Last week, Bonnie and I tackled the 15 best and 15 worst Christmas songs of the secular world, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the religious side of things. Don’t worry—the actual religious part of the equation is only used as a category, not a talking point. The music is what counts. And we won’t be doing the 15 worst religious Christmas songs, because that seems like a great way to make a lot of people angry. (Though if we did, my vote for the booby prize would have gone to “The Friendly Beasts”. I could do without the animal voices.)
So here are the best of the best. And I have to say, reducing this list to just 15 was super hard. For whatever reason—a roughly 1,900-year head start? The ability to work in minor keys?—there are more musically awesome religious Christmas songs than secular ones. The choice between the top two was particularly hard, and I’m still not sure I made the right call after lots of agonizing. But the call had to be made, and here’s how it played out:
Honorable Mention: Songs I Can’t Believe I Left Off
“Do You Hear What I Hear?”
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
“Away in a Manger”
“Once in Royal David’s City”
“Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming”
“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”
“That One Seminal Song I Totally Forgot That’s Going to Completely Embarrass Me”
15. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
It was a such a close call between this and “Away in the Manger” for the 15th position, but in the end “Little Town” just feels like it has more gravity and a better melody. This is a song that sounds best when sung by children.
14. “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)”
Like several songs on this list, particularly a few in the honorable mentions, I had never heard this one before Sufjan Stevens started coming out with his Christmas EPs. And I still think his short, banjo-and-oboe-driven version is the best I’ve ever heard. This song is a little too basic to push much higher than 14th, but I get that happy feeling every time I hear the first few notes.
13. “The Little Drummer Boy (Carol of the Drum)”
I know, I know, you’ve heard some really awful covers of this song. I felt peer pressure to leave this song off, and I didn’t even really consult anybody before writing. Still, I maintain that the melody is really great, and I’m not afraid to admit that the story of the poor drummer boy trying to figure out what to offer gets to me. It just happens to be a really hard song to perform correctly…it’s the King Lear of Christmas carols. The best bet is to keep it simple, let it build and capitalize on the energy.
12. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
I’m not exactly sure why this is, but the happy-sounding religious Christmas songs hold up a lot better than the secular ones. As much as I want to curl up and die when I hear something like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” I’m okay with songs like “Hark!” being played over and over. Maybe there’s a bit more mystery to them, or maybe it’s just that the melody is better. In any case, “Hark!” does the trick for me.
11. “The First Noel”
This is the easiest song on this list to screw up, and many do by going 100 percent lachrymose with their covers, extending each word to a length of 15 seconds and emoting until you want to die. If anything, I think “Noel” gets a bad rap because of all the bad covers. But when the performers leave the music alone to say what’s it going to say, it’s a great song.
10. “Joy to the World”
Repeat the sounding joy! Again, like Hark the Herald, we have a super common song that is probably overplayed and doesn’t really have much emotional range…and yet it’s still super fun to sing.
9. “Good King Wenceslas”
I have no idea if Wenceslas was as good as advertised, but I can get behind a sympathetic king braving the cold to bring food to a peasant. In fact, this one is barely religious until the point when the king shows supernatural powers to save his page on the cold night. There are a couple ways to cover this song; it can be powerful when slow, but I think I prefer the classic upbeat Irish Rovers version.
8. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
For a song with a chorus of “Glad tidings of comfort and joy,” this has a pretty dark subject matter and a pretty dark sound. There’s a Satan reference in the first verse, and the music has always made the words sound more like a warning to me. Comfort and joy are not the emotions I come away with. It’s eerie, and I love it. And I love that Annie Lennox picked up on the weird elements and blew them out in this bizarre, awesome video.
7. “Angels We Have Heard on High”
This is the last of the happy tunes, because I’m apparently I’m a sad-sack who can’t resist a little Christmas melancholy. But at the end of Christmas concerts, when everyone needs a little boost before they head out the door, nothing works better.
6. “Silent Night”
Am I underrating “Silent Night” by placing it sixth? It feels low, but then again, I think the hype might overshadow the actual song, which is very good without being truly transcendent. It’s the kind of song that’s so simple that it needs a little funking up. Which is why The Temptations version is so good. But Sinead O’Connor also managed to nail the traditional style.
5. “We Three Kings of Orient Are”
It’s such a beautiful song that I’m almost embarrassed to say that I fell in love with it while watching a Christmas special that featured the California Raisins. Amazingly, this clip exists on YouTube, and it has doo-wop camels singing the chorus. Does this version do justice to the music? Kind of. Will it convince you that “We Three Kings” deserves a top five placement? Absolutely not. Does it strike a nostalgic chord with me, and am I going to force it on you? You bet.
4. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
For me, this is like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in the sense that there’s a darkness underlying the melody. Throw in the historical element, and it has a lot of weight. This song always had a Celtic vibe to me, and was basically tailored to Enya’s voice and style. So let’s just enjoy her cover and get angry at me for not putting this in the top three.
3. “What Child is This?”
Whoa! Controversy! For me, this is the most underrated Christmas song of any category. And guess what, haters? OPRAH AGREES! And I feel like if you watch this version with Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige below, you’ll agree too. It sounds oppressively sad, even at the parts that are supposed to be lyrical redeeming, and I suppose that’s why it’s been kept out of heavy rotation. But for me, sad or not, the melody just kills, and things can get a wee bit dusty over here.
2. “O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)”
It was so, so hard not putting this in the top spot. It’s an all-time classic, powerful and triumphant, and singing the first verse in Latin (memories of 9th grade chorus) always makes me feel like Pavarotti, even though I sound like an idiot. I’m probably betraying something in my soul with this silver medal business, but then again, “Adeste Fideles” doesn’t need my help. It’s timeless. Here’s a video of me singing with a whole orchestra backing me up:
1. “O Holy Night”
As much as I might have resisted it, I can’t keep “O Holy Night” from the top of the podium. It has everything—great melody, great lyrics, equal parts joy and melancholy, and above all, it’s a blast for great singers to cover. The “fall on your knees!” line is the most frequently goosebump-inducing moment in Christmas music history, and the word “divine” in the last line is a close second. There’s plenty of subtlety here, but it’s counter-balanced with a pair of epic belt-it-out moments. It truly can’t be beat.