Before putting any top-ten list on the internet, I need to make two distinctions.
First, these are carols, not just Christmas songs. Carols have more to do with Christmas itself and the religious significance than the seasonal trappings. For example, “The First Noel” is a carol, while “White Christmas” is a Christmas song. I’m only looking at carols. I may do Christmas songs next year, though.
Second, this list is entirely my opinion. It doesn’t mean I’m absolutely right in every possible sphere, it just means that your list is wrong and you should be embarrassed, so let’s get underway!
10. O Little Town of Bethlehem
We start with a nice little manger scene, which exemplifies the humble origins of Christ. A little town, quiet and unassuming, with a powder keg about to explode in its midst.
Bad metaphor? Sorry.
I like the contrast throughout the song. The second verse says “while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.” And then the third says “How silently the wondrous gift is given.” And that’s really what was happening that night: a seemingly ordinary baby being born while the spiritual world roared with excitement.
And that excitement reflects in the final verse: “O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray.” We, in the aftermath, realize what was happening in secret, and rejoice with the angels.
When a song has meaningful progression in tone and lyric, it gets on my top-ten lists.
Favorite Version: I can’t find it. My church sang it once, it was a haunting rendition that worked in other Christmas carols, but I can’t find it and my life sucks now. Next song.
9. Do You See What I See?
Remember what I said about tonal and lyrical progression? This song has it in spades.
It starts with a night wind inclining a little lamb’s ear. The lamb takes the message to a shepherd boy, the boy takes it to a king, and the king takes it to the world. The story just gets grander and grander with each telling.
First, it’s just a star, almost commonplace, save for its size. Then the star becomes a song with a voice as “big as the sea.” And when the message goes to the king, the king proclaims Christ’s birth with the words “He will bring us goodness and light.”
Like number 10, this song shows the growth of excitement from almost nothing to explosive joy and proclamation. So that’s a pretty historically accurate song!
Favorite Version: Todd Agnew. I’m normally 100% against a modern Christian adding new lyrics to a great song, but this is the rare exception. The new bridge fits tonally and melodically, and works in a key change which is always, ALWAYS awesome.
8. O Come All Ye Faithful
Moving past progression, we now come to just plain excitement.
This is nothing more than an invitation to behold the Christ, to come “joyful and triumphant.” But note it specifically calls the Faithful to do that. That’s because the faithful realize that Jesus’s birth fulfills the long-awaited prophecy and that he will put an end to darkness. So yeah, joy and triumph.
But here’s the snag: do we faithful really see that? Or is Christmas just another holiday to us? Is there joy and triumph in Christ for us or are we so bogged down with duties and familiarity, or even commercialism, to enjoy the meaning?
Think on that a bit and sing this song.
Favorite Version: No idea. While I like this song itself a lot, I haven’t heard very many versions that I would consider great. Which version would you recommend?
7. O Holy Night
I originally wanted to put this one higher, but other songs proved better. Still, O Holy Night is a sweet and resonant number that once again points to the majesty of Christmas.
But the reason it’s on this list is because it’s not really an easy one to sing. It’s a slow, yet strong song, requiring the ability to hit and hold notes, and some of them are difficult to reach. However, when a singer gets it right, this song makes you stop what you’re doing and listen.
And that kind of power gets across the triumph. “It is the night of our dear savior’s birth.” “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” “Let all within us praise his holy name.” Such things do not come lightly.
Favorite Version: Michael Crawford or Josh Groban, depending on whether you like higher or lower voices, respectively.
6. Mary, Did You Know?
The most modern carol on this list, Mark Lowry’s lyrics ask the Virgin Mary, did you realize what you had when you had it? True, the angel told her all her immaculate son was to be, but later in Jesus’s ministry, you see her confused about a few matters, sort of outside it all, like even she doesn’t quite realize he’s the Christ.
The song doesn’t seek to answer that question, of course. It’s just a creative way of marveling at Jesus’s life, and like earlier songs on this list, comparing his glory to the seeming insignificance of a newborn. “This child that you delivered would soon deliver you.”
Beautiful melody, great lyrics, creative take on the story, what’s not to like?
Best version: Hard to say, but the Pentatonix version is lit. That’s a phrase that’ll be around for more than ten minutes, right? Lit? Okay.
Numbers 5-1 next week.
What carols do you think should be in the top 10? Do you know better versions than the ones I recommended?
4 thoughts on “Top 10 Christmas Carols (Part 1)”
Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant. Best ever, and not just at Christmas. Something deep resonates every time I hear it, especially the first line…”Breath of heaven hold me together”. Nuf said.
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“What Child Is This” is my favorite, but it seems like everyone who remakes it leaves out the second verse, which is the one that deals with the fulfillment of Christmas in Good Friday/Easter. (Maybe they’re worried about the old-school word for donkey in there…our hymnal version just took care of that by making ‘ox’ into ‘oxen’ 😉 ) I like the ones that connect the manger to the cross. And all of them. I would need a top 20 at least…
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I was recently made aware of the Sufjan Stevens Christmas catalogue and I love his renditions of the traditional carols. My personal favourites (from him and just in general) are O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Holy Night.
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