Still with me? Cool. Let’s get to the top 5. If you need an intro, click this link to get the first half of the list and all the qualifiers that make my list right and everybody else’s wrong.
Yeah, yeah, I know I’m full of it. If you have a Christmas carol you think should have made this list, or one here that you just love, tell me in the comments!
5. Good King Wenceslas
This one almost doesn’t qualify as a Christmas carol because it doesn’t seem to be about the birth of Christ, at least not directly. However, a closer listen reveals the spirit.
On a freezing night, the King sees a poor man and decides to feed him. That’s good thing number one. Number two is that instead of sending someone to feed the poor man, the King goes himself into the frosty storm, putting himself at discomfort for the benefit of some others.
However, the real clencher comes in verse 4. The King brings along a page to help with the task, and the poor lad is freezing to the point of fainting. The King replies, “Mark my footsteps, my good page/ Tread now in them boldly./ You will find the winter’s rage/ freeze thy blood less coldly.” He takes the brunt of the winter storm for his underling.
What’s this got to do with Christmas? This all takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th. Christmas has just passed and the day marks the passing of the first martyr, Stephen, who died for his proclamation of Christ.
That same Christian spirit fills Good King Wenseslas to do all the things Jesus did: care for the poor, take action himself, and take the suffering for his subjects. All this came about because of Christ’s arrival, so this song remembers not just Christ’s birth, but his impact in a simple, practical story.
Best Version: The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Cuz harmony.
4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
A common favorite with its haunting melody, this song makes this list not only for beautiful music that stands out starkly among the wealth of Yuletide carols, but also for its unique perspective.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel/ and ransom captive Israel/ that mourns in lowly exile here/ until the son of God appear./ Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel/ shall come to thee, O Israel.”
When Jesus arrived, God’s people were subject to the oppressive Roman government. Their city was taken, their hope fading. But they’d been promised a Messiah would come by the prophets. The verses pray for that Messiah to come, while the chorus reassures the Israelites.
Many songs talk about Christ being a savior, but this song makes you feel the need for one. And there’s no point in being a Christian if on some level you don’t think you need a savior.
Best Version: Phillips, Craig, and Dean. Again, harmony.
3. Joy to the World
It’s a celebration. That’s it. Nothing fancy, nothing too deep, just a great bit explosion of joy that “The Lord has come.” How’s that for Christmas spirit?
“And Heaven and nature sing,” indeed.
Best Version: Any version that isn’t the ghastly Christ Tomlin version. YOUR RAMSHACKLE BRIDGE DOES NOT FIT, SIR!
2. We Three Kings
What is it about low, haunting melodies that captivate us so much? I have no idea, but this song is divine. At first, it seems like a simple song about the Wise Men following the star.
But this is the thing that ticks me off: nearly every version I’ve ever heard skips at least one verse, usually the fourth. I know, I know, five verses is a lot, but if you cut out any part of this song, you lose the power of the whole.
Verse One: We three kings come to give gifts, following the star.
Verse Two: I give him gold because he’s a king.
Verse Three: I give him frankincense because he’s a god.
Verse Four: I give him myhrr because he’s our atoning sacrifice.
Verse Five: “Glorious now, we hold him alight,/ King and God and Sacrifice./ Alelujah, Alelujah,/ worship him God most high!”
King and God and Sacrifice. You cut that verse, you miss the point. You cut verses two through four, you lose the buildup to that point. The only one that can be cut is verse one and guess which one everybody remembers?!
Best Version: Find me one.
1. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Why this song above all others? Aside from good music, good lyrics, good rhymes, and relative shortness (three verses in most versions), this song, to me, encapsulates all that Christmas is about, and it does it with that thing I love most: progression.
First and foremost, it’s a celebration, which Christmas ought to be. However, why is it a celebration? Why are those angels singing? Why are we to “join the triumph of the skies?”
That’s where the second verse comes in. Christ has come. He’s not just a baby, he’s God. “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see./ Hail the incarnate deity./ Pleased with man with man to dwell,/ Jesus our Emmanuel.” How much Gospel can you squeeze into one verse? God! Man! Savior! The amalgamation of Jesus Christ in four lines!
Yet it’s not enough. We need a third verse, and this is where we get to the point: exactly what did Christ come to do?
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of Earth,
Born to give them second birth.
That’s why the angels are singing. That last verse sums up everything glorious about the Christian faith, our hope and point of existence. This song is Christmas in a nutshell. “Celebrate with all the angels, for Christ the God in man’s flesh has come to give new life to all mankind.”
And that’s why it’s my number one Christmas Carol. So to wrap this up, I leave you with the refrain:
“Hark! The herald angels sing!
Glory to the Newborn King!!”
Amen and Merry Christmas.