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A definitive ranking of the top ten Christmas Carols

Right, it’s Christmas Eve, which means it’s time to stop worrying about Brexit, and Coronvirus, and the news in General, and focus on the things that are really important.

In that spirit, here’s a ranking of the top ten Christmas Carols, from the bang average, to the really superb. We’re going to call on some of the best carol singers in the world here, too – The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Kings College Choir of Cambridge, alongside a few guest performances from others. Settle in, put on the tea, and enjoy:

10: Oh Come All Ye Faithful

This is a good song, which yours truly will always associate with Christmas, for good and bad reasons. The Good? It’s very hummable, isn’t it? It also focuses on the person whose birthday it is, which is actually important, what with Christmas being mainly a religious event. And yet it manages not to be stuffy, capturing the cheerful spirit that religion should aim for, but doesn’t always quite manage. And it works well with a church organ, too.

Why’s it not higher? Well, mainly, because when I was growing up, it was always the closing hymn at Christmas mass, when you’d be gagging to get home to play with your new remote controlled racing car. And it has a lot of verses.

Two verses would have done, guys.

  1. Oh Holy Night

It doesn’t get much better than Charlotte Church belting out “Oh Holy Night”, does it?

But that’s also why it’s ranked this low. It’s a top carol when someone who knows what they’re doing is singing it. When people like you or me try it, we forget just how demanding it is. Those first few bars lull you into a false sense of security, and then “faaaaaallllllll, on your kneeeeeeeeeeeeees!!!” creeps up on you, and you’re done for.

Best listened to, rather than sung, all things considered.

  1. I saw three ships

Same story here, really. C’est magnifique. But don’t try this one if you’re not a trained singer.

  1. Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Another Christmas Day Mass classic, this one. And with good reason – everyone can join in and belt it out. But it’s sort of got the opposite problem to the two ranked below it, for my money – it’s more of a warm-up carol than it is a main event. No Christmas performance ever ends with this one, does it?

  1. Silent Night

If you ever want a carol done justice, you turn to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This is many people’s favourite, though it’s never really been mine. It ranks this high because it has everything you want in a good carol – it’s easy to sing, the words are easy to remember, it has the Christ part of Christmas at its core, and to sing it well, you need to sing it as a group – meaning it pulls people together.

But it’s not the most cheerful carol in the world, is it? It’s nice, and everything, but it’s more a lullaby than it is a carol.

  1. Carol of the Bells

As we enter the top five, time now for something completely different. This one, being honest, would be top two for me, but I have to rank it this low because, well, you can’t sing it and consistency requires that marks be taken off for that. But it has everything else that you need for a top five carol – and it’s so unique and distinctive that when you hear it, you know it’s time to start heating up the mulled wine.

  1. In the bleak Midwinter

A small bit of distinctly protestant class here, sneaking into the top four. This one had the music composed specially by Gustav Holst, for heaven’s sake. It has a timeless feel to it, it’s eminently singable, and while it shares a certain sleepiness with “Silent Night”, the lyrics just elevate it that much higher. “Angels and Archangels, May have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim, Thronged the air; But only His Mother, In her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved, With a kiss.”

Sorry now, but that beats the pants off “Silent Night, Holy Night”. You’re free to disagree, but you’re in error.

  1. The Coventry Carol

Here we are now, at the business end of the list, and the competition is really peaking. The Coventry Carol makes it in here for two reasons. The first is sheer longevity: They were singing this one, basically unchanged, in the 1500’s, for heaven’s sake. It’s unique in this list in being able to connect us with tens of generations of Christmasses past.

And it’s a genuinely beautiful tune, too – there’s a reason it’s survived this long.

  1. Ding Dong Merrily on High

Our runner up has it all – upbeat, cheery, and as much at home in a church as it is on a busy street, sung by carollers as you rush to finish your Christmas shopping. You can sing it to yourself (well, maybe not the extended “Glorias”), you tap your foot along to it, you can put on the radio on Christmas morning, and hear it, and never get sick of it.

One of the very greats. But not quite number one.

  1. Joy to the World

Back to our Mormon Friends now, for the definitive performance of the definitive Christmas Carol.

This one is the essence of Christmas, really, distilled, into a song. If Christmas is religious for you, primarily, then the song captures the whole reason for the celebration – Joy to the World, indeed. If you’re the secular type, then the lyrics speak to you still. Christmas is a season of good cheer, and family, and time with friends, and for rejoicing.

No other carol captures that simple truth more comprehensively. Let heaven, and nature sing. We’re all in on this one, together.

Finally, here’s a BONUS CAROL, because we’re an Irish Site: The Wexford carol – Carúl Loch Garman. 

We don’t hear that one as often as we should. At least, west-brit Tory boys like me don’t. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Happy Christmas eve, folks.


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