William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Almost Top 10 Christmas Songs: guest column


Everybody will recognize long-time contributer Mike D. of the Western Institute for Study of the Environment (a great site people should browse over to). He generously contributed the following list of his favorite holiday (you know the one I mean) songs.

The Ten Best Christmas Songs

Since the affable Dr. Briggs is engaging in lists (a somewhat prosaic though popular blog indulgence), I thought I would contribute by sending along this list of my favorite Christmas songs.

There are, of course, hundreds (at a minimum) in the genre, but some are better than others in my subjective opinion. The following are my six favorites, and why. Please add your own to the list, so as to fill it out to the magic number of ten. And please, tell us why they are your favorites.

  • 6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing — words by Charles Wesley (1707–1788), music by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

    You can’t go wrong with a song that has hark! in it. But the real treasure is Mendelssohn’s tune, his “Festival Song”. It is early rock-and-roll. Best played with electric guitars and a heavy downbeat. By the way, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and musical heir of Mozart.

  • 5. Away In A Manger — lyrics by James R. Murray (1841-1905), set to a tune called “St. Kilda,” credited to J.E. Clark (according to Wikipedia [here]; there is some apocrypha associated). Also known as “The Cradle Song”. Wikipedia link

    “Away In a Manger” is a lullaby waltz. The words are childish (appropriately) and the tune is loving and soothing (ditto). I especially like instrumental versions, such as violin/flute duets.

  • 4. White Christmas — lyrics and music by Irving Berlin (1888–1989)

    “White Christmas” was written in D-sharp minor (though often transposed to D-minor). Berlin liked the black keys and used the white ones sparingly. That strange minor key has a Gypsy flavor. Berlin was, as we all know, a Russian/American Jew (Mendelssohn was also Jewish) and he picked up Eastern European tonalities in the Jewish ghettos of New York City. Gypsy music is one of the historical underpinnings of jazz, which perhaps most people don’t know. The arpeggios in White Christmas are oriental, exotic, and they are what really make the song great. By the way, “Russian Lullaby” is another D-minor Gypsy masterpiece by Berlin.

  • 3. Joy To The World — lyrics by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) , music by Lowell Mason (1792-1872) adapted from George Frideric Handel’s (1685–1759) Messiah

    “Joy To The World” begins with a downward march through the octave (count the notes), and then springs back up to the first note. Linear arpeggios follow. It is so simple, so pure, and so powerful.

  • 2. Silent Night — lyrics by Josef Mohr (1792–1848), music Franz Xaver Gruber (1787–1863).

    The assistant pastor and the organist at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, collaborated on a song for the Christmas celebration in 1818. It became what many consider to be the greatest Christmas song ever. “Silent Night” is meant to be sung, by a choir. It is all about reverence, and is hauntingly beautiful.

  • 1. O Holy Night (“Cantique de Noël”) — words by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), music by Adolphe Charles Adam (1803–1856).

    Adam wrote operas and ballets, and is probably best remembered for the ballet Giselle (1841). My personal favorite Christmas song, “O Holy Night”, is operatic to say the least. It requires a well-trained soprano to hit the G above high-C in the musical climax (oh night di-VINE). I also like the pathos and beauty in the embedded transition to a minor key. “O Holy Night” weeps with hope and devotion. The finish shatters glass and your heart.

    Celtic Woman / Chloe Agnew – ”O Holy Night”

Those are my favorites. What are yours?

30 Comments

  1. Briggs

    December 24, 2008 at 6:29 am

    Mike,

    I’d add to it The Christmas Song by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, and Silver Bells, but only if you’re watching The Lemon Drop Kid, a so-so movie, but Bob Hope still in his prime.

    Any song sung by Bing Crosby is automatically made at least 3.4 times better.

    Here are my worst songs.

    1. Wonderful Christmastime, Paul McCartney. So mind-numbingly awful, that I believe it is solely responsible for our culture’s current aversion to the “C” word. It starts with some kind of electric organ sending random notes echoing off into the distance, sounding like a five-year old playing with a toy. After other horrors, it repeats the line “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” ad nauseum. The reason for this is obvious. After thinking of one lyric, Sir McCartney’s fevered imagination was exhausted. This is the kind of song that, when I hear it, I begin to have murderous thoughts.

      What? You think the lyrics are actually good? Then how do you explain these!

      The moon is right

      The spirits up

      Were here tonight

      And that’s enough

      And when the kids grabbed off the street start harmonizing…That’s enough!

    2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town as sung by the depressing Bruce Springsteen. Even when I was a kid, in the 70s, when rock was on top, when I didn’t know a Republican from a Democrat from a hole in the ground, I disliked Springsteen. I tried to be a fan, because everybody else was, but I couldn’t. His style of music was to take a short burst of words and repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly repeat them endlessly, until the listener was wore down, his brain turned to mush, and he was ready to receive instructions. He also can’t sing on key and his voice makes the same sound as the trash truck does when it’s sucking down another bag or refuse. “Saaaaaaaaaaanta Claus is coming totown”— the last two words are sung like that, stuck together.
    3. Happy Christmas John Lennon. You know this one. It starts off with the inspiring lyric, “So. This is Christmas.” Inventive and cleverly noticed! “Say, it is Christmas, isn’t it?” But wait, there’s more! “Another year over, another one just begun.” Sure, the word just doesn’t fit the beat or rhyme scheme, but once it was put in, Lennon was too lazy to take it out, so he glossed over it as quickly as possible. The rest of the words are just as bad as those written by a thirteen year-old boy forced to take a poetry class, but who has a crush on Sally, who he hopes will like what he has written. It doesn’t go well.

      Just like his brother McCartney, Lennon was able to talk a group of toneless children to creak out his chorus over and over and over and over. All set to music that is depressing and dreary. Because why? Because the little brats are intoning in the background “War is over.” This song has all the imagination of a subliminal advertising campaign.

      No more war! And suddenly we see why this song is popular. There is nothing to musically to recommend it, no saving grace in the awkward lyrics. Even the fact that it was written by a celebrity, and therefore immune to the normal kinds of cristicisms, probably would not have saved this song. Only one thing counts for its success.

      It is politically correct! All that we need to do to end war is have cute kids hum off key! It’s so simple! Why can’t the rest of the world see the wisdom! “…Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”

      Every time I hear this song, I feel like I have just drunk some bad egg nog.

    That’s all I can think of immediately. I’ll add to it as I am forced to hear more.

    But now that I think of it, these gentleman are certainly responsible for great crimes against humanity. If they had never lived, we would all have been much better off.

  2. Mike!Merry Christmas.
    Beautifully written,as ever.
    Fabulous inclusions. Glad most of these are carols. Your number one would be mine too. I listen to and sing along to it occasionally even when it’s not Christmas.
    Hark the Herald has a descant, one of the most beautiful to sing or listen to.
    “How brightly shines the morning star” (or “How shitely brines the morning, as I mistakenly said the other day): a three-part carol with another powerful and dramatic climax. Trails off to a peaceful and comforting simple, neat single note. I was unable to find a utube clip of this, but thank you for reminding me about it.
    ‘tonalities’? are they tones with a ‘tude?

    “The Coventry Carol”: Don’t know what key it’s in but it sounds like a minor one. One of if not the oldest Christmas songs, dating back to at least 1530’s. A lament, full of grief but nevertheless, leaves a feeling of defiance. As the final two notes lift the mood by changing key.
    If you’ve never heard the Mediaeval Babes, they have a lovely rendition of this, on their Mistletoe and Wine album from 2003 but Elaine page has somehow managed to produce the best ever. Sorry I couldn’t find this on utube, but this is the carol in it’s purer form.
    Professor Briggs would love the lyrics…similar to some more modern music perhaps?
    The music didn’t die after the 1600’s, it lived on. Perhaps where The Beatles acquired some inspiration.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=1khUv74ETHs

  3. Briggs,
    Nothing like being jolly at Christmas, and that was nothing like being jolly at Christmas.
    Very funny though. I agree, especially about Springstein.
    In defence of McCartney and John,
    They probably cringe every time the tunes are overplayed in department stores. However, because the shopkeepers are frightened of offending, they go for middle of the road, no religious sounding instruments or lyrics. Can they help it that retailers lack imagination? Over here, we are subjected to the warbling American singers that think Christmas is about fur coats and santa-ogrammes.
    I mean, McCartney can’t help it if they do his song to death. It ought to have been an off the cuff remark in the Christmas conversation, nothing more.
    How would it be if your Kermit moment was played out every time the Muppets were on!

  4. What fun! My favorites:
    Joy to the World
    Hark the Herald Angels Sing
    O Come All Ye Faithtful
    Gesu Bambino
    Angles We Have Heard On High

    Also very partial to We Three Kings. It’s been overdone (and badly done), but if you sing or listen to all the verses you’ll find it’s very lovely.

    Good King Wenceslas is also great and tells a great story.

    I was thinking of doing a best and worst Christmas songs post, and the horrid McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” would be my worst, no contest. It’s the bane of my Christmas shopping. I loathe it.

    Another clunker, though no nearly as bad as WC, is It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I could never understand the reference to “scary ghost stories”??

    I’m sorry to say I also don’t care for The Little Drummer Boy. So monotonous.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. All:
    Silent Night
    Coventry Carol
    Adeste Fidelis
    In dulci jubilo
    The Marvelous Toy

    The Christmas Wish*
    The Peace Carol*
    A Baby Just Like You*

    * A great Christmas CD for the entire family: John Denver and the Muppets — A Christmas Together

  6. I view all pop Christmas songs as the same: meaningless radio fluff to be ignored as best as possible. Still, I really do get a kick out of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.”

    Oh, and it’s not necessarily a “Christmas song,” but “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” should be one. Oh well.

  7. Sorry to be picky, but White Christmas is not in a minor key, it’s in a major key (I don’t know which he wrote it in, but Bing sang it in A major).

    And the story with Berlin is that he could only play in Gb major, so had a piano built with a system of levers to shift the piano ‘action’ relative to the strings, so that he could transpose…

  8. Click here to listen to Vanessa Williams. Her voice is simple and soothing, her diction is clear and the music is a bit jazzy. My favorite.

  9. Move O Holy night down.

    and I just love the words in We three kings

  10. “While swimming confidently toward their goal, his songs frequently pass through invisible seams of sadness on the way. Think of how wistful even “White Christmas” is. Underneath the last, sustained word of the climactic lyric “May your days be merry and bright,” Berlin gives us an F-major chord that turns suddenly, piercingly minor. The brightness is literally diminished, as the dream of the past is diminished by time.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/theater/30gree.html?em

  11. William,
    Christmas is my favorite time of year, and the music is a big part of it. This is an awesome top ten list, you can post this to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/ and then link back to your site. We are looking for content and in return our users will track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.
    Vince

  12. My taste is more earthy, what would this holiday be without the Christmas songs of Charles and James Brown, Elvis, and The Beach Boys?
    Wishing everybody a Merry Christmas with a Christmassy song:
    Iris Dement – Let The Mystery Be
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Du5FguDSzE

  13. JH – here’s another “Baby It’s Cold Outside” – this one by Ella F. and Louis Jordan. Love it. I’ve got some other seasonal music links on sidebar of my site.
    Merry Christmas!

  14. Jill, I think your version is better. But is it really a Christmas song, and what do you think of the Whiting/Mercer original?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szrqtgAd3h0

  15. Thanks. It has a certain charm, but Mercer spreads it on a bit thick, no?

    I’d love to find a Sinatra-and-Anyone version.

    I would call this and others like it seasonal songs. Like It’s A Marshmallow World, which Mark Steyn has just done (also a duet).

  16. I think you have covered mine.

    It was not until I was an adult that I discovered “Away in a Manger” is a Christmas song; it’s one I learned at around age five or so and sang to myself quite often. It’s a very comforting tune.

    We were kind of light on songs at church tonight. We sang “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”; “Angels We Have Heard on High” (which is my absolute favorite; the only one I can add in here), “O Holy Night”, & “Joy to the World”.

    All throughout Advent we sang a version of the Magnificat and also sang “O Come Emmanuel” twice in a row (I missed a couple of Sundays there, so it may have been sung weekly). I adore both, though of course the latter in particular isn’t a Christmas song. (I am Episcopalian, so we’ll get some more carols in there over the next week or two; we sing Advent songs during Advent & Christmas songs during Christmas.)

    On the secular front, I’m fond of “Silver Bells” and “Let it Snow” usually, though I found myself singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” (or whatever the name actually is) to my daughters this morning.

  17. Good choices. I also love “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and would rank them above “White Christmas” or “Hark the Herald”. Luckily for use, we can play hundreds of carols and enjoy many that aren’t in the top 5.

  18. Last first, I agree w/ Lucia’s suggestions and generally favor the older tunes (16th century or before). “O Come O Come . . .” is really ancient – derived from a gregorian chant if memory serves, and is great fun if you’re singing the bass line in a choir, which I have scores of times.

    Silent Night tops my list. It has no equal for simplicity and purity. But that very simplicity lends itself well to variation. The Gene Puerling arrangement on the Singers Unlimited “Christmas” album is transcendently beautiful. It still gives me the shivers after 35 years. Listen with headphones at your own risk – you could get lost in those chords.

    Get rid of “O – holy Night” – embarrassingly operatic.

    Did anyone suggest “I Wonder as I Wander”? Properly, a lute-accompanied solo. Sad & haunting.

    For modern secular Christmas tunes, my fave is Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”, with Vince Guarraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” a very close second (and the whole wonderful soundtrack album from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”).

    Let’s not forget Greensleeves.

    Lastly, 2nd on my list is Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Mans’ Desiring”. Bach has no peers for tunes that are both logical & beautiful.

    And for those with young children & a household ground line (we dropped ours last year), I offer the following holiday phone greeting, which we did with our kids many holiday seasons (sometimes inviting their friends over for cookies & singing). It’s sung to the tune “Good King Wenceslaus:

    You have reached the [your name – 2 syllables works best] home,
    Sing out Hallelujah, or
    Leave a message on our phone,
    We’ll get right back to ya’

    Sorry we can’t take your call,
    Must be some good reason
    Merry Christmas one and all,
    Greetings of the Sea-eee-son

  19. How could I have forgotten?! – Pogo’s

    Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
    Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
    Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
    Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

    And so on, for six verses ( http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/458/what-are-the-lyrics-to-walt-kellys-classic-carol-deck-us-all-with-boston-charlie )

  20. PaddikJ:
    Green Sleeves is a mediaeval song that has nothing to do with Christmas.

    It is an Elizabethan love song.
    Still, it is beautiful.

  21. Joy,

    My bad – I meant the “What Childe is This?” version.

    But – Green Sleeves is both Mediaeval and Elizabethan? I am stunned to the marrow that someone who is normally so precise in her wordage should have made such a melange!

    Or – was it originally mediaeval, and then revived by the Elizabethans with new lyrics?

    Whatever – hope you’re having a pleasant apres’ Christmas (or had, depending on where you live)

  22. I sing in a barbershop quartette. The easiest of the “good” songs by far is “Silent Night”. “Oh Holy Night” is also one of my favorites, but we’ve got to watch it or we get out of synch when we get to “..fall on your knees”.

    I’d throw in a few non religious songs also:
    “Jingle Bells”,
    “Winter Wonderland”, and
    “I’ll be Home for Christmas”.

  23. Thank you all for your participation and suggestions, all of which were good and none of which were “wrong.”

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!!!!!

  24. PaddikJ:
    Thank you, and to you to. I would love to talk about Christmas until OOH, around about Easter!
    Mediaeval period spans from end of Dark Age until the Elizabethan reign. Dark age being only named as such because of the little that is known or recorded of the time and nothing to do with sinister goings on. The official start and end of such times is always an arbitrary and disputed timeline. I take it that’s what you meant by my melange? It is a myth that it was written by Henry VIII for Ann Boleyn. I still count Queen Elizabeth’s reign as mediaeval era, ending with her death.

  25. An exquisite but almost unavailable Christmas song is “Watts Cradle Hymn”. The only recording I have found come from a 2002 complilation called “The Ultimate Christmas Album of all Time”. Despite its cheesy title, I admire the collection. You can hear a sample here.

    http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Classical-Christmas-Album-Time/dp/B001BGEA4E/ref=sr_1_14?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1230383109&sr=8-14

    I have found one sheet music version without the descant in “The New Oxford Book of Carols”. ed. Keyte and Parrott, Oxford University Press, 1992.

    David

  26. Joy,

    Elizabethan was the end of the Medeaval? And I thought all these years that Elizabethan was considered high Renaissance. My world shudders.

    BTW, the Grecian Dark Age (ca. 1200BC – 800BC) is so named for the same reason – an “unconformity” in the historical record.

    David,

    What a lovely tune – thanks for the tip; plus, the collection has an equally lovely acapella version of “I wonder as I Wander.”

  27. I’ve always enjoyed the story line in Good King Wenceslas. It obviously points to a person in history. Great to be remembered through out history this way.

    By the way, Merry Christmas to Briggs and crew!

  28. David
    Watts’s Cradle Hymn is also on Adeste Fideles! Christmas down the Ages with Emma Kirkby, the Westminster Abbey Choir and the English Chmaber Orchestra conducted by Martin Neary. See http://www.amazon.com/Adeste-Fideles/dp/B0000029T7/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1230735116&sr=8-10

    It is a beautiful album.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

© 2017 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑