The Best and Worst Christmas Songs

The scene at Clifton Mill last week, all aglow for Christmas.

The scene at Clifton Mill last week, all aglow for Christmas.

It’s that time of year when you listen to so much Christmas music that by December 26th you’ll be begging for it to stop, wondering how you ever became so foolish. Then when Thanksgiving rolls around next year, you’ll be begging to break out those tunes again. It must be stated that there are some Christmas songs infinitely better than others, and all manner of authorities have attempted to rank both the best and worst in the hope of creating click bait that will boost their sites. I, however, would never stoop to such a level – would I?

Well, what the heck, it’s Christmas! You’ll forgive me for posting just one holiday related article. Therefore, I have ranked for you my five most favorite and least favorite Christmas songs (in no particular order) and will explain the rationale behind my decisions. The general criteria include tune, lyrical content, and a certain emotional factor (i.e. warm fuzzies vs. extreme annoyance). Here goes nothing…

The Best

 O Holy Night

Original name: “Cantique de Noël”

Written by: Placide Cappeau/Adolphe Adam

O, how I love this song! The blissful union of minor and major chords lends emotional resonance. It begs to be sung by candlelight and gives you that splendid ethereal feeling as it is played. It has recently been tackled by such extraordinary vocalists as Celine Dion and Josh Groban. But what’s really special is the words themselves, which sum up the scriptural truth behind the Christmas holiday. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” speaks to the truth of our fallen state. “Surely he taught us to love one another” speaks to the essence of the Christian life. “In his name, all oppression shall cease” speaks to the urgent need for social justice. We thank the French for this gem.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing    

Written by: Charles Wesley/George Whitefield/Felix Mendelssohn

The carol that break out at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas features lyrics by two leaders of the 18th century religious revivals, Charles Wesley (brother of John Wesley) and George Whitefield. It must be noted that there was a bit of a theological divide betwixt Wesley and Whitefield, the one being an Arminian and the other a Calvinist, yet they remained friends in the spirit of Christian unity, a true Christmas miracle. We mark this as one of their finest collaborations, although neither can claim credit for the tune, which belongs to the brilliant German composer Felix Mendelssohn. How appropriate that a song with such a background should speak of “peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”.

Carol of the Bells

Original name: “Shchedryk”

Written by: Mykola Leontovych/Peter Wilhousky

What this song lacks in lyrics, it more than makes up for with its tune. This is probably why the most popular version out nowadays, that by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, is completely instrumental. On the whole, we don’t import many carols from our Eastern Orthodox friends, or many works of any kind. Yet, this is a true gem, and I defy you not to feel in the Christmas spirit when you hear it played. “Ding dong ding dong!” Endlessly adaptable, I doubt not that the electric guitar has done for this song what Jimi Hendrix’s did for the national anthem at Woodstock. (You will perhaps notice that the TSO version in the video above combines elements from the fifth song on this list.)

O Come All Ye Faithful

Original name: “Adeste Fideles”

Written by: John Francis Wade/Frederick Oakeley (possibly others)

Yes, the Catholics celebrate Christmas too, God bless ‘em! No shock then that they gave us a carol in Latin, and that the English saw fit to translate it according to their own desires. This one also gets high points for its theology: “Yea, Lord we greet thee / Born this happy morning /Oh, Jesus, to thee be all glory given / Word of the Father / Now in flesh appearing”. The Apostle John himself could have written that. Best of all is how the central line brings us to the center of what we ought to be doing at Christmas: “Oh come, let us adore him!”

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Written by: Unknown

I particularly like many of the carols that are in a minor key. Something about those dark December nights sort of makes it seem appropriate. This one holds the honor of being among the oldest carols, and certainly one of the oldest in English. Note the placement of the comma, which signals not that the gentlemen are merry (as one might suspect from the musical phrasing), but that they ought to rest in a merry manner. Excellent once again from a doctrinal standpoint, another lively tune, and it tells us to put aside our anxieties and focus on what really matters. You make us merry, gentlemen.

Honorable Mention: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Love the lyrics, but not so much the most common tune.)

The Worst

 The Christmas Shoes

Written by: Leonard Ahlstrom/Eddie Carswell

If you know me well, you may have heard me complain about this song in the past. As it turns out, I’m not the only one, as this song has topped at least one recent list of the worst Christmas tunes. The basic plot is this: a young boy’s mother is dying around Christmas time. Rather than spending those precious final hours with his parent, he goes to what I can only assume is a very overcrowded retail establishment to buy a pair of shoes. Why? Because he wants her to look beautiful “if mommy meets Jesus tonight”. The trouble here is multi-dimensional. First, who lets their little kid go out shopping on their own? Second, for the love of God, could this song be any more sappy? It’s like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel! Third, I know his mom is dying, but surely someone could get him a bath? Fourth, I take issue with the boy’s reasoning. It is a generally accepted fact both that you cannot take your worldly possessions with you when you go the way of all flesh, and that the God who created the universe would not be impressed by a pair of shoes in any case, no matter how shiny. Is the child concerned that his mother’s entrance to heaven is in doubt, and thus assumes that a nice pair of shoes might help seal the deal? I have no idea, nor do I know why someone thought this song was worthy of a film adaptation, even if it was only a TV movie starring Rob Lowe. Take my word for it: skip Rob Lowe in Christmas Shoes and watch The West Wing instead. You’ll remember when politics used to be fun.

Blue Christmas

Written by: Billy Hayes/Jay Johnson

I was quite pleased during a recent discussion with one of my friends to discover that I am not the only person who dislikes this song made famous by Elvis Presley. Something about the combination of that “hubba hubba” voice and what seems to be some Hawaiian luau singers in the background…it just rubs me the wrong way. More to the point, I doubt that Elvis ever spent a Christmas pining over a woman when he had ladies throwing themselves at him left and right. Somewhere around the two minute mark, I just want to say, “Get over yourself, dude!” Yet, this song has been covered numerous times and remains a Christmas staple. Thank God I have my own Christmas playlist and can avoid the radio, which seems to love this song to death. (Sadly, or not so sadly, the above video does not include the backup singers.)

Jingle Bell Rock

Written by: Joseph Beal/James Boothe

Another American Christmas classic completely lacking in lyrical depth, but what is perhaps more offensive is that for a song that talks so much about rocking, it doesn’t even seem to fit in the rock n’ roll category. When did you ever hear AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, etc. talk about “dancing and prancing”? No, I must conclude that this song rocks about as hard as an Amish grandma. Then again, I don’t know many Amish grandmas – maybe they rock harder than I think.

Feliz Navidad

Written by: José Feliciano

That the Hispanic population of this country has contributed in all areas of American life, I have no wish to deny. That their food is delicious, their music eminently catchy, and their soap operas in a whole new category of crazy, I readily acknowledge. But if I have to hear this song one more time, I might consider supporting the Trump border wall. Such wonderful music our friends south of the border have produced and continue to produce, so why is it this annoying tune that dominates our airwaves come Christmas time? Maybe if I translated the lyrics for you… “Merry Christmas, merry Christmas, merry Christmas, prosperous New Year, happiness. (repeat ad nauseam) I want to wish you a merry Christmas, I want to wish you a merry Christmas, I want to wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart. (repeat ad nauseam)” The lyrics are worthy of preservation alongside Rebecca Black’s infamous “Friday”. The tune seems stolen from that terrible mariachi band at the Americanized Mexican restaurant down the road. Please, someone, get me some real Mexican tunes and fast! And please stop doing covers of this song as a way of embracing diversity…for the lyrics have no diversity of words!

Silent Night

Original name: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”

Written by: Franz Gruber/Joseph Mohr

I realize I may anger a person or two by including on this list perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas carols. When you take into consideration my interest in the German language and Germanic culture, my dislike may seem rather odd. Yet, my antipathy is on two fronts. First, the tune really drags, making me strongly suspect that the original goal was to force sleep upon children who were waiting up for Santa Claus (or scared to death of Krampus, since it was written in Austria). But the real crime is the lyrics. What exactly is meant by “round yon virgin”? What is round the virgin? A glow? Silence itself? I’m not sure, though this could be the fault of the English translator. However, I must state emphatically that the night of our Savior’s birth was not silent. We know for a fact that the town was crowded, they were in a barn with farm animals, and a multitude of angels was singing, to say nothing of the fact that both women in labor and babies are known for loud exclamations. This leads to a theological point: much like “Away in a Manger”, which claims that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, this beloved carol comes dangerously close to questioning the full humanity of Christ. That is an ancient heresy, rebuked by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh and the silence mentioned in the title refers more to the spiritual peace occasioned by our Lord’s incarnation? Whatever, it’s still on the list!

Dishonorable Mention: “Santa Baby” (Sorry, but Santa isn’t a sex object!)

Thanks for reading and merry Christmas!