The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols

December 25, 2016 at 9:30 am

A couple of weeks ago a friend shared this post on facebook (the author is brilliant!), and asked me to create my own list of Advent and Christmas music – so here it is: The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols.

Personent Hodie: The first thing to note is that many of the best carols come from a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones.

In Dulci Jubilo: Also from Piae Cantiones, you might know this as “Good Christian Men Friends Rejoice.” That’s nice. But this arrangement by Michael Praetorius is absolutely METAL. Turn up your speakers. At the end, the organ is thunderous, and they are banging the drums like there’s no tomorrow.

Puer Natus in Bethlehem: Another one from Piae and Praetorius, this alternates an intricate Renaissance arrangement with kick-ass hymn singing and crazy instrumental descants. This is one is still in mainline protestant hymnals, but whenever your music director selects it, people complain. Trust me. I know.

Puer Nobis Nascitur: AKA Unto Us is Born a Son – yet another winner Piae. What was that you said? “Slew the little Childer?” Yes. The little childer were slewn. Sorry to ruin your Christmas, but it happened; it’s in the Bible.

Tempus Adest Floridum: AKA Good King Wenceslas. Yup, it’s Piae. No Christmas story here – it’s associated with Christmas because the first verse mentions “the feast of Stephen”, which is December 26. St. Stephen, by the way, was stoned to death. Merry Day-after-Christmas!

Gaudete: Did you really think I was done with Piae yet?

Divinum Mysterium: This hymn has earlier origins, but appears in Piae.

Hodie (Ralph Vaughan-Williams): this is the opening movement of a long, dull oratorio by RVW. The opening movement is great, and after that, you can take your Christmas nap. I love this movement because I imagine it sounds like Christmas morning in medieval Paris – the brass announce Christmas, and you begin to hear shouts of “Noel, noel”, and then one by own groups of drunken revelers come out of their houses and party in the streets. At 0:40 a big group of burly men being with “Hodie! Hodie Christus natus est!” At 1:22, the nobles come out dancing a drunken waltz. At 2:00 the church choirs are singing, but are interrupted at 2:13 by the rowdy congregation. At 2:30, it sounds like the Sharks and the Jets have joined the celebration. Whatever is going on, one thing is clear: everyone is drunk and everyone is partying.

Masters in this Hall: Well that was jolly good fun; now let’s make our way inside for a Christmas feast!

Wassail: Nothing says “Christmas time” like warm alcohol. As you might imagine, there are many carols devoted to this.

Boar’s Head Carol: Because you’re going to need a heavy meal to soak up all that alcohol. So … how about eating a severed boar’s head to celebrate the holidays?

King Jesus Hath a Garden: Ugh, too much heavy food. Good thing Jesus has a garden; maybe this will balance the meal out a bit.

Riu, Riu, Chiu: Wash that meal down with a little Spanish wine and a little Spanish dance …

Once in Royal David’s City: You know this one thanks to the Kings College Lessons & Carols. I include it here to point out that the last two verses take us away from the manger and to our own deaths. This, my friends, is what makes a good Christmas Carol – breaking away from “good old days” imagery and keeping it real.

I Wonder as I Wander: Two things make this carol great: 1) it gives the Christmas story a more humble setting, contemplating its supernatural elements; 2) the verse ends on the subdominant! How very bold and unexpected.

Psallite: This carol’s greatness comes from as combination of macaronic text and ridiculous rhyming: unigeniTO, ChrisTO, filliO, domiNO, pueriLO, praesepiO; EIN, klEIN, kindelEIN, krippelEIN, engelEIN, fEIN.

Coventry Carol: Most carols blissfully ignore this very important part of the Christmas story. The evil king Herod ordered all male babies in Bethlehem slaughtered in an effort to destroy the infant Jesus. This carol is a chilling lullaby which could have been sung by the mother of one of the victims.

‘Twas in the Moon at Wintertime: This carol adapts the traditional story into a Native American setting (the tune is an old French song); keeping it real by making it humble.

O Magnum Mysterium: I suppose this isn’t really a carol, since it’s not strophic, and requires a bit of training to sing. It’s the best setting of this ancient text out there, and a glorious piece of music, so I thought it would be the right way to end this post.

Merry Christmas! If you want to see a similar post,  check out my “A Little Advent Music” (some of the Advent carols are appropriate for Christmas as well.)