In my mind, it’s not Christmas until we sing “Joy to the World.” My childhood parish always concluded the family Christmas vigil Mass with this classic hymn, complete with an organ and trumpets. Well, almost always, because one year they didn’t, subbing in some other perfectly appropriate Christmas hymn I can’t recall. What I do recall is my disappointment at the absence of this cherished ritual. Even today, it makes me think of those Christmas songs that I just can’t live without.
I was upset and decided to take matters into my own hands, ushering in Christmas by singing my own a cappella rendition in the car on the way home. My brothers were not amenable to this idea and started yelling at me to stop, as I continued belting it out. Needless to say, my parents were less-than-joyful about this start to our celebration. Years later, I maintain that all of this could have been avoided if my church had just honored tradition by selecting the right carol!
Christmas carols evoke strong emotions in us. We love the songs we love, and we hate the songs we hate. While songs like “Santa Baby” and “All I Want for Christmas (Is You)” get most of the radio airtime, I think religious hymns deserve more attention.
So, we reached out to you, our FemCatholic community, to come up with a ranking of favorite Christmas hymns. Here is the definitive FemCatholic ranking of best religious Christmas songs of all time:
16. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”
This classic tune tells the story of the Annunciation to the shepherds, but it definitely has more of a lullaby feel than some of the other tunes. Honestly though, that’s fitting, considering that Christmas is a holiday celebrating the baby Jesus.
15. “For Unto Us a Child Is Born”
Based on a verse from Isaiah, this choral piece was written for Handel’s Messiah. PBS notes that it is widely considered “one of the most glorious expressions of sacred joy in the Christmas repertory.” But it seems this high music didn’t resonate with our audience as much as some other hymns.
13. (TIE) “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
Fun fact: This song is sung to a different tune on each side of the Atlantic, but the American version is the original. In fact, it was written in the context of post-Civil War America, urging the divided and ravaged country to look to Jesus’ nativity as a beacon of hope. It’s a message that remains relevant today.
13. (TIE) “Go Tell It on a Mountain”
This song has its roots as one of the very few Christmas songs among the preserved canon of African American spirituals. It was later used in the Civil Rights movement, and the joy of the lyrics and melody carry on today in the enthusiastic hand motions of Catholic schoolchildren.
12. “What Child Is This?”
This sweet song set to the traditional folk melody “Greensleeves” paints the nativity scene with simple images, such as a little babe asleep on his mother’s lap. Like the next song, it also starts with a rhetorical question, but “What Child Is This?” promptly answers the question in the next stanza. As a result, it doesn’t get nearly as much flack as the next song.
11. “Mary, Did You Know?”
This song feels like a classic, but one thing I didn’t know is that it was first released just 30 years ago. What I do know about this song is that it’s controversial, beloved by some for its beauty, but loathed by others for its alleged mansplaining and questionable theology. And as some have pointed out, yes, “Mary freaking knew.”
10. “The Little Drummer Boy”
Three fun facts about this song: it was written by a woman, it was initially called “Carol of the Drum,” and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers, a.k.a. the real life family that The Sound of Music was based on!
9. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”
While the language of this song is rather antiquated and confusing (“God rest you merry” used to be a way of wishing someone peace), the tune is certainly catchy. Now maybe if the anonymous composer sent well-wishes to a more gender-inclusive group, rather than just “gentlemen,” the song would rank higher with our overwhelmingly female audience. Just saying.
8. “Away in a Manger”
This song also is somewhat contentious in the Catholic world due to its erroneous attribution to Martin Luther (a creative claim stemming from a very-19th-century book called Dainty Hymns for Little Lads and Lasses) and the questionable theology of the line, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Still, there is something quite charming about watching a Christmas pageant and hearing sweet little voices asking Jesus to stay by their cradles.
7. “O Come All Ye Faithful”
I’m surprised this song didn’t rank higher, as it’s a jubilant classic that is accessible even to the most amatuer of singers. One of my favorite things about the Catholic Church is its universality, and I love that you can hear some version of the Latin “Adeste Fidelis” nearly anywhere in the world (although mistranslations have resulted in funny wordings in some languages).
5. (TIE) “Angels We Have Heard on High”
This iconic song, based on the angels’ refrain in Luke’s Gospel, has become the topic of many a Catholic meme for stretching the word “Gloria” into an impressive 18 syllables. Theologically correct and undeniably fun to sing? It earns its place near the top of the list, tied with another angelic favorite.
5. (TIE) “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
This song, also based on Luke 2:14, has an odd history. It was initially written in the 18th century with a more solemn melody, but a century later, someone had the idea to set it to a new tune. That familiar melody we now know and love was from Mendelssohn’s cantata Festgesang, which was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the printing press. This unconventional pairing stuck, and seems to have worked well enough to earn the song a high ranking among our readers.
4. “Silent Night”
This song comes with another odd origin story: A young Catholic priest in Germany wrote the song while looking out on his quiet village. Years later, on Christmas Eve, he wanted to set it to music, but his church’s organ was overrun by mice. An organist from a neighboring town gave him a hand, and a classic was born. Two centuries later, the song is so globally popular it has been added to UNESCO’s world heritage list for its universal cultural value.
3. “The First Noël”
This Cornish song (sometimes written “The First Nowell”) has oral roots dating as far back as the 15th century and written roots from the 17th century. Historians believe that it was sung by the common folk as a way to pass on the story of Christmas, despite their limited ability to participate in Mass at that time. Due to its word-of-mouth transmission, the lyrics sometimes got altered, leading to some transcriptions with a rather comical refrain of, “Oh well, oh well” in place of “Noël, noël.”
2. “Joy to the World”
Unlike most Christmas hymns, which are based on the Gospels, “Joy to the World” is mostly based on the Old Testament. The song was a team effort, with lyrics from a British poet and a tune inspired by Handel’s Messiah, all adapted by an American music teacher, who also added the iconic repetition at the end. I’m glad to see that many FemCatholic readers agree that the song of my childhood tradition is truly one of the best!
1. “O Holy Night”
“O Holy Night” has unlikely origins – written in France by an atheist wine merchant and a Jewish composer – and a storied history that includes a role in the American abolition movement. However, some Church leaders didn’t like its non-Christian origin story and justice-oriented lyrics and tried to “cancel” it, decrying its “lack of musical taste” and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Clearly, plenty of people (including our readers) beg to differ, propelling it to victory in our contest.
Honestly, I’m not even mad that “Joy to the World” didn’t win because “O Holy Night” is just that good. (Plus, it plays a role in another of my cherished Christmas traditions, subjecting my loved ones to the “worst version ever” spoof.)
Thanks to everyone who voted in our polls. God rest ye merry, ladies!