With so many classic Christmas carols to choose from, making a top 10 list was a bit of a challenge. Music is an incredible experience. Songs may be connected to a special person or place. Christmas music especially evokes memories and emotions from a lifetime of holiday celebrations. Below is my list of the top 10 carols that have impacted me from my earliest memories of the holiday season to now.
What Child Is This?
This is my favorite carol of all time. Set to the beautiful English melody “Greensleeves”, “What Child Is This” is a gentle narrative about Jesus’ birth that faithful night in the stable. It’s also nostalgic for me because my mother sang it to me as a child. Whenever I hear it, I feel that connection with my mother and always will. Johnny Mathis’s somber rendition has top rank for me because he is one of the few singers who performs all of the verses, making the Nativity scene in the tune complete.
Bouncy and fun, this song celebrates the winter season with all of its snow, roasting chestnuts, and holiday parties. The recording my mother played when I was a child always skipped. To this day, every time it plays, all I can hear is “Come on it’s lovely weather, come on it’s lovely weather, come it’s lovely weather…”
O Holy Night
There is something haunting in this melody for me, especially at the lyric “Fall on your knees/oh hear the angel voices” where all of the passion of faith comes to an emotional crescendo. Again, Johnny Mathis’s version is top for me and moves me every time I hear it.
I Wonder As I Wander
Though just as poetic as other carols, the narrator of this song always sounded more relatable to me, as if she and I could have a modern day chat about life, love, and religion. The melody is gorgeous yet simple, and the lyrics are reflective and faithful.
O Come All Ye Faithful
A hymn-and a beautifully exuberant one at that! The best versions of this carol are the ones that embrace the celebratory feel and let the verses and chorus swell with piety, grace, and energy.
Carol of the Bells
As pleasantly frenetic as this carol is, one doesn’t experience it completely until you have tried to sing it with a choir. The harmonies and layers of each vocal part’s repeated lyrics and melody are vibrant and intricate right down to the last “Dong!”
No list of Christmas songs is complete without Silent Night. Simple lyrics and a gentle melody are all that is necessary to convey the peaceful and joyous night of Jesus’ birth.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
When I hear this tune, I think “pretty.” The carol is mostly about the angels and their songs and celebration on the night of Jesus’ birth. My favorite version is Ella Fitzgerald’s. Her trademark lilt adds a pleasant sweetness to the already saccharine poetry.
Little Drummer Boy
I love this song for a few reasons. The first is the subtle drum backbeat symbolizing the drummer boy’s playing. The second is the picture the narrative puts into my mind: this sweet little boy who comes to give the only gift he has-his music. And the third, my Italian father singing the “pa rum pum pum pum” part in his thick accent.
Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer
I had to put one of the loftier ones on here and Rudolph is definitely my favorite. The underdog (or should I say under-reindeer?) gets his 15 minutes because he has a nose that lights up one foggy Christmas Eve-the very nose that all of his colleagues tease him about in earlier verses. I love a story that celebrates differences and lets the little guy get his moment.