From public performances to store soundtracks, it’s as if there’s a collective agreement during Christmas season to switch the playlist to holiday songs. While there are always new artists trying their hand at it every year, many well-loved Christmas songs have been around for decades. These songs have captured the hearts of the public time and time again:
THE POGUES — FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK
This has been described as the top Christmas song of all time in UK and Ireland. Originally recorded by Irish-British band The Pogues alongside English artist Kristy McColl in 1987, it defies expectations. Rather than the chirpy message typically associated with Christmas, its lyrics allude to a relationship weighed down by alcoholism, drugs, and broken dreams. But despite the bleak context, the song expresses hope and redemption. Although set in New York, the song’s Irish roots still show through in its lyric references as well as the traditional music interwoven into the melody.
U2 — CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME)
An example of a cover well done, U2’s 1987 version of this song is still played often. It helps that U2, hailing from Ireland, has attained worldwide fame as a rock band, with music involving spiritual imagery and sociopolitical themes. For U2’s cover of this song, the original singer—Daphne Love—even provided backup vocals! As with many songs today, the topic is classic: it’s about missing the person you love and struggling with a sense of longing, which is especially poignant when set against the joyful backdrop of Christmas.
MARIAH CAREY — ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU
This is an insanely popular Christmas song—Mariah Carey still earns millions every year from royalties alone, and it has shot up the charts in Australia, Japan, Hungary, UK, and many other countries. Recorded back in the 1990s at the start of Carey’s career, it’s heavily influenced by R&B and gospel music. A strong element is the percussion, contributing an underlying rhythmic thrum that’s layered with different kinds of bells. Although the song is yet again about pining for a loved one during Christmas, it has a fast-paced, joyful melody that you’ll want to hear repeatedly. (Bonus fun fact, Carey was born on Long Island to an African-American and Afro-Venezuelan father and an Irish American mother whose surname was Hickey.)
NAT KING COLE — THE CHRISTMAS SONG (MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU)
Here’s a fun fact: this song used to be alternatively named by its first line (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”). It was also composed during a summer day, when writer Bob Wells decided to fight off the heat by crafting lyrics about winter. Nat King Cole was the first recording artist to sing this in 1961, and he pulled it off beautifully. His trademark as a musician is his smooth, husky voice. Accompanied by two orchestras and three choral groups, his straightforward, relaxed rendition makes for a majestic holiday tune.
BRENDA LEE — ROCKIN’ AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE
This song is 60 years old—and the vocalist, Brenda Lee, is still very much spry and alive. That’s because she sang those deep, throaty vocals when she was 13! The song kickstarted her enduring career, which has influenced modern artists such as Taylor Swift and Kanye West as well as having earned the admiration of Dolly Parton. A Christmas song through and through, it’s cheerful and upbeat to the core, with a rhythm so catchy that you’ll ache to move to it. Although categorized as rock and roll, the melody is reminiscent of country music, and you can catch it playing in the movie “Home Alone.”
WHAM! — LAST CHRISTMAS
Out of all the songs on this list, “Last Christmas” is probably the one that’s earned the most covers. It was released in 1984 by Wham!, a musical duo that brought pop back to the forefront of the musical world. The song revolves around heartbreak and is targeted towards an ex-lover, describing very well the push-pull dynamic right after a relationship ends. The perky instrumentals contrast sharply with the lyrics, highlighting the emotional tension of coping with sadness and hurt during Christmas.
JOSE FELICIANO — FELIZ NAVIDAD
“Feliz Navidad” is inevitably blasted out from speakers every Christmas. While several major artists have made their own covers, Celine Dion and The Cheetah Girls included, Jose Feliciano’s original still reigns supreme. The magic of the song lies in its simplicity. Although combining both Spanish and English, its lyrics are delightfully repetitive, with a hearty chorus of “Feliz navidad” (or “Merry Christmas”). Even without understanding exactly what it’s saying, you won’t have to wonder. It’s exuberant and warm to the brim, and it’s the perfect song for the celebratory spirit of Christmas.
O Holy Night
Everywhere you go in Ireland, you’ll hear this classic 19th century Christmas carol during the holiday season, and for good reason. It’s one of the most popular carols and has been recorded by everyone from Mariah Carey and Celine Dion to Nat King Cole and Josh Groban (whose 2002 version is above). The song is taken from the French poem “Minuit, Chretiens” (Midnight, Christians) and set to music in 1847. Less than a decade later, it was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight, an Irish American Unitarian minister from Boston and has since become a staple of carollers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christmas could be a musical genre on its own, given the sheer number of songs out there dedicated to it, but these are the timeless classics. Listening to these—especially one after the other—will get you in the Christmas mood, and you might even hum along!
Do you have a favorite Christmas song that we left off our list? Let us know in the comments!
Initially published on Dec 16, 2019