Top 10 Best Christmas Carols (Traditional Christmas Carols)
The best part of Christmas in my opinion is the wealth of music for the season, the Christmas Carols. With so many great Carols, it’s hard to decide which you should use for your caroling event or worship service, so I’ve done the hard work for you and compiled what I think are the 10 best here.
I even took the time and recorded examples of some carols, just click the links to listen.
In no particular order, here are what I think are the top 10 best Christmas Carols:
#1: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Probably not one that everyone thinks of first, but still in the standard repertoire. I like this one because of the great old English phrases, and I think that it has one of the most misunderstood titles of all time from hymnody. In this case, it’s the word “rest” that has taken on new meaning to the modern audience. This is amplified by the fact that many people misplace the comma as well, reading “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”
This combination means most 21st Century listeners assume this 16th Century carol is about wanting to calm down some well-meaning but raucous guys, maybe at an English pub or something.
In today’s context, the word “rest” should be replaced by the word “keep.”
God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay:
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray:
O, tidings of comfort and joy!
It’s not a song about wishing someone a good nap, but rather encouragement to remain cheerful because of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Pretty cool stuff.
Go listen to it here.
#2: In the Bleak Midwinter
This carol has what I believe to be the most poetic imagery in the text, and the composer really was able to paint a picture of a desolate winter scape.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow;
Snow on snow.
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
This serves as a juxtaposition to the “light of the world” who is born as a baby boy named Jesus. Although not historically accurate (it’s likely Jesus wasn’t born the winter), it really is nice text. And the Holst setting was so darn near perfect, his music remains practically unchanged nearly 100 years later.
In the Bleak Midwinter is easily tied for first place in my favorites list every year.
#3: Joy to the World
This classic tune would likely appear on almost anyone’s list. It’s singable, high energy, what’s not to love about it?
One of my favorite things about this Christmas carol is that it has almost a universal flexibility as far as adaptation to new or different music styles.
I have heard it sound just as good as a Bluegrass song or Dubstep mix as it is live in congregational four-part singing. This is because of the great, simple melody that the carol is based on.
The range isn’t too wide, it’s mostly step-wise motion with some interesting jumps here and there, but they’re easy intervals to sing. Great song, universally liked, singable, flexible and adaptable overall.
Go listen to Joy to the World here.
#4: Silent Night
Soft, gentle, quiet, peaceful. This is another classic tune and text that instantly recalls Christmas memories to any listener. This is a favorite not just for musicians, but also for composers. It seems like nearly every other modern Christmas cantata has some Silent Night arrangement included, and usually it serves as the closer.
Because it is happy but calm, it allows folks to go from their concert or service experience feeling a quiet joy.
Usually, worship planners want to end service on a high note, making the final piece loud and energetic, but in a season like Christmas, when we’re celebrating the birth of a baby boy, it makes sense to have at least one service experience that ends this way.
It’s like they’re putting you right there in the stable, next to Mary and Joseph, and you must be quiet or else you’ll wake the sleeping baby. Silent Night is the only Christmas carol that can put me in that kind of mindset, and that’s why it’s so great.
Listen to it here.
#5: O Come, All Ye Faithful
What sets this Christmas carol apart from others in this list is its ability to tie together the expression of all those who came to witness the birth of Jesus, especially the angels. It quotes scripture, the tune is memorable and easy to sing, and if nothing else the tag line is the perfect combination of repetitive and inventive.
O Come, let us adore Him.
O Come, let us adore Him.
O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the LORD!
The small variations between every iteration of this text gains momentum and suspense, making you ask the question: “Who is this ‘Him’ anyway?” Then you get your answer: “Christ the LORD!”
O Come, All Ye Faithful is really a tasteful and classic carol sure to make it on just about anyone’s favorites list.
Listen to it now.
#6: Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
This may not be one that many of you will think of right away when you think “Christmas Carol,” but it is absolutely one of the coolest carols to listen to.
Alice Parker and Robert Shaw published a collection of carols for mixed choir in the 90’s, and their arrangement of Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming from that collection makes me want to weep every time I hear it sung live (I don’t cry, but I think about it).
On the choir side, it has some really cool complex rhythms to read, so it’s interesting to learn during rehearsals. For the director, the German carol has a cool history, as does the harmonization by Praetorius. For the listener, the melody is pleasant, and the text has both Old and New Testament references but is easy to digest. Great, underrated carol.
#7: The Boar’s Head
Another underrated carol is The Boar’s Head.
I imagine many of you have not even heard this song before, and that would make sense if your only exposure to carols in in the context of church service. However, there are many secular Christmas carols that are both traditional and fun, but don’t get any air time in church. This is one of those.
The Boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay’s and rosemary
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio
The song is essentially a tavern or banquet song, touting the bravery of an individual who hunted a boar and brought it to the feast. It’s boisterous, fun, and usually it’s set as a men’s chorus piece. Not 100% safe for church, though…
#8: Fum, Fum, Fum
Yet another underrated carol (I promise this is the last one) is Fum, Fum, Fum. To my knowledge, the title is just some nonsense syllable that the composer decided to plug in because it sounded cool.
It’s not even all that unique as far as nonsense syllables go, there are several pieces from the same music history era that use “fum” as filler, like we use “oo’s” and “ah’s” today in our pop music.
It’s nice to remember every once in a while that there isn’t anything new under the sun.
This carol is rhythmic, fun, and it is the only reason I remember what day Christmas is every year (because it’s in the text).
I wish my anniversary had a song like that, so I could remember better.
#9: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
This is my other all-time favorite Christmas carol (tied with In the Bleak Midwinter).
Now some of you sticklers out there are going to say O Come, O Come Emmanuel is really more of an advent tune, but we don’t care about that right now. For our purposes, we’ll call it Christmas even though it technically isn’t part of the rep for Christmastide.
This classic is my favorite for many reasons, one of which is that it’s in a unique (mode/tonality or) key. It’s the only TRUE minor key piece on this list (Fum, Fum, Fum is kind of minor, but it’s really modal), and this minor sound is used to portray a sense of longing that other advent tunes, like Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, do not portray well.
As a result, this Christmas carol stands out among all these happy, major key songs, and I’m thankful for that.
This is the kind of music and text that inspired so many great spirituals because it uses the imagery of bondage and captivity so well, all the while, holding on to the promise of a coming salvation.
Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!
Go listen to O Come, O Come Emmanuel here.
#10: Go Tell it on the Mountain
This is probably the most modern Christmas carol included in my list (someone fact-check me on that). Even though it doesn’t have the time-tested track record that most of these other traditional carols do, Go Tell it on the Mountain has all the best elements of those classic Christmas tunes.
It references scripture, it paints a picture, and what’s more, it calls you to action!
Go, tell it on the mountain;
Over the hills and EVERYWHERE.
Go, tell it on the mountain that
Jesus Christ was born!
Several of the songs listed above are quiet and introspective, asking the listener to act as if they are one of those chosen few who went to the manger to behold the birth of the savior. They hold you in that moment eternally, and that is a beautiful thing, BUT…
That’s not where the story ends!
The shepherds who came to see the baby witnessed something awesome! This caused them to go and spread the news that Jesus was born. This song tells that story, the continuation of what other carols start.
It asks the listener to shout from the mountaintops that their salvation is here!
That’s my top 10 best Christmas Carols list. I’d be curious to hear what you think, do you agree? Disagree? Let me know by leaving a comment below and subscribing to the email list. If you enjoyed any of the music, be sure to like and subscribe to my YouTube channel for more music and worship content.
As always, go in peace.