The 30 best Christmas songs of all time

20 November 2018, 15:20 | Updated: 23 November 2018, 12:16

Christmas songs
Picture: Columbia/BBC

By Tom Eames

Unlike any other music genre, Christmas songs never seem to get old.

Every December, we guiltlessly wheel them out. We always love singing and dancing along to festive favourites from yesteryear.

The 20 worst Christmas songs of all time

But what are the greatest Christmas songs of all time?

We've ranked our very favourite Christmas crackers below. Is yours in there?

  1. George Michael - 'December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)'

    An underrated modern Christmas song, George released this back in 2009, giving him a top 10 hit at the time.

    It samples 'Christmas Waltz' by Frank Sinatra, and is a lovely look back at Christmases as a child. Written for the Spice Girls and then Michael Bublé in mind, George decided to keep it for himself.

  2. Johnny Mathis - 'When a Child is Born'

    This song was based on the melody of 'Soleado', a tune from 1974 by Ciro Dammicco and Dario Baldan Bembo. After songwriter Fred Jay added English lyrics, it was covered by various artists, including veteran crooner Johnny Mathis.

    Mathis scored an unexpected Christmas number one in 1976, selling over 800,000 copies.

  3. Cliff Richard - 'Mistletoe and Wine'

    Sir Cliff became the new King of Christmas after releasing this festive ballad in 1988, becoming that year's Christmas number one.

    The song was actually written for a musical called Scraps, which was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, set in Victorian London. Cliff loved the song, and tweaked it to have a more religious angle.

    Bonus fact: Smooth's Myleene Klass provided backing vocals in the choir part of the song when she was just 10 years old!

  4. David Essex - 'A Winter's Tale'

    Songwriting giants Mike Batt and Tim Rice wrote this ballad after David Essex asked them specifically.

    The song was a comeback of sorts for Essex, giving him a number three hit in 1983.

  5. Brenda Lee - 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'

    One of the most timeless Christmas songs ever made, Brenda Lee first recorded this festive party anthem in 1958 when she was just 13!

    It has continued to return to the charts in recent years, and in 2017 it returned to the top 10 for the first time since 1963, reaching number nine.

  6. Paul McCartney - 'Wonderful Christmastime'

    It may be one of Sir Paul's cheesiest ever songs, but it's a feel good Christmas classic.

    Paul released the tune in 1979, giving him a UK top 10 hit. While the rest of Wings appear in the knees-up video, they did not actually play on the song.

  7. Mike Oldfield - 'In Dulci Jubilo'

    In 1975, Mike Oldfield released an instrumental version of the German Christmas carol 'In Dulci Jubilo', and it's still one of the jauntiest Christmas tunes ever.

    In case you wondering, 'In dulci jubilo' is translated as 'In sweet rejoicing'.

  8. The Waitresses - 'Christmas Wrapping'

    This underrated song is told from the perspective of a busy single woman trying not to participate in the exhausting Christmas period, while also trying to finally agree to a date with a man she met earlier in the year.

    Songwriter Chris Butler wrote the lyrics in a taxi on the way to the recording studio. He explained that the idea came from "just very much that for years I hated Christmas ... Everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends. It wasn't about joy. It was something to cope with."

  9. Carpenters - 'Merry Christmas Darling'

    The lyrics of this song were written in 1946 by Frank Pooler, who was the choir director at California State University, where Karen and Richard Carpenter were both part of the choir.

    In 1966, at Pooler’s request, Richard composed the music, which was first released in 1970. This sparked the interest of a Christmas album by the Carpenters, and in 1978, Christmas Portrait was released.

  10. Darlene Love - 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)'

    This song was originally included on the 1963 compilation album, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records and producer Phil Spector.

    It was intended for Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes, but according to Darlene Love, Ronnie was not able to put as much emotion into the song as needed. Instead, Love was brought into the studio, and it became one of her signature tunes.

  11. Elton John - 'Step Into Christmas'

    Curiously, this song was not a huge hit at the time for Elton, only reaching number 24 in 1973. However, it has since become a favourite, and reached a new peak of 11 in 2017.

    The track was recorded to echo the famous 'Wall of Sound', made famous by producer Phil Spector in the 1960s.

  12. Shakin' Stevens - 'Merry Christmas Everyone'

    It may sum up 'Christmas cheese, but you can't not feel good when you hear this every December.

    Shaky actually delayed releasing this in 1984 as he would have been up against Band Aid and Wham! It paid off, as he scored the Christmas number one for '85.

  13. Jethro Tull - 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'

    This song is about the winter solstice, which takes place on the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere - either December 21 or 22. The song describes a solstice celebration in medieval times, with dancing druids and ringing bells. Not your usual Christmas hit subject!

    It wasn't a massive hit at the time, reaching number 28 in 1976, but we command you to not tap your feet or clap along to it. It will be impossible.

  14. Joni Mitchell - 'River'

    This folk song is about the recent breakup of a relationship, with Joni longing to escape her feelings. It is thought to be inspired by her relationship with singer Graham Nash.

    Although the song is merely set near Christmas time, rather than being about Christmas, it has become a modern Christmas standard.

  15. John Lennon and Yoko Ono - 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)'

    Released in 1971 by Lennon with Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band, this Christmas song is set to the traditional English ballad 'Skewball'.

    It is also a protest song against the Vietnam War, and has since become a Christmas standard every December, and is often named in polls as a holiday favourite around the world.

  16. Chris de Burgh - 'A Spaceman Came Travelling'

    You might not know this song by title alone, but you'll no doubt know its familiar soaring 'la la la la' chorus.

    The song was created after Chris was inspired by a book which made him think "what if the star of Bethlehem was a space craft and what if there is a benevolent being or entity in the universe keeping an eye on the world and our foolish things that we do to each other?"

  17. Jona Lewie - 'Stop the Cavalry'

    Jona Lewie has said that this song was never intended as a Christmas tune, and that it was actually a protest song.

    However, the line 'Wish I was at home for Christmas' as well as the brass band arrangements, made it an accidentally-perfect Christmas pop song.

  18. Slade - 'Merry Xmas Everybody'

    IT'S CHRISTMAAAS!

    That's almost all you need to say about this song! Slade's 1973 Christmas number one is a festive banger unlike any other, and has sold over 1.2 million copies in the UK alone.

  19. Andy Williams - 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year'

    One of the happiest Christmas tunes ever, this was recorded by Andy Williams back in 1963 for his Christmas Album that year.

    However, it wasn't actually released as a single at the time, with the label going for a cover of 'White Christmas' instead. Over time, it has become one of the standard Christmas songs of all time.

  20. Band Aid - 'Do They Know It's Christmas'

    This was the first time the idea of a charity supergroup single came about, after Bob Geldof and Midge Ure saw Michael Buerk's TV report on the famine in Ethiopia.

    Featuring a cast of pop icons from George Michael to Boy George to Sting, the song became the highest-selling ever in the UK until 1997.

  21. The Pretenders - '2000 Miles'

    The Story of... '2000 Miles' by The Pretenders

    This Christmas ballad is one of the best-loved Pretenders song, and gave them a number 15 hit in 1984.

    While many people believe the song refers to two long-distance lovers who miss each other at Christmas, it was actually written for James Honeyman-Scott, the group's original guitar player, who died the year before it was released.

  22. Wizzard - 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday'

    Released the same year as Slade's fellow festive glam anthem, Wizzard amazingly only reached number four at the time.

    However, Roy Wood's tune has become a Christmas staple and has charted every year since downloads and streams were included, reaching as high as 15 in 2017.

  23. David Bowie and Bing Crosby - 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy'

    This song was an early form of a mash-up of sorts, featuring the 1941 Christmas song ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and new composition ‘Peace on Earth’.

    David Bowie performed the song with Bing Crosby for the latter’s 1977 TV special, filmed just five weeks before his death. The song was preceded with a short skit in which the pair exchanged scripted dialogue about what they each do for their family Christmases.

    Bowie admitted to having only appeared on the show because “I just knew my mother liked him”.

  24. Chris Rea - 'Driving Home for Christmas'

    The Story of... 'Driving Home for Christmas' by Chris Rea

    Released in 1988, this Christmas favourite only reached number 53 at the time! However, it's now a national favourite, and reached a new peak of 14 in 2017.

    Rea said he wrote the song when he needed to get home to Middlesbrough from Abbey Road Studios in London. The inspiration came as he was getting stuck in heavy traffic, while the snow was falling.

  25. Bing Crosby - 'White Christmas'

    The popular Christmas song that arguably started it all. Written in 1940 by Irving Berlin, the Bing Crosby version became the best-selling single in the world of all time.

    Bing recorded it for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, and its mixture of melancholy and images of home became particularly popular during World War II, helping to cement it as one of the most popular Christmas songs ever.

  26. Greg Lake - 'I Believe in Father Christmas'

    Emerson, Lake and Palmer member Greg Lake wrote this song as a anti-Christmas commercialism tune.

    He said of the inspiration behind it: “For me as a child, it was the visual image of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It was the symbol of generosity and feeling good. And that’s what I think Christmas is all about”.

  27. Nat King Cole - 'The Christmas Song'

    Bob Wells and Mel Tormé wrote this song in 1945 during a blistering hot summer. In an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool”, the most-performed Christmas song was born.

    The Nat King Cole Trio recorded it in 1946, and Cole recorded a version in 1953 with a full orchestra with Nelson Riddle conducting. His 1961 version with Ralph Carmichael is generally considered as definitive.

    It has been recorded by countless artists, from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Stevie Wonder, Glen Campbell, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.

  28. Mariah Carey - 'All I Want for Christmas is You'

    Released in 1994, this modern Christmas classic continues to be a huge hit every year since downloads and streaming were included in the singles chart. With global sales of over 16 million copies, the song remains Mariah's biggest international hit, and is the 11th best-selling single of all time.

    In case you were wondering, that's Mariah's then-husband Tommy Mottola making a cameo appearance as Santa Claus in the video.

  29. Wham! - 'Last Christmas'

    The Story of... 'Last Christmas' by Wham!

    One of the most popular Christmas pop songs of all time, this track had to settle for the Christmas number two spot in 1984, as it was also the year Band Aid released 'Do They Know It's Christmas' (which George also featured on).

    The song returned to number two in 2017, after fans attempted to get it to number one in tribute to George, who died on Christmas Day the previous year.

  30. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - 'Fairytale of New York'

    The Story of... 'Fairytale of New York'

    Another song to stall at number two for Christmas (this time behind Pet Shop Boys' cover of 'Always on My Mind'), this folk ballad has become a must-listen every single December.

    Frontman Shane MacGowan has said that the song came about after a bet made by the their producer at the time, Elvis Costello, that they would not be able to write a Christmas hit single. He was wrong!