The 18 best Christmas songs, from Santa Baby to Last Christmas

It's the most wonderful time of the year. As Christmas approaches, we pick the classic songs you need on your festive playlist

Roisin O'Connor,Alexandra Pollard
Sunday 25 December 2022 08:41 GMT
Mariah Carey says she doesn't listen to 'All I Want For Christmas' until after Thanksgiving

Merry Christmas, one and all, it's time to break out the mince pies (as if you haven't already), pour the prosecco and put on some festive music.

Christmas songs don't always have to be merry – among the most beloved festive tunes are "2,000 Miles" by The Pretenders, which is curiously bleak, and the heartbreak of Wham!'s "Last Christmas".

Of course, there are plenty of upbeat songs on our list, too, from Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" to Mariah Carey's"All I Want for Christmas is You".

Here are some of our favourites, from Forties classics to more recent pop hits, to get your Christmas celebrations into full swing.

18) “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono

There’s a caveat to the optimistic message of the song’s title. “War is over,” sing a choir of children over festive tambourines, but only, they add, “If you want it.” Having analysed the success of his previous single, “Imagine,” the former Beatle noted, “Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey.” On this, an anti-Vietnam war protest song wrapped up in sleigh bells, strings and an anthemic melody, he does just that. AP

17) “Mary’s Boy Child/ Oh My Lord” – Boney M

Taking Harry Belafonte’s 1956 hit “Mary’s Boy Child” and singing it in medley with new song “Oh My Lord”, Boney M’s No 1 hit combined Christmas carol-like harmonies with Euro disco, steel drums and a reggae sensibility. It might sound disastrous – but somehow it works. AP

16) “2,000 Miles” – The Pretenders

“He’s gone/2,000 miles/Is very far,” sings Chrissie Hynde, above a twanging guitar riff in “2,000 Miles”, her serpentine melody stretching each syllable into several. You could easily assume it’s about two separated lovers, but it was actually written for the band’s original guitar player, James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a drug overdose a year earlier at the age of 25. The song is desperately bleak – as is the case with all the best Christmas songs – but with a note of festive hopefulness too. “The children were singing/He’ll be back at Christmas time.” AP

15) “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee was just 13 years old when she made herself a rockabilly legend thanks to the recording of this party classic. It always reminds me of scenes in The Santa Clause (one of the best ever Christmas films) where the jaunty number was heavily featured, along with seminal holiday movie Home Alone. RO

14) “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” – Dean Martin

Few Christmas songs are as cosy as this one. Dean Martin’s smooth, rich voice is as warming as a good glass of whisky; paired with sweeping, romantic strings and a chirpy flute, “Let it Snow!” conjures up images of stockings hanging up over the chimney, a Christmas tree glinting with baubles, and a frost-tinted window with snow falling outside. RO

13) “Walking in the Air” – The Snowman / Peter Auty

The Snowman is one of the most beloved children’s animations of all time
The Snowman is one of the most beloved children’s animations of all time (© 1982, 1992, 2002 Snowman Enterprises Ltd)

Though Aled Jones tends to get the credit for this haunting masterpiece, it is actually the voice of choirboy Peter Auty that appears in the climactic scene of the wordless 1982 animation The Snowman. He wasn’t credited though, and when his voice broke and Jones’s version reached number five in the UK charts, he was almost written out of history. In truth, though, whichever version you hear, the song’s sweeping grandeur is goosebumps-inducing. AP

12) “Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy” – David Bowie/ Bing Crosby

Recorded for Bing Crosby’s TV special Merrie Olde Christmas, and framed around a strange scripted exchange of banter between the two, this mash-up only came about because Bowie hated the song, “Little Drummer Boy”, that he had been asked on the show to sing. So songwriters Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, alongside the show’s scriptwriter, cobbled together “Peace on Earth” to serve as a counterpoint, while Crosby performed the intended song. They recorded the resulting medley after less than an hour of rehearsal, and five weeks later, Crosby died. AP

11) “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt

“Eartha Kitt is the sexiest woman in the world. You don’t write Christmas songs that are sexy. How are we going to do that?” Poor Phil Springer. Half of the songwriting team behind the super sultry “Santa Baby” was always slightly resentful that his biggest hit was a festive one. Well, I’m grateful for it. Eartha Kitt’s huskily delivered letter to Santa Claus is undoubtedly the sexiest Christmas song of all time, and has been covered by everyone from Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift to Madonna (I don’t talk about Madge’s attempt) and Michael Buble. Yet it’s Kitt’s version you find yourself coming back to. RO

10) “The Christmas Song” – Nat King Cole

This Mel Torme composition was originally written, according to Torme, with Bob Wells as a mind-over-matter attempt to stay cool during a stifling summer day in 1945. It’s one of Cole’s most enduring hits, and one of the most beloved of all Christmas songs. RO

9) “I Believe in Father Christmas” – Greg Lake

This Mel Torme composition was originally written, according to Torme, with Bob Wells as a mind-over-matter attempt to stay cool during a stifling summer day in 1945. It’s one of Cole’s most enduring hits, and one of the most beloved of all Christmas songs. RO

8) “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams

Andy Williams’ classic brings to mind the kind of big, brash Christmas’s you see in American films – lots of presents, blazing fireplaces and a huge feast – but also plays heavily on the importance of spending time with your loved ones. It consistently appears in the top 10s of Christmas song rankings, and more than 50 years in, the 1963 staple shows no signs of wearing out. RO

7) ‘Stop the Cavalry” – Jona Lewie

It was “just another anti-war song” until Jona Lewie threw a kazoo into the mix. The English singer-songwriter never intended “Stop the Cavalry” to become a Christmas single, but the festive mention in the line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, along with the addition of a Salvation Army brass band and tubular bell, was enough to convince listeners. The song sold 4m copies upon its release and was only kept off the top slot that Christmas because of John Lennon’s death and consequent position at numbers one and two on the UK singles chart. Lewie told The Guardian in 2015 that he earns more from “Stop the Cavalry” than the rest of his songs put together. RO

6) “Driving Home for Christmas” – Chris Rea

In 1978, Rea thought it was all over. His record contract was done, and his manager had just told him he was quitting. Rea wanted to get home from London’s Abbey Road studios to Middlesborough, but his record company wouldn’t pay for a ticket. “My wife got in our old Austin Mini, drove all the way down from Middlesbrough to Abbey Road studios to pick me up, and we set off back straight away,” he told The Guardian. “Then it started snowing. We had £220 and I was fiddling with it all the way home. We kept getting stuck in traffic and I’d look across at the other drivers, who all looked so miserable. Jokingly, I started singing: “We’re driving home for Christmas…” RO

5) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’
Frank Sinatra’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (Getty Images)

Sinatra’s version of this classic Christmas song opens on his isolated vocals before gradually introducing the swooning choir and tender strings section. And the lyrics: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Make the Yuletide gay / From now on your troubles will be miles away/Here we are as in olden days/Happy golden days of yore/Faithful friends who are dear to us / Gather near to us once more.” RO

4) “All I Want for Christmas is You” – Mariah Carey

One of the best moments on American Idol in 2014 was an exchange between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, who famously did not get on during the series. As a contestant/Mariah stan [“stalker fan”] told the star he loved “All I Want for Christmas is You“ and hailed it as the “best modern-day Christmas song”, Minaj threw a little shade by saying: “It sure was, wasn’t it?”, emphasis on the ”was“ very much intended. Carey’s response was immediate and dismissive: “Still is, dahling!” She earns a reported £4000,000 in royalties from the track each year, with its lasting popularity testament to just how good a song it is. Its unyielding Christmas spirit and those diminished (infectious) C minor chords combine for the ultimate experience of festive cheer, with a perfect mix of nostalgia and pop sentimentalism thrown in for good measure. RO

3) “Last Christmas” – Wham!

George Michael wrote, performed, produced and played every single instrument on this song, where the narrator looks back with sadness on a past relationship. As with “Fairytale of New York”, you have an upbeat, cheerful rhythm and chirpy instrumentation, against the melancholy of unrequited love in the lyrics, with the suggestion that it was given away too hastily (“This year, to save me from tears/I’ll give it to someone special”). RO

2) “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues

“Fairytale of New York” is a drunken hymn for people with broken dreams and abandoned hopes. Its narrator, an Irish immigrant, is thrown into a drunk tank to sleep off his Christmas Eve binge. Hearing an old man sing the Irish ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew”, he begins to dream about the past, and so begins the story of two people who fell in love in America, only to see their plans of a bright future dashed. Shane MacGowan’s slurring, bitter delivery of those opening vocals is played out over romanticised piano chords, then to those wonderful, jaunty strings and Terry Woods’ mandolin. RO

1) “Winter Wonderland” – Bing Crosby


Richard (Dick) Smith was suffering from tuberculosis, an illness which had plagued him since a child, from his bed in a sanatorium in Philadelphia. Gazing longingly out of his window at the snow, he wrote a poem describing all the things he would do when he was well again. He was inspired by the views of people playing in the park across the street from his family home on Church Street, where he’d lived with his mother, brother and two sisters. His father had died when he was a child. After he was finished, he took the lyrics to his friend Felix Bernard, a professional pianist. A copy of “Winter Wonderland” found its way to Joey Nash, lead singer of the Richard Himber Orchestra, who recorded it in 1934. Guy Lombardo heard Nash’s recording and made a record of his own, which became a hit that December. Smith died in 1935 before “Winter Wonderland” became a Christmas hit again for Ted Weems, and long before Crosby recorded his, and arguably the most famous, version. RO

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