Growing up as a little Jew kid, I didn’t pay much attention to Christmas. I knew it was everywhere once December rolled around, but maybe I was too distracted by the whirl of my own dreidel to notice. This also included the songs pouring out of the radio which somehow went right in one of this pitzl’s ear and out the other. But as a grown-up, when the holidays came around, I finally started to take notice and appreciate the appeal of these iconic sounds of the season. Listening closer than ever, I began to amass a list of my own top picks. Here, and not without a hefty dose of reflection and worry that my tribe is known for, are A Jew’s Ranking of the 20 Best Christmas Songs Ever.
20. “Feliz Navidad” – Jose Feliciano
If a Christmas song is going to have verses in a foreign language besides English (and it’s not Hebrew), then Spanish would be my next likely choice. “Feliz Navidad” is actually pretty basic and repetitive – some could argue that “Row Row Row Your Boat” may contain a grander narrative arc – but you must give it credit for sticking to its message. Bottom line, the song is a delight and reminds us that “Merry Christmas” will sound different when spoken in other places around the world, but the feeling of excitement and joy it contains is universal.
19. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” – Elmo and Patsy
If this song didn’t rock your December when it began its heavy radio rotation in 1984, then you probably weren’t born yet. From what my gentile friends tell me, the concept of death is the exact opposite of what Christmas is all about. So when you combine the two into a side-splitting holiday ditty, you blow the snow off the roof. Sounding like it was hatched out of a Christmas song lab housed in a trailer park, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” takes low-class humor to the very highest level.
18. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – Gene Autry
Around Christmastime everyone’s favorite underdog is a reindeer. Youngsters can be cruel, and in this classic song that cruelty even extends to reinfawn. One might think that having a buddy with a glowing red nose would be something to embrace. But Rudolph is a castaway, like say, oh I don’t know… a Jew on Christmas! So when he is enlisted to save Christmas by employing what made him an outcast in the first place, everyone of every religion and species are left to celebrate the inspirational nature of his mitzvah. (Hannukah Harry would experience a similar triumph on “SNL” in the 80s.) Recorded by a reluctant Gene Autry in 1949, this heartwarming tale gives both outcasts and incasts alike a reason to shout out with glee.
17. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams
I imagine this is also a favorite of say, Macy’s or Walmart, because “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sounds like a song to shop by. Whirling and fast-paced, it conjures the hustle and bustle of the season better than most. There are no quiet moments by the fire in a toasty living room curled up with a sweater-clad sweetheart here. This song registers best at the cash register. Or the food court at a table brimming with Sbarro or Cinnabon containers.
16. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – Johnny Mathis
This song always creeped me out, maybe because it started to play right before Stripe and Co. attacked Billy’s mom in “Gremlins.” But as I’ve aged and ceased being afraid of little green men ambushing me in the kitchen – this occurred sometime in my late twenties – I acknowledge how soaring and affecting it really is. Though the subject matter is a little too inside for this Jew to fully grasp, the building vocals and sweeping score of “Do You Hear I What Hear?” definitely takes hold of you.
15. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – Band Aid
Our list’s second consecutive yuletide question, this anthem ushered in the charitable supergroup tracks born out of the 80s. Coming straight from the UK, it really is a thrill to hear Boy George, George Michael, Bono, Sting, Simon Le Bon and the dude from Spandau Ballet, all in their prime, sharing the mic. (Allegedly Boy George had to be forced out of bed and onto a Concord to get to the studio at all, where he promptly tried to start a catfight with George Michael. Boy will be Boy, I guess.) Before Black Friday became its own national holiday, I understand charity and Christmas were once actually linked. “Do They Know It’s Christmas’ ” plea to “Feed the World” was a product of that bygone philosophy, and reminded us all how lucky we non-desert dwellers should feel for the everyday gifts our industrialized societies provide us.
14. “Little St. Nick” – The Beach Boys
Not quite as simple as “Feliz Navidad,” but clocking in at just 2 minutes and 7 seconds, “Little Saint Nick” is no “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” either. While some might mistake the song to be perhaps a Santa origin story, its title actually refers to his sled. Cars were a regular subject of Beach Boys songs, so their contribution to the Christmas cannon cleverly fits into a well-traveled theme of their music. In their world, Santa’s sleigh is a beauty of a hot rod, made even more fine flying to their singular California sound.
13. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” – Frank Sinatra
It’s not because I love the movie “Die Hard” so much that I’ve chosen to add this song. It’s really all about Frank. The big band sound, the horns, and the backup chorus are all phenomenal. But it’s Frank’s chill tones uplifting “Let it Snow!” along with his trademark cool that makes this Jew lose his over this glorious seasonal standard. Lyrically, you’ve got all the trappings of the Holiday here – the roaring fire, the corn for popping, the blizzardy outside cold, yet not one elfin’ mention of Christmas! Doesn’t matter. “Let it Snow!” unmistakably holds the keys to the Christmas spirit, and this Jew wants in!
12. “Holly Jolly Christmas” – Burl Ives
I’ve never had a “Holly Jolly Christmas.” And since I wouldn’t know, I can’t really be sure if I’ve had a Holly Jolly anything. But listening to Burl Ives’ bouncy, irresistible tune leaves me with a pretty good idea of what it’s all about. In a short amount of time, Ives doles out precious advice and wishes for the season concerning friendship, joy, grace, and affection. They are simple concepts with long-lasting effects that, under his wise oversight, could last willing followers all the way through to the following winter.
11. “Jingle Bell Rock” – Bobby Helms
This song is such a Christmas staple one might be willing to believe, if it weren’t for the perfectly placed beat of the electric guitar, that it actually predated the birth of your Lord and Savior. Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” is considered the first mainstream Rock ‘n Roll Christmas song. And the fact that he, like co-lister Gene Autry, was a country crooner, is evidence that all styles of music can take universal form when decorated in the sound of the yuletide season. When listening to “Jingle Bell Rock” one can’t decide whether they first want to dance or mosey. It’s Christmas for pete’s sake! Why not do both?
10. “Frosty the Snowman” – Jimmy Durante
The only thing more magical than Frosty’s hat is the voice of Jimmy Durante bringing the tale of the world’s most seminal snowman to life. Like “Rudolph,” “Frosty the Snowman” is no doubt a children’s story, but I suspect many an adult find themselves turning the volume up when this gem begins to play on the radio (or whatever newfangled musical device Santa has left for them under the tree). Durante is by no means a sweet-voiced serenader, but some of the greatest treats on a Christmas table are the salty ones, right? Or at least that’s what they tell me.
9. “Christmastime is Here” – Vince Guaraldi
I have to be honest with you: the holy harmonies of a Christmas choir make this Jew a bit uneasy. As uneasy, I suspect, as I might find myself having to spend one winter’s night in a manger made entirely of bacon. But when that choir consists of a boy in a yellow shirt with a black zigzag stripe and his closest friends, I’d happily join it. Their hopeful, prideful voices atop jazzy notes of percussion, piano, and bass are gifts from above, I know.
8. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Brenda Lee
Rock and Christmas, as we’ve seen, go together like charoset and matzah. Here is another helping of a song recorded by a country artist tempting us to hop around in our Christmas socks. The cherished images are also all here – mistletoe, boughs of holly, jolly voices – born brighter by frolicking electric guitar and saxophone. But there is nothing common about “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” and the knowledge that singer Brenda Lee was just 13-years-old when she recorded it in 1958 gives her nickname, “Little Miss Dynamite,” that much more firepower.
7. “Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses
Usually a Jew has little choice but to spend Christmas alone. For our “Christmas Wrapping” narrator, however, that solitariness is her mission. The year has gone by in one overwhelming blur, leaving her no energy nor desire to participate in the non-stop activity the Holiday brings. The lyric “Bah Humbug” kicks off this rollicking New Wave classic, yet it vividly captures the joy of the season like all of the rest. Best laid plans are all well and good, but fate has other ideas and, in an instant, her Christmas, intended to be forgotten, becomes one that she never will.
6. “Sleigh Ride” – The Ronettes
Yes, Christmas is the time when herald angels sing, but this Jew will take Ronnie Spector’s voice instead any day of the year. Though you can’t see it, it sparkles like tinsel and warms and chills you both at the same time. Another rockin’ entry on our list, “Sleigh Ride” soars above the highest, most inviting chimneys carrying as much delight as all of Santa’s cargo will bring.
5. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – Perry Como
Back before kids were appealing to Santa for Xboxes, Tickle Me Elmos, or Red Rider BB Guns, Hopalong boots were the coveted item as we discover in Perry Como’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The song celebrates the first signs of Christmas that begin to pop up around Anytown, USA, which if we judge by the aisles of Target or Costco, now begin around June. Christmas coursed through Como’s veins and his fatherly voice really does make it begin to feel like Christmas, even for those of us dusting off our menorahs.
4. “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt
Historically, while the Christmas songs that preceded it were wholesome musings about family, nostalgia, and faith, “Santa Baby” broke out from that mold in 1953 and became something entirely different. A novelty song, voiced by the sultry Eartha Kitt, who poises to take Santa’s wallet on one wild sleigh ride. She’s got astronomically expensive tastes and reminds Santa that if he doesn’t want anyone else coming down her chimney, he’d better deliver. As far as we’re concerned, he can have her. We’ll just dig this golden standard from a safe distance. All the way over in Jerusalem sounds about right.
3. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Bruce Springsteen
I’m not just a Jew, I’m also from Jersey, and there Springsteen is our Lord. His “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a divine masterpiece recorded live in ’75 on Long Island. Sleigh bells, a saxophone, and The Boss’ gravelly pipes all wrap up into one perfect present. And when Bruce can’t contain his laughter at the end, well that’s the bow that ties it all together.
2. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby
All Christians know that Bing Crosby is the Judah Maccabee of yuletide crooners. Sure, a sweatered Andy Williams may have been known as “Mr. Christmas” and Perry Como satisfied like the kick from a cup of egg nog, but Crosby was the King, newborn, oldborn, any level of being imaginable. He tackled all of the most famous Christmas songs and scored with them all. “White Christmas” though was his crown jewel and defines the scope and depth of this Holiday’s landscape like none other. It’s slow and nostalgic and dreamy. As long as “White Christmas” is part of the season’s soundtrack, all of our Christmases… sorry, your Christmases, will be bright.
1. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love
Darlene Love’s electric Christmas opus is more energetic than nine Bar Mitzvahs, four Purim carnivals, and one Boca Raton Mah Jong tournament combined. A lovers’ reunion is her only Christmas wish and she doesn’t just sing about it like the other artists on this list, she belts it out with a voice as big as the sea. We’ve heard of many a snowstorm inside these favorites’ lyrics. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is in itself an earthquake, bound to snag Santa’s attention, and for certain this Jew’s, and powerful enough for him to crown hers the Best Christmas Song Ever.