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Favorite Christmas Carols

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Part 2 in the series: More Christmas Carol Surprises
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

What are your favorite Christmas carols?

From one perspective this is an easy question. My guess is you already have some answers in mind: “Joy to the World,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and, perhaps the all time favorite, “Silent Night.” Yet from another perspective this question isn’t quite so simple. When I refer to carols, do I mean sacred carols or holiday songs? Or am I lumping them all together? And what about songs that seem to bridge between the sacred and the popular, like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

The debate about what constitutes a Christmas carol (vs. holiday song, or Christmas hymn, or seasonal folk song, or . . .) is a complicated one. Musicologists used to describe a carol as a song with verses and a repeating chorus, usually used in dancing. Indeed, the word “carol” comes from the Old French word “carole,” that refers to a circle dance. In centuries past there were carols not only for Christmas, but also for other holidays. In those times church leaders distinguished between sacred Christmas music (hymns, chants) and secular carols, which the leaders often denigrated or even tried to outlaw altogether. But in recent times the word “carol” has become inescapably associated with the Christmas music and little else. If a song celebrates something associated with Christmas, or even winter cheer, it may be considered a carol. (Photo: A folk dancing group doing a circle dance.)

As I think about Christmas music, I make a rough and ready distinction between religious Christmas carols and secular carols or holiday songs. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a religious carol, while “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a holiday song. This distinction wouldn’t stand up to close scholarly scrutiny, especially given the crossover songs, but it works fairly well in practice. It’s more about the content of the lyrics than the genre of the music, though most religious carols have a hymn-like form.

So, then, let me ask two questions: First, what are your favorite religious Christmas carols? Second, what are your favorite holiday songs? Note: Tomorrow I’ll work on the second question. Today I’ll focus on the first.

Favorite Religious Carols

I’ve looked in vain for some definitive survey that would tell us which religious carols Americans like most? If you find one, please let me know. It would be especially interesting to see how preferences vary with age, religious commitment, ethnicity, and other variables. But since I haven’t found anything systematic, you’re stuck with my own rather idiosyncratic observations.

It seems to me that sacred Christmas music can be organized in a four-tier hierarchy. The top tier contains songs that are sacred classics, carols that will be sung in most churches and will even be heard in secular malls and concerts during the holiday season. One characteristic of a top tier song is that Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas unless you heard this song several times. Second tier carols are favorites, but they haven’t quite made it into the top tier. They’ll be sung just a little less frequently than the others, and are loved by somewhat fewer people, but not less passionately. Third tier carols will be heard and sung, but much less frequently. The fourth tier contains carols that are rarely sung today, even though they may be personal favorites for some individuals. I suppose I could add a fifth tier: Most Hated Carols. But somehow that wouldn’t be in keeping with the holiday spirit.

Here’s my shot at the hierarchy. Remember, this reflects my experience as an Anglo, American, Protestant. Now I’m sure almost every reader will want to move things around, to add or to subtract. If you want to have some fun, make your own hierarchy. This could even be a delightful Christmas afternoon game to be shared among friends and family after the presents are open. I do reserve the right to change my order, especially as I hear from you.

christmas carol ranking

Don’t Know “What Sweeter Music”?

“What Sweeter Music” was set to music by the English musician and conductor John Rutter in 1987. The lyrics are from a Christmas poem by the seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick. (Herrick is perhaps most famous for the line: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”) I’ll print the lyrics to Herrick’s poem below, in case you’re interested. But without the music, the words just don’t sing. Unfortunately I can’t put up a recording of Rutter’s song (copyright limitations), but this link will take you to a link where you can hear part of the song (and buy the album, if you wish).

For several years, the choir of Irvine Presbyterian Church sang “What Sweeter Music” as the capstone of the 11:00 p.m. communion service on Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite moments of the year. Not only did I get to hear one of my favorite Christmas songs, but also my Christmas Eve marathon, with four worship services was drawing to a close.

At any rate, here are the lyrics for “What Sweeter Music”:

A Christmas Carol, Sung to the King in the Presence at White-Hall

[CHORUS] What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Heart, ear, and eye, and everything.
Awake! the while the active finger
Runs division with the singer.

[VOICE 1] Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

[2] If we may ask the reason, say
The why, and wherefore, all things here
Seem like the springtime of the year?

[3] Why does the chilling Winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell, like to a mead new-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden?

[4] Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To heaven, and the under-earth.

[CHORUS] We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine, and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

[1] The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome Him.

[2] The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart,

[CHORUS] Which we will give Him; and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath,
To do Him honor; who’s our King,
And Lord of all this reveling.

Topics: Christmas Carols |

7 Responses to “Favorite Christmas Carols”

  1. Dianne Says:
    December 26th, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Mark - you left off my VERY, VERY favorite and I’m sure it must just be an oversight. :-) I love “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. I rarely hear it enough and almost never get to sing it (except with the CDs in my car). I guess it is more rightly categorized as an Advent carol/hymn, but my season isn’t complete without as many renditions of this as I can get my ears on.

    Merry Christmas! Dianne

  2. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    December 26th, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Dianne: Understood. It is one of my favorite songs as well. I do tend to think of this as an Advent song, rather than a Christmas song. Peace.

  3. All about dance » Blog Archive » Favorite Christmas Carols Says:
    December 26th, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    […] View the whole post at […]

  4. Darin Says:
    December 26th, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Dianne, I was going to say the same thing, but you beat me to it.

  5. Marcy Muser Says:
    December 27th, 2007 at 9:55 am


    You also left off one of my favorites - “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Ever since I heard the complete song, some 10-15 years ago now, this has been one I’ve considered excellent. Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War, here are the verses that speak most clearly to me:

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
    “For hate is strong, and mocks the song,
    Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

    Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good will to men.”

    No matter how distracted I am by the pressures of the season of the chaos of our world, this carol recalls me to the truth - that our God is still in control, and in the end He will prevail.

  6. Favorite Christmas Carols-music Says:
    March 5th, 2008 at 8:52 pm

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  7. Favorite Christmas Carols-Download Music Free Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    […] (JuneWess) wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIn centuries past there were carols not only for Christmas, but also for other holidays. In those times church leaders distinguished between sacred Christmas music (hymns, chants) and secular carols, which the leaders often denigrated … […]


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