Christmas Music I Hate and Love: In Search of the Perfect Playlist

So you’re going along with your life, over-worked, over-stressed and looking to catch a break. Instead, December shows up, the sun disappears for all practical purposes at 4 p.m. and yet the expectations go to mach speed, stress-to-the-max and they have the nerve to call it a holiday. Never mind that you are insanely busy. They want you to put on Spanx and pantyhose and go out to parties. Seriously. Who are they kidding?

Yes, I have been known get a little testy around this time of year. Exactly the opposite of what I want to be feeling in the Advent season, but yet once again peace and good will elude me.  And nothing makes me testier than a zingy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. It happened again the other night. The CE and I were blissfully trimming the tree with Christmas carols playing in the background and there it was, complete with hokey honky-tonk piano in the background. Followed up with “Jingle Bell Rock”,  no less. Way to kill the Christmas spirit!

I know, I know, we all have different tastes, and maybe you just love a good “Jingle Bell Rock“. Enjoy it. You can have it all to yourself.

Here are my top fifteen* (because ten is just not enough) curated choices for best holiday music. But please feel free to add your suggestions so I can finally build the perfect Christmas playlist. Just do me a favor and don’t include any suggestions with the word “Rock” in them.


The Air Force Singing Sergeants (image from

The Air Force Singing Sergeants (image from

15. “Carol of the Bells” sung by U.S. Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants

Some songs are meant to be sung a cappella and this is one of them. Less is more and this spirited and cheerful version is a keeper. Thinking of all our troops who are away from home this holiday.

14. “The Holly & the Ivy” sung by The Mediaeval Baebes

It’s all about the harmonies with this 15th century British carol.

Holly and ivy are traditionally associated with Christmas in Britain. Here they grow together in Wales. (Wikipedia image)

Holly and ivy are traditionally associated with Christmas in Britain. Here they grow together in Wales. (Wikipedia image)


13. “In the Bleak Midwinter” sung by Jars of Clay

There are many terrific choral versions of this carol written by English poet Christina Rossetti, but the Jars of Clay version is tender and affecting – and you can actually understand the words.


12. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by Mariah Carey

My recent concession to the popular secular holiday song. All I heard up and down Fifth Avenue over Thanksgiving was Mariah singing her signature Christmas offering. I have to say, it grew on me, especially when the Salvation Army bell-ringers danced to it. Too bad Mariah blew it at Rockefeller Center, but hey, there’s always next year. I saw Mariah step out of an elevator of a mid-town hotel a few years back, and she was a-ma-zing. You can get back there again, Mariah! Focus, girl!

When she brings it, she's the best. (image from

When she brings it, she’s the best. (image from


11. “River” written and sung by Joni Mitchell

Not your classic Christmas song, but this exquisite classic of the way love and loss inevitably imbue the holiday season is as good as it gets. Just like Joni.

A Joni classic. (image from

A Joni classic. (image from

10.  “Mary, Did You Know” sung by Mary J. Blige

This song would be higher on my list if I could find the right version. It is a gorgeous and mystical song but almost every rendition is overwrought and ruins the delicacy of the narrative. Mary J. Blige gives it a good shot. I also like Erin O’Donnell’s version. But I’m still looking for the perfect cover of this lovely song. Can you find it for me?

9. “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” sung by Amy Grant, who also wrote the lyrics.

So beautiful and so moving. “Breath of Heaven, hold me together, Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven, Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy, Breath of Heaven…” 

"Breath of Heaven is on this album. Unfortunately, so is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"...

“Breath of Heaven is on this album. Unfortunately, so is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”…

8. I just can’t decide, so it’s a tie; the old and the new. Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song” and Sam Smith’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Both are timeless and spot on.

7. Celtic Harp Music from “Best of Celtic Christmas Music”. Sometimes you don’t need words.

6. “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” sung by Linda Rondstadt

More correctly entitled “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (A rose has sprung up) this 16th century hymn is one of my favorites, but it never seems to make the department store playlists. I would like to hear it more.

5. Do You Hear What I Hear? sung by Whitney Houston.

Again, the singer makes the song with this one, and the run-of-the-mill choral renditions just don’t quite work for me. Whitney’s version might be a bit too plodding, almost clipped in places, but so far it’s the best I’ve found because she glories in the high notes.

Sarah McLachlan's "Wintersong" is an enduring Christmas album favorite.

Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong” is an enduring Christmas album favorite.

4. Silent Night sung by Sarah McLachlan

One of my favorite moments of Christmas is when, at the end of a church service, candles are passed and communally lit, and “Silent Night” is sung in a round. Did you know that during the Christmas truce of 1914, the song was sung by troops simultaneously in English, French and German? I like Sarah McLachlan’s version of this and almost every other Christmas song she does because she knows not to overdo it – she lets the music shine.

3. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” performed by Grover Washington, Jr. on the album “Martha Stewart Living Music: Jazz for the Holidays”

J.S. Bach hit it out of the park with this one. One of the few songs of which we never tire, and just in case the classical treatments are wearing thin for you, Grover Washington’s jazz interpretation is smooth and lighthearted, perfect for Christmas dinner background music.

More annoying than ever: Is there anything she can't do?

More annoying than ever: Is there anything she can’t do?


2. “O Holy Night” sung by Susan Boyle

This is where I need help. This is one of the most moving songs of the entire Christmas canon. And yet, I cannot find a satisfying performance of it to add to my playlist. Yes, I know Celine Dion sings it. And Mariah. And even Faith Hill and Jewel.  I must be too picky, because none of them quite work for me. It has to be a female soprano for those soaring high notes. For now, I’m going with Susan Boyle’s clean and understated version.


1. “Ave Maria” sung by Maria Callas

This is the winner:  the most beautiful and heart-wrenching performance I have ever heard. Frustratingly, I cannot find it on iTunes – they only have the “Ave Maria” from the opera Otello, which is a different piece of music. If I could have one gift for Christmas, it would be this on my holiday playlist:

Hope your days are merry and bright and filled with great Christmas music!


*all songs except Callas’ “Ave Maria” can be found on iTunes

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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2 Responses to Christmas Music I Hate and Love: In Search of the Perfect Playlist

  1. alexandra says:

    I second #9! And any/every Christmas song by Amy Grant.

  2. Katherine says:

    “O Holy Night” makes me weep any day of the year.
    I’d have to add Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s duet of Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – but perhaps that’s because the juxtaposition of these two is so improbable.

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