Christmas seems to come earlier every year. And in a world rife with good Christmas music, deciding what to listen to can sometimes be challenging.
Here is a list of Christmas carols. They are the all-time best to get you in the holiday spirit.
“O Holy Night” by Kathleen Battle
Song Year: 1992
In 1843, composer Adolphe Adam adapted a French poem by Placide Cappeau. He set the poem to music little suspecting the result would be one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Without exception, Britain routinely picks ‘O Holy Night’ as the nation’s favorite Christmas carol.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” by Quire Cleveland
Song Year: 2010
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is another of the best Christmas carols that began life as a poem.
This one was written by Christina Rosetti and arranged by Gustav Holst.
While it doesn’t have the soaring high notes of our previous selection, this gentle rendition of Rossetti's poetry beautifully encapsulates the silence of a snowy winter night.
“Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar” by Nicholas Sears and Choir
Song Year: 2020
Peter Cornelius’ composition ‘Three Kings from Persian Lands’ makes a surprise appearance for some people as one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Strictly speaking, it’s an Epiphany since the Kings don’t arrive until Twelfth Night.
But there’s no way of verifying the history of who was where and when. And Ivor Atkin's arrangement and translation of the German carol deserves more recognition than it gets.
Amidst the floating high notes is a touching reminder that Christmas isn’t about presents. It’s about giving love, time and attention to the people who matter, even if you have to travel miles to do it.
“Past Three O’Clock” by Genesis Sixteen
Song Year: 2017
‘Past Three O’Clock’ by George Radcliffe Woodard is another of the best but most underrated Christmas carols of all time.
The improbable title comes from the tradition of London policemen, who in the 1600s, used bells and music to call the hours after three o’clock.
The tune takes loose inspiration from those calls. It’s a tricky carol for a choir because you have to spit many words out as quickly as possible, ideally with superlative diction. But when it succeeds, it’s stunning.
“Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” by The Rivertree Singers
Song Year: 2017
Another of the best Christmas carols of all time is ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.’
Like many carols, it doesn’t stick to the Christmas story exclusively. Instead, it recounts Christ’s life from birth to death. Scholars suspect that the carol originated as part of a Medieval mystery play.
That’s tricky to substantiate because no one can find a written copy earlier than 1833.
That hasn’t stopped composers from arranging it. The most famous include:
- John Rutter
- David Wilcox
- Gustav Holst
This version is by John Gardner.
“Gaudete” by The Medieval Babes
Song Year: 1997
The third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, and it gives its name to one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Gaudete Sunday is a season for relaxing some of Advent’s strictness and anticipating Christmas. Even without a religious background, that comes through in the music. It’s fast-paced and joyful, just like the Latin title.
“The Holly and The Ivy” by King’s College Cambridge
Song Year: 2010
Sometimes traditional carols survive for a reason. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ with words by Cecil Sharp remains one of the best Christmas carols of all time, partly because it’s so ubiquitous during the holiday season.
Here, composer June Nixon puts a new spin on an old favorite to excellent effect.
“The Sussex Carol” by The King’s Singers and Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Song Year: 2013
‘The Sussex Carol’ is another traditional English melody to rank as one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
As arranged by David Wilcox, it’s a jaunty musical romp through the Christmas story.
To keep things interesting, he includes what many consider one of the hardest descants in the Christmas repertoire. It’s high, chromatic, and musically dissonant with the rest of the choir. But when it comes together, it sounds glorious.
“Gloucester Wassail” by The Waverly Consort
Song Year: 1977
Here’s yet another of the best Christmas carols of all time with eclectic lyrics.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with the holidays. But the Christmas tradition of the Wassail is an old one. In it, the peasants went door to door on country estates, singing for their supper.
“Once In Royal David’s City” by Libera
Song Year: 2011
David Wilcox is famous for his harmonic arrangements of traditional carols. ‘Once In Royal’ gained such traction that it’s not only one of the best Christmas carols of all time but the default opening carol for everything from the Nine Lessons and Carols to Christmas Eve services.
Few things say Christmas as effectively as that solo first verse. Then the choir comes in on the second verse, and by verse three, everyone is singing. It’s a powerful expression of music’s ability to unite strangers.
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” by Johnny Mathis
Song Year: 1958
Edmund Sears wrote ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’ while he was part of the Unitarian Church.
Sears was a poet. Since then, at least two notable composers have turned his poem into one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Harold Darke famously arranged it for choir, as did David Wilcox. The melody most people know is by a student of Mendelssohn called Richard Storrs Willis. It’s somber, swooping, and a poignant reminder of our human frailties.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” by Andrea Bocelli
Song Year: 2015
Yet another of the best Christmas carols of all time is ‘Angels We Have Heard on High.’
It’s set to the hymn tune ‘Gloria,’ a melody it shares with the British classic ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory.’
It’s notable for the melismatic Gloria that appears in the chorus. The first syllable spans sixteen notes, and canny choir members must take turns dropping out of the melody to catch their breath.
“Silent Night” by Bing Crosby
Song Year: 1957
‘Silent Night’ was originally a German carol called ‘Stille Nacht.’ But it’s better known with English language lyrics in an arrangement by David Wilcox for choir.
Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest, wrote the words in the mid-1800s. Xavier Gruber then set them to music.
But the song so quickly became one of the best Christmas carols of all time that, for years, people ascribed it to more famous composers like Mozart of Hayden.
“Let it Snow” by Ella Fitzgerald
Song Year: 1960
Not all of the best Christmas carols of all time are traditional. Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy rendition of ‘Let it Snow’ is another holiday staple.
Despite this, the song never mentions Christmas outright, instead focusing on more secular winter customs.
Even more remarkable, the song famously was composed during a heatwave.
“Il Est Né” by The Guilford Cathedral Choir
Song Year: 1973
‘Il Est Né’ is a traditional French carol, here arranged by John Rutter.
It appeared for the first time in 1862 as part of a Midnight Mass service in a local French Cathedral.
Since then, it’s become one of the best Christmas carols of all time. Its primarily religious imagery plays second-fiddle to the quick tempo and incisive rhythm.
It’s a challenging carol for choirs because it requires excellent diction at remarkable speed.
“The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole
Song Year: 1961
Famously, Rob Wells and Mel Tormé collaborated on ‘The Christmas Song’ while enduring a brutal summer heatwave in 1945.
The story goes that Wells had left half-scribbled lyrics lying on his piano top. With nothing else to do, Wells began playing with the words and later added notes.
The result was one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Nat King Cole brings his signature warmth to the melody, and the result was a success.
But Cole wasn’t satisfied, so rerecorded it, this time with a string orchestra accompanying him. His record company thought this wasn’t necessary. They recanted when Cole and the string orchestra became the runaway hit of the year.
“Hallelujah Chorus” by The Royal Choral Society
Song Year: 2012
Few things say Christmas with the same ebullient yell that Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus does.’
Although it’s now one of the best Christmas carols of all time, Handel intended it to be part of an Easter-themed oratorio. That’s why ‘The Messiah’ covers not only Christ’s birth but also his death and resurrection.
That hasn’t stopped choral societies everywhere from making it a Christmas tradition.
Famously, King George mistook the lyrics for this chorus as being about him, so stood up. Since the audience couldn’t sit with the King standing, everyone else got up too. So began one of Christmas’s unlikelier traditions.
The exuberance of the music is contagious, even when audiences remain seated. It alternates between compelling unison and dramatic harmony that sends everyone away happier than when they sat down.
“Adam Lay Ybounden” by The Washington Master Chorale
Song Year: 2014
This Christmas carol comes from a Middle English text. You see that reflected in some of the language in the song, like ‘clerkes’ and ‘finden.’
Consequently, despite being one of the best Christmas carols of all time, no one can agree on how to pronounce the lyrics.
Luckily, that doesn’t matter. This thoughtful reflection on man’s inevitable fallibility, coupled with the song’s optimism, is moving irrespective of what stress goes on what syllable.
“This Is The Record of John” by UC Berkley Chamber Choir
Song Year: 1997
Strictly speaking, ‘This is the Record of John’ is an Advent anthem. But that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Written by Orlando Gibbons, it’s a masterful showcase in harmony. There’s also a lovely interplay between the soloist and the choir.
It promises a brighter, better world for everyone, and under the mistletoe and gift wrap, that’s the heart of the Christmas message.
“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
Song Year: 1942
‘White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin is one of the best-known and best-loved secular Christmas carols of all time.
There’s a nostalgic quality to the lyrics as they commemorate Christmases past. It’s hard not to listen and think of your childhood Christmases.
Bing Crosby debuted the song in the 1942 film ‘Holiday Inn.’ But even by the standards of the time, the film flirted with uncomfortable amounts of racism. It was remade later as ‘White Christmas.’
This time the film was in color, but ‘White Christmas’ was still the musical lynchpin of the plot.
“The Coventry Carol” by Voices8
Song Year: 2020
‘The Coventry Carol’ might be one of the best Christmas carols of all time, but it’s also one of the darkest.
It unapologetically recounts the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as taken from the Gospel of Matthew. In it, Herod consigns all young boys under age two to death.
The bleakness behind the carol comes from the fact that originally people sang it as part of a mystery play. These were popular in early modern England. Audiences would have heard the carol contextualized by Christ’s birth and childhood.
Even though the plays have fallen out of practice, ‘The Coventry Carol’ remains a hauntingly beautiful composition.
“The Cherry Tree Carol” by Joan Baez
Song Year: 1962
‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ tells the apocryphal story of Mary’s encounter with a cherry tree. When a reluctant Joseph doesn’t pluck the fruit, Christ speaks from the womb and commands the tree to bow to his mother.
Interestingly, the story the legend comes from doesn’t feature a cherry tree but a palm. It’s also set not at Christmas but afterward when the family is fleeing to Egypt. As for the cherries, the apocryphal text that inspires the carol makes those bananas.
None of this stops it from being one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
Is it accurate? Almost certainly not. But Joan Baez’s recording made it accessible to people without choral backgrounds. Suddenly everyone was singing ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ and no one cared where the cherries came from.
“Crown of Roses” by Tenebrae
Song Year: 2012
Here’s another of the best Christmas carols of all time inspired by a legend. This one tells about the child Jesus in a rose garden.
Tchaikovsky wrote the music, and because the imagery foreshadows the Crucifixion, it’s popular as a motet during Lent. But the presence of a young Christ makes it equally suitable for Christmas.
There are many lovely touches in this carol. One of the most astonishing is the bass line, which sinks to incredible depths. It’s a striking contrast to the high and melodic soprano line.
“Go Tell It On the Mountain by” Jessye Norman
Song Year: 1992
If you want the best Christmas carol of all time to get you moving, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ is the song for you.
Here it’s sung by the incomparable soprano Jessye Norman with a choir accompanying her.
Always a song with heft and vim, Norman belts out the verses with textbook clarity and technique.
It’s a carol for all ages and rarely has it sounded better than it does here.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Kings’ College Cambridge
Song Year: 2021
Like some of the other best Christmas carols of all time, ‘Hark the Herald’ retells the story of Luke’s Gospel.
It focuses on the visitation of the shepherds to the crib. But that’s not the only part of the story to get paraphrased.
The carol first appeared in 1739. Charles Wesley, a prominent Methodist, and composer, contributed to the piece. In true Methodist fashion, Wesley wanted the carol to be sober, somber, and solemn.
What he got was a riotously glad chorus with an elegant soprano descant. Even without the harmony, it’s a melody almost anyone can sing.
Combined with its jubilant sound, it’s no surprise it’s such a favorite at Christmas.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” by Choir of Westminster Abbey
Song Year: 2013
‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ is one of the oldest Christmas carols on record and one of the best carols of all time.
It’s sometimes sung using its Latin title and lyrics, ‘Adeste Fideles.’ Consequently, no one agrees on who wrote it, though everyone has their theories. Popular favorites include attributing the song to:
- John Francis Wade
- John Reading
- King John IV of Portugal
- Cistercian monks
Wade is the most credible of these because a copy of the carol with his name on the score is archived in Lancashire and dated to 1751.
Like many carols discussed, it’s about making the pilgrimage to the manger.
But it’s not really about God or the incarnation. That’s part of the message, but the larger part is about humanity’s ability to find hope in unlikely places, like a stable. It reminds us that hope like that can change lives and brighten worlds, if not on a cosmic level, then on an earthly one.
“Quem Pastores Laudevere” by Michael Praetorius
Song Year: 2013
The Shepherds get an astonishing amount of attention in Christmas carols. Here’s another of the best Christmas carols of all time that retells the adoration of the shepherds. To add variety, it does it in Latin.
This arrangement is by Michael Praetorius, who wrote during the late Renaissance and early Baroque era.
Because he spanned musical eons, there’s some rich harmony on offer, both for the choir and the orchestra accompanying them.
Praetorius wrote at a time when the rules behind music theory were beginning to change. You can hear that in some of the interesting harmonic choices in this composition.
One quirk of the period is the plagal cadence at the end of each verse. It makes it sound like you are approaching the end of the carol, even when you aren’t.
“Jesus Christ The Apple Tree” by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Song Year: 1986
Apple trees have a long and storied history when talking about the church. They’re the fruit we associate with the fall of man, and they’re the go-to tree when artists want to depict Jesse Trees in stained glass windows.
The carol first appears as ‘The Tree of Life My Soul Have Seen’ in 1761. It plays on a still-prevalent theological idea that Christ is the second Adam. But instead of dooming man to death, this apple-bearing Christ restores us to life.
There are several versions of the carol. But it’s the arrangement by Elizabeth Poston that made ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
“Personent Hodie” by Ely Cathedral Choir
Song Year: 2016
‘Personent Hodie’ distinguishes itself by being one of the most exuberant Christmas carols of all time.
At least, the melody does. The organ plays a fairly staid, even monotonous continuo line.
The other thing that stands out about this giddy carol with Latin lyrics is that it’s another Christmas carol that goes into the gory details of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents.
But it doesn’t linger there. The carol moves swiftly on, becoming an increasingly triumphant yell. It finally erupts into a jubilant and high-soaring descant for the sopranos.
Despite the lyrics being in Latin, the melody does its best to make them accessible, often breaking them down by syllable. That’s just one of the reasons we rank it as one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Song Year: 2011
So far, this list has discussed many traditional English carols. But here is one of the best carols of all time written by an American.
The lyrics to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ come from a poem by Phillip Brooks. Brooks was an Episcopal priest in 1868. Brooks wrote it after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and Bethlehem in particular.
He gave the poem to his organist, Lewis Redner, and he composed the melody ‘St Louis.’
But depending on where you are, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ doesn’t always get sung to ‘St Louis.’
In Britain, most people associate it with the hymn melody ‘Forest Green.’
There are also two melodies written by the composer Henry Walford Davies that appeared in the 1922 copy of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ and have a long association with this popular Christmas carol.
Whatever melody you pair it with, it’s an excellent song that stands the test of time.
“In Dulci Iubilo” by The Gabrieli Consort and Players
Song Year: 2022
Yet another of the best Christmas carols of all time is ‘In Dulce Iubilo,’ or ‘In Dulce Juibilo.’
The spelling variation comes less from the lack of standardized spelling at the time of writing and more from the fact that I and J got used interchangeably in Latin.
There are several versions of this popular Christmas carol. This setting, by Michael Praetorius, is a slightly dressed-up version of the Christmas favorite. The familiar melody is there, but his arrangement incorporates an atypical interplay between the choir and soloists.
As sung by the Gabrieli consort, it doubles as an opportunity for students in their company to show off their musical knowledge and skill.
Irrespective of the arrangement, one reason the song endured was because of its joyful sound. You don’t need to speak Latin to recognize that the carol amounts to a jubilant musical shout. And nothing brightens a winter day like that kind of infectious gladness.
“Ding Dong Merrily on High” by The Cambridge Singers
Song Year: 1997
This popular carol is another of the best Christmas carols of all time. Our primary association with it is with the 1997 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's ‘Little Women.’
But that’s not the only version by a long shot. Here it’s sung by The Cambridge Signers in an arrangement by John Rutter.
As in ‘Hark the Herald,’ what stands out about ‘Ding Dong Merrily’ is its melismatic refrain.
Despite the medieval feel of the chorus, the song isn’t that old. It was composed in 1924 when it duly proceeded to take the world by storm.
Something else that stands out about this popular Christmas carol is that it’s a curious marriage of English words by George Ratcliffe Woodard and a French dance melody.
Other carols discussed have begun as French pieces and have been translated into English, but this blends the two cultures.
Also curious is that whereas most carols nick popular hymn tunes that fit the poetic meter of the composition, ‘Ding Dong Merrily’ doesn’t.
The tune it steals is completely secular. But maybe that ribald irreligiousness helped popularize it by making it accessible to people who observed Christmas less as a religious feast and more as a cultural touchstone during the interwar years.
“Deck the Halls” by The Tabernacle Choir
Song Year: 2012
Originally, there was no S at the end of ‘Deck the Halls.’
The carol refers to the tradition of wreathing feasting halls in everything from holly to bay leaves.
Before becoming one of the best Christmas carols of all time, the melody was an obscure Welsh carol. Then a Scottish lyricist gave it English words in 1864. It’s been a Christmas staple ever since.
“Bring a Torch Jeannette-Isabella” by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Song Year: 2007
Distinctive for its atypical time signature, ‘Bring a Torch Jeanette-Isabella’ is another of the best Christmas carols of all time.
The song comes from Provence, France, and goes back to the 1600s, when it was called ‘Un Flambeau Jeanette-Isabelle.’
Sung in 3/8-time, there’s an off-kilter feel to the rhythm that adds to its festive feel.
It’s also one of a surprising number of carols about torches. That’s because they echo the Bethlehem star and remind listeners that even when the days are dark and short, they can still find light in the darkness.
“See Amid the Winter Snow” by Annie Lennox
Song Year: 2014
Edward Caswell’s popular Christmas carol sometimes gets called ‘Hymn for Christmas.’ But it’s one of many Christmas hymns, so it’s more usually known by its first line.
Here Annie Lennox puts a twist on an otherwise traditional carol.
Caswell wrote it following his conversion to Catholicism. Interestingly, the music for it, called ‘Humility’ isn’t restricted to hymnody. It’s been repurposed for many social justice causes. The most notable is the 1980s anthem ‘Coal, Not Dole.’
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” by The Ray Conniff Singers
Song Year: 1962
‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is famously a cumulative song. With every verse, it gets longer. That’s part of what makes it one of the best Christmas carols of all time.
But it’s also a flexible carol. It’s easy to sing whether you attempt a twelve-part round, a traditional choral arrangement, or a solo.
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” by The Crouch End Festival Choir
Song Year: 2005
Last but far from least, is ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ It’s impossible to talk about the best Christmas carols of all time without mentioning this heartfelt expression of Christmas cheer.
It alternates between a rollicking romp at the chorus and more sedate verses. It’s sentimental, it’s playful, and it’s easy to sing. What more could you want from a Christmas carol?
Top Christmas Carols Ever, Final Thoughts
Hopefully, this compilation of the best Christmas carols of all time helps brighten your holiday season.
But it’s by no means exhaustive. The range of spectacular Christmas songs is as wide and varied as the people who wrote them. If we haven’t helped you find a new favorite, then we hope we’ve at least reminded you of some old musical friends.