What are considered the DEFINITIVE versions of popular Christmas songs?
December 11, 2013 11:14 AM   Subscribe

So, after decades of basically ignoring them, I'm finally getting into the spirit of enjoying classic Christmas songs. But I don't know much about them. I know many of them have been covered literally hundreds of times. As a starting point, I'd like to better understand which versions of popular Christmas songs have been MOST popular over time.

In other words, are there one or two versions of, say, "Silent Night" that are considered more-or-less "definitive" in American culture? Like, as far as I can tell, "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" has been covered dozens of times, but is *most* closely identified with Nat King Cole's version.
posted by Alaska Jack to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS: Burl Ives?
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS MY TWO FRONT TEETH: Spike Jones?
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU: Mariah Carey
ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH:
AWAY IN A MANGER:
BLUE CHRISTMAS: Elvis Presley?
CAROL OF THE BELLS:
CHIPMUNK SONG (CHRISTMAS DON’T BE LATE):
CHRISTMAS IN HOLLIS: Run DMC
CHRISTMAS SONG (CHESTNUTS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE): Mel Torme, Nat King Cole
DECK THE HALLS:
DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR: Bing Crosby?
FELIZ NAVIDAD:
FROSTY THE SNOWMAN: Jimmy Durante?
GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN:
GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER: Elmo and Patsy?
HAPPY HOLIDAY: Bing Crosby?
HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING:
HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS: The Pretenders? The Carpenters?
HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS: Gene Autry?
I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS:
I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS:
IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR:
IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS: Bing Crosby? Perry Como?
IT'S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR: Andy Williams?
JINGLE BELL ROCK: Bobby Helms?
JINGLE BELLS:
JOY TO THE WORLD:
LET IT SNOW:
LITTLE ST NICK: Beach Boys?
MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY: Eartha Kit? Madonna?
O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL:
O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM:
O TANNENBAUM:
OH HOLY NIGHT:
ROCKIN AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE:
ROCKIN AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE: Brenda Lee?
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER:
RUN RUDOLPH RUN: Chuck Berry?
SANTA BABY: Eartha Kitt
SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN: Bruce Springsteen?
SILENT NIGHT:
SILVER AND GOLD:
SILVER BELLS:
SLEIGH RIDE: Leroy Anderson?
THE FIRST NOEL:
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY: Harry Simeone Chorale?
THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS:
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE (HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS):
UP ON THE HOUSETOP: Gene Autry? Jackson 5?
WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS:
WE THREE KINGS:
WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS:
WHAT CHILD IS THIS:
WHITE CHRISTMAS: Andy Williams? Bing Crosby?
WINTER WONDERLAND: Eurythmics?
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:14 AM on December 11, 2013


To the best of my knowledge, the version Mele Kalikimaka most people are familiar with is the one by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:16 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


White Christmas, Bing Crosby, hands down.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Judy Garland.

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Brenda Lee.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, absolutely huge for Gene Autry, but now more closely associated with Burl Ives I think.

Most of the classics are in that same time frame, as shown by this xkcd comic.
posted by Melismata at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS: The Pretenders? The Carpenters?

Neither, Judy Garland

Some history: Meet Me in St. Louis was made in 1944, nearly everyone had been drafted, including both of my Grandfathers, who were married with children. The folks left were ground down by having to provide for the kids without Dads around, worrying about loved ones in danger, a dreary winter and wartime rationing. It was a depressing holiday.

When Judy Garland sang that song in the movie, people in movie theaters wept like crazy. The longing in her voice, the emotional impact of the movie...people's hearts broke.

There are lots of other versions, but this is THE difinitive version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Now, if you want your head to spin a bit, a very interesting version of The Little Drummer Boy, as a duet with Bing Crosby and...wait for it...David Bowie. Well, that's difinitive in MY book.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:25 AM on December 11, 2013 [19 favorites]


(the dogs barking version of) Jingle Bells - The Singing Dogs
posted by troika at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd disagree about "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I think Sinatra's is the definitive version. I personally prefer the darker lyrics of the original, but vastly more people are familiar with the brighter version of the song ("hang a shining star upon the highest bough"), which were written—by the song's original composer, if it matters—at Sinatra's request for his Christmas album.
posted by cribcage at 11:33 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


CAROL OF THE BELLS - Mannhiem Steamroller
WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS - Johnny Mathis
SANTA BABY - Madonna (I really think her version is better)
JINGLE BELLS - Barbara Streisand
SILENT NIGHT - Michael Bolton (I know, he sucks, but his version is classic IMO)

CHIPMUNK SONG (CHRISTMAS DON’T BE LATE): .... seriously?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:33 AM on December 11, 2013


CAROL OF THE BELLS is extremely hard for one single artist to pull off. It's more of an Orchestra/Choir song.

It is also my favorite christmas song EVER, and here are the best renditions:

From the Home Alone Soundtrack (I know)
Straight no Chaser (Both of their Christmas Albums are awesome and I would consider them high on the list of must-listen-to this time of year. Their take on We Three Kings mashed together with the mission impossible theme is beyond epic.)
Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Instrumental)
posted by royalsong at 11:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Actually, you know what you should do? Go to AccuRadio and listen to the "Christmas Standards" channel. It basically is playing exactly what you are looking for (ie. the best known versions of classic christmas songs).
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


Merry Christmas Baby - EARTHA KITT

Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby & David Bowie

And you missed my personal favorite from the Rosalind Russel version of Mame....

We Need A Little Christmas

(Sorry, no link, but it's great!!! See the movie on Netflix:))
posted by jbenben at 11:45 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


You forgot my favorite, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), first performed by Darlene Love. I think hers is probably the definitive version, although I actually prefer U2's version.
posted by jabes at 11:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think that whether or not a given version of a carol is "the definitive" version in a person's opinion depends strongly on whose version that person heard first. A lot of these songs are standards that have been covered over and over and over and over and over and over by lots of people.

But that said, I have a couple notes, based on your list:

MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY: Eartha Kit? Madonna?

I think the song you're thinking of is actually called "Santa Baby" (the lyrics begin "Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree for me...") Eartha Kitt did indeed record the original version, but Madonna's version may have gotten a bit more play in the late 80's because she covered it for a charity album, and a lot of DJ's may have favored hers over Eartha's because your average Valley Girl would have thought, "Like, who's this Eartha Kitt person?"

CHIPMUNK SONG (CHRISTMAS DON’T BE LATE):

er, the definitive version of the Chipmunk's song is the one by the Chipmunks themselves.

SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN: Bruce Springsteen?

In some circles, yes. There are more straightforward covers by people like either Bing Crosby or such who get more play in other circles, but Bruce's version is the one I personally prefer. It depends on whether someone wants the "traditional christmas" approach, or the "rockin'" approach.

WINTER WONDERLAND: Eurythmics?

Not really - I think Annie Lennox's cover came on the same charity album that Madonna did. But it's one of the ones that everyone and their brother does, so have a listen to a bunch of them. (My mother had a Johnny Mathis Christmas album and that's the version I've heard most often.)

There are a couple of songs that you don't have listed that I can probably confidently say "belong" to certain people, as they're a bit more recent than some of the others you've mentioned and haven't been covered to death:

* Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, the juggernaut that launched a thousand concerts.

* The Vince Guaraldi Trio, Christmastime Is Here. From the CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS soundtrack. I've heard a few other people try to cover it, but the only version I hear hauled out on the radio over and over is this original.

* The Pogues, Fairytale Of New York. To this day, one of my favorite Christmas songs EVER.

* Wham's Last Christmas is kind of iconic in some quarters. Same too with Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmas Time and John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

* I'd also make a case for the Great Big Sea version of Come And I Will Sing You (The Twelve Apostles), but that may be because theirs is the only version I've heard (that's a carol that's popular in Newfoundland Canada, and less-well-known in the rest of the world).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:59 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Christmas Wrappings--The Waitresses. Honestly, I about died when I heard in in a VISA advertisement.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:10 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


The charity album EmpressCallipygos is referring to is "A Very Special Christmas". I actually think it is great and a lot of really popular renditions of Christmas songs come from that album. (Whitney Houston's version of "Do you hear what I hear" is the best ever version of that song, give it a listen.) Great renditions of songs from the second "Very Special Christmas" album as well. There are a whack more "very special christmas" albums but the first two are the best and definitely worth getting. A lot of current "definitive" versions of songs come from those albums.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:11 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just FYI, your list is not complete without this song, sung by Gayla Peevey.
posted by bricoleur at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Let It Snow: Ella Fitzgerald.

See also, with Louis Jordan: Baby, It's Cold Outside.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:16 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and don't forget "Last Christmas" by Wham!
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:16 PM on December 11, 2013


"We Need a Little Christmas" was on composer Jerry Herman's soundtrack for the Broadway musical Mame, which predated the film versions of Auntie Mame and really popularized the song. But the most radio-friendly version and probably best-known is Johnny Mathis'.
posted by Miko at 12:17 PM on December 11, 2013


Question is not "which is better" or " which do you prefer"; it is "which is the canonical version"
posted by ook at 12:17 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Feliz Navidad is totally pwned by its writer, Jose Feliciano. Wikipedia says it is one of the top 25 most played Christmas songs.
posted by Miko at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Silver Bells: Bing Crosby and Carol Richards. A movie soundtrack original, it was sung on his radio show and popularized in Christmas TV specials for many years after with many other duet partners, including Rosemary Clooney.
posted by Miko at 12:23 PM on December 11, 2013


Question is not "which is better" or " which do you prefer"; it is "which is the canonical version"

But "which is the canonical version" is often a nonexistant thing, so people are offering alternate suggestions.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY: Eartha Kit? Madonna?

Merry Christmas Baby: Otis Redding. Bruce Springsteen lifted his version in one piece for his own fantastic and now probably better-known cover.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2013


Nthing Little Drummer Boy, Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
A Holly Jolly Christmas, Burl Ives.
Frosty the Snowman, Jimmy Durante.
Silver and Gold, Burl Ives.
Silver Bells, Bing Crosby (with Bob Hope a decent 2nd).

Many of these, like "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful," don't have a canonical version. Surprising, but true.
posted by Melismata at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2013


I think the more traditional/older a song is, the less it can really have a canonical version. The 19th-century and earlier carols and old songs are a great example. We really only get even an idea of "canonical" with the birth of recorded sound. Even when there's a really good cover, in most cases I would give credit for "canonical" to the song's writer or original popularizer even above a great later cover. There are also a lot of metrics you could use - popularity, most downloads, most record sales, most used in advertising, biggest cult following, etc.
posted by Miko at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" is becoming canonical as done by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan. I don't know of anyone else who really owns those (despite my own great love of Aimee Mann's version of "God Rest Ye").

"(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" - definitely Perry Como.

I would give "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to Gene Autry and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" to Bing Crosby.

I MIGHT argue Dean Martin over Ella Fitzgerald for "Let It Snow."

FWIW, I swear that the canonical "Twelve Days of Christmas" these days either goes to the McKenzie Brothers or to John Denver and the Muppets. I don't know if anyone ever popularized a really straight version.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:30 PM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Hippo song is it, period.

But does this thread not mention Merry Christmas from the Fam-ah-lee? Bar pianist tell me it's a perennial favorite .
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:36 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, lord, Lesser Shrew. I never heard of this gem, and I just made a Christmas mix CD that it would have suited well.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:39 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


'Let it Snow' is probably the Dean Martin version for most folks. I feel like some of these (Angels We Have Heard on High, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem et all) are essentially hymns and the people who love them think of them first as choral pieces and not necessarily as something sung by one particular performer. So a "Traditional" version option?

Oh, and to contradic myself and it's not on your list, but I'd nominate Joan Baez's O Come O come Emmanuel.
posted by theweasel at 12:44 PM on December 11, 2013


It's worth taking a look at Wikipedia for a lot of these, if you haven't already. If anything, it'll tell you the best-selling versions of those songs, which a lot of the time = canonical.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:50 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the simple way to pick is to just search for the song on youtube and pick the artist that ends up on top.
posted by ckape at 1:16 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blue Christmas is clearly Patsy Cline, at least in my canon.
posted by machine at 1:26 PM on December 11, 2013


It's a new (relatively) entry to the fray, but I would definitely give Oh Holy Night to Josh Groban.
posted by lemniskate at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2013


This "List of Christmas Hit Singles in the US" from wikipedia has lots of info on who sang it first and who did versions that were also hits.
posted by girlpublisher at 1:51 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re: list on Wikipedia -- sorting by year helps.
posted by girlpublisher at 1:59 PM on December 11, 2013


It's not quite a carol per se, but River by Joni Mitchell gets a fair bit of play this time of year thanks to its opening line. I like it as a reprieve from some of the over-the-top BE JOLLY AND CHRISTMASSY, DAMMIT sentiments.

There are a ton of covers out there, but I've yet to find one that outshines Joni's original.
posted by ActionPopulated at 2:11 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Considered by whom? Because I consider the versions of the songs on this album by Low to be the definitive versions of those songs.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:39 PM on December 11, 2013


Wow really great stuff everyone. This gives me a lot of merry little rabbit holes to chase down. :^) And I guess I should note that, yes, certainly many people are going to have different perceptions about "definitive." Also, I am sure there are some popular songs I left off that list, because, like I said, I am just now getting around to actually paying attention to Christmas music.

Anyway, thanks so much! And happy to field more suggestions!
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:09 PM on December 11, 2013


Christmas is All Around by Billy Mack
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:44 PM on December 11, 2013


Shawn Colvin's version of "Have Yoursel a Merry Little Christmas" is one I've always enjoyed.
posted by jrchaplin at 6:28 PM on December 11, 2013


Around my house, the definitive version of Jingle Bells is by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:09 PM on December 11, 2013


Growing up as a kid, it was always exciting when this commercial for Time-Life's "Treasury of Christmas" collection started airing on TV before school.

But some of those choices definitely wouldn't be "definitive," like "The Christmas Song," which would be Nat King Cole instead of the Carpenters. And despite all the Christmas albums I've heard, I can't recall hearing any version of "Holly Jolly Christmas" besides Burl Ives'.

It also has Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," but I would argue for Hall & Oates' version. If anything, people know it from the classic cheesy video.

I think John Williams' orchestral version of Sleigh Ride (with its neighing horse trumpet climax) would have to be on the "definitive list," and seems to get regular radio time each air.

And "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" has to be Springsteen, especially with its "spoken word" intro.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:38 PM on December 11, 2013


I could take up an argument about John Williams. Though he also produced a recording of it during his time with the Pops (as did Kieth Lockhart), it's not his, and I'd argue that the "canonical" recording was the first recording. "Sleigh Ride" is an original composition by Leroy Anderson for the Boston Pops Orchestra. The famous (definitive) recording was made in 1949 by the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Wikipedia says the Fiedler recording is the "first pure orchestral piece to reach #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts." The Fiedler recording also has the hoofbeats and horse whinny at the end, so I think they're part of the composition.

I like Williams' a lot - it's brassier and more energetic, and the tempo seems noticeably faster. I think it's more radio-friendly because of that. But I think that almost every aspect of the arrangement was set at the beginning, and he just added a little nuance.
posted by Miko at 6:06 AM on December 12, 2013


dlugoczaj, if the gem you are talking about is "I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," bricoleur mentioned it first and didn't get credit in my mention because my phone was acting up.

If Robert Earl Keen was new to you, then you are welcome and where have you been? Are you an American? Who won the last world series?

Alaska Jack - Although not definitive in any way shape or form (unless BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC have contrary data) the Elf's Lament by the Barenaked Ladies also puts me in an eggnog mood. (So does "Walking Round In Women's Underwear" so, you know, not exactly the Xmas type.)

The songs from Rankin-Bass holiday specials are pretty darn popular.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:52 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's some confusion about the canonical "Baby it's Cold Outside;" although it sounds like it could be Bing Crosby and Doris Day it's actually Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting.

Accept no substitutes!
posted by AV at 5:02 PM on December 12, 2013


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