by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1904. Awesomely cool song, and Ukranian-cool, which is the best kind of cool.
16. “Feliz Navidad” – Jose Feliciano (1970)
This might be the best known and most sung Christmas song in the world. It has been performed by nearly everyone, from Sesame Street’s Elmo (yay!) to Michael Bolton (boo!) And as Steve Buscemi’s character says in Fargo, “with Jose Feliciano, you’ve got no complaints.”Nobody loves the song more than Feliciano: “How many times did I travel around the world, like in Russia, for example, there was a Russian guy whistling “Feliz Navidad’ while he picked up our bags. And I thought, ‘José, you made it, kid! You made it!” Like the Russian luggage guy, this song also contains all the Spanish words I know.
15. “Thank You Very Much” – from “Scrooge” (1970)
From my favorite film version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” this song was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song in 1970. Strangely enough, the original “Scrooge” soundtrack was never released on CD. Great cockney voices, great dancing, and a great lyric: “And if I had a bugle I would blow it / To add a sort of ‘ow’s-your-father touch/ But since I left my bugle at home /I’ll simply have to say / Thank you very, very, very much!”
14. “Winter Was Warm” Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) sung By Jane Kean
Sad, beautiful song from “Mister MaGoo’s Christmas Carol,” which is a Stevenson family holiday cartoon staple. What a great idea – winter was warm. This tune always brings a tear to my eye, and in the cartoon it brings a tear to MaGoo’s eye (the ‘good’ eye that MaGoo could occasionally will to open.) That’s Jane Kean (“Trixie Norton” of The Honeymooners) on vocals.
13. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love
The best of Phil Spector’s Christmas recording. Darlene Love performed the song every year beginning 1986 on the final episode before Christmas of Late Night with David Letterman.
12. “Merry Christmas From Ken Griffin”
As a kid, this severely-scratched LP was among the most-played at Christmas time. Ken Griffin’s organ brought pleasure to many during the holiday season (perhaps even multiple pleasures.) Ken died of a heart attack on the road in 1956, but left behind this “Moby Dick” of organ music, complete with all the Christmas standards, from “The First Noel” to “Jingle Bells” (I prefer Griffin’s version of “Jingle Bells” to Ella Fitzgerald’s… and I am not at all kidding.) Recorded in HIGH FIDELITY as the album cover boasts, and sounds best when playing with your Christmas toys, such as Rock’em, Sock’em Robots.
11. “My Favorite Things” – John Coltrane (1961)
The wintertime imagery of the lyrics had made this tune from “The Sound of Music” a holiday standard by the early ’60s. But I like it best with no lyrics voiced, and only John Coltrane blowing away on soprano sax. My dad would bring home a free multi-performer Christmas album when he purchased new snow tires from the local Firestone dealer. Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Dennis Day, Jerry Vale and the usual suspects. But Coltrane was never on the annual Firestone Christmas LP.
10. “Happy Christmas” (aka “War Is Over”) – John & Yoko.
“War is over, if you want it…” We want it. I wonder if there has ever been a Christmas without a fucking war going on somewhere? Some of the images in this video are hard to watch, but that’s what make them so appropriate.
9. “Dah Who Doraze” (aka “Fah Who Foraze”)
From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – Do you think The Who’s would concern themselves over the phony Fox News ‘War on Christmas’? …No. They would say, “Christmas day is in our grasp , so long as we have hands to clasp.” Who knew.
8. “If We Make It Through December” – Merle Haggard
“I don’t mean to hate December | It’s meant to be the happy time of yearAnd my little girl don’t understand | Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas here…” God Bless him,Haggard was one of the greatest. With the exception of this beautiful song and Brenda Lee’s gleefully goofy “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” I pretty much cannot stomach country Christmas songs. Sorry.
7. “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues
The line “I’ve got a feelin’ this year’s for me and you” nearly makes me cry every time I hear it. Rest in Peace, Kirsty MacColl. Sláinte to Shane Mac, Christy Moore and to the boys of the NYPD.
6. “O Holy Night” – Rickie Lee Jones with the Chieftains
This song was based on the French original titled “Minuit, Chrétiens,” written by Placide Cappeau. Monsieur Cappeau later denounced the Catholic Church to join France’s socialist movement and the church responded by denouncing his beloved carol – so this kinda shit was even going on even then. The version I love best is from the Chieftains’ splendid “The Bells of Dublin.” Rickie’s lead vocal, almost whispered at times, coupled with the dissonant uilleann pipes, provide a beautiful contrast to the grandiose “fall on your knees!” lyric. (Though I can dig it grandiose, as well)
5. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” 1984 performed by Band Aid
Far cooler than “We Are the World” and a great 80s-era rock artifact. I only wish Joe Strummer had contributed vocals on a verse (wonder if Geldolf asked him?) The song has been critized for its clumsy and even racist lyrics, yet it has raised more than $24 million to feed the world.
4. “Christmas Time is Here” (from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) Vince Guaraldi Trio
The entire Charlie Brown soundtrack is the perfect antidote to shitty Christmas music (which is to say, most Christmas music.) I love the dancing at the Christmas party in the cartoon, with Schroeder rocking-out to Vince Guaraldi’s piano[
3. “The Christmas Song” (written by Mel Torme) best performed by Nat King Cole
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Nat, you had me at hello.
2. “White Christmas” (written Irving Berlin)
The classic version of Irving Berlin’s masterpiece was performed by Bing Crosby, premiering in July 1942, and featured in the film Holiday Inn. Crosby reportedly recorded it in only 18 minutes, including and his trademark whistling at the bridge!
There’s such history associated with the song. Bing’s nephew recounts: “In December 1944, Bing was in a USO show with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters in northern France. He (sang) ‘White Christmas’ with 100,000 G.I.s in tears, without breaking down himself. Of course, a lot of those boys were killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.”
As well as Bing, Rosemary Clooney sings a great version. I’ve grown to love this groovy version by The Drifters (featured in the film Home Alone) perhaps best of all!
1. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” 1944 (written by Hugh Martin)
There’s wonderful versions of this Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Chrissie Hynde and Cat Power, but Judy Garland’s screen performance from 1944’s Meet Me In St Louis stands alone.
Why is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas my favorite Christmas song? I think it is the sadness in the song. First, I’m mostly Irish and the poet Yeats said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” On top of that, I find this song deeply spiritual. “Next year all our troubles will be miles away” is more of a request than an affirmation (like Shane MacGowan singing “I’ve got a feelin’ this year’s for you an’ me,” or Haggard telling himself “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be alright”). Is there a sadder, more beautiful Christmas prayer than asking that “next year all our troubles will be far away?”
Listen to an excellent radio interview about the beauty of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on National Public Radio