25 Christmas and Holiday songs, videos and stories that will lift up your soul.
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” – Elton John
“Music is a weapon in the war against unhappiness.” – Jason Mraz
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” ― Kahlil Gibran
Music has a mystical power to make us feel better. No matter what dark mood we might be in, hearing the right music at the right time can transform a frown upside down. It can make out bodies come alive and our spirits soar. Christmas music takes that power and multiplies it tenfold.
December is a magical month for many of us, and much of it has to do with the winter solstice and the darkness that covers the Northern Hemisphere. (I have written about it here before.) Both religious and secular traditions have been built around this time of year, and the music that accompanies this transitional time of year can be both festive and inspiring. Here are some of my favorites, in alphabetical order, for lifting spirits and improving mood and mental health during the darkest time of the calendar year. In many cases these songs have been performed many times by many performers, but these are the best and most inspiring versions I have found.
All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is an iconic American singer, and she broke out in 1994 with this memorable, uptempo Christmas song about love and how it's more important than material goods. Carey has been deemed the "Queen of Christmas" thanks to this song, which has permeated all over the world with its joyful, happy melody. It's been seen in movies, most famously "Love Actually," and has been recognized for breaking records in music streaming and sales. The performance below, at Disney World, is one of my favorites.
I don't want a lot for Christmas This is all I'm asking for (I) I just wanna see my baby Standing right outside my door
I just want you for my own (ooh) More than you could ever know (ooh) Make my wish come true Baby, all I want for Christmas is you (you, baby)
Carol of the Bells
This song was originally a Ukrainian folk song to celebrate the new year in April. Originally titled Shchedrik and written by composer Mykola Leontovich, this song combines beautiful vocal harmonies in a beautiful melody. Leontovich debuted the song in 1916 as a tribute to the bounty that a new year can bring. Americans changed the song into a Christmas song with new lyrics in 1936. In either Ukrainian or English, it is beautiful.
Christmas, Baby Please Come Home- Darlene Love
This song has become something of a Christmas staple, and was performed first by Darlene Love in 1963 at the age of 19. It's been featured in many movies and television shows since, and tells a bittersweet tale of a person missing their loved one. With that, it is a joyful and uplifting testimony to the season and how even missing someone can be a reason to celebrate. Love performed the song below on the David Letterman show at the age of 70 in 2014, after having beaten cancer. Magical.
The church bells in town
All ringing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home
They're singing "Deck The Halls"
But it's not like Christmas at all
'Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year
Pretty lights on the tree
I'm watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home
Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Trans-Siberian Orchestra has ridden this arrangement of popular Christmas tunes to stardom, with a unique blend of violins, electric guitars, and full orchestral music. It combines music from God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Carol of the Bells into a unique story that I only recently heard about that was the inspiration for the song. The story is more magical than the song, but it adds another dimension that inspires us as we listen.
Here is the story, as told by Paul O'Neill to Christianity Today:
... "We heard about this cello player born in Sarajevo many years ago who left when he was fairly young to go on to become a well-respected musician, playing with various symphonies throughout Europe. Many decades later, he returned to Sarajevo as an elderly man—at the height of the Bosnian War, only to find his city in complete ruins.
"I think what most broke this man's heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart and Beethoven as the city was bombed.
"He came every night and began playing Christmas Carols from that same spot. It was just such a powerful image—a white-haired man silhouetted against the cannon fire, playing timeless melodies to both sides of the conflict amid the rubble and devastation of the city he loves. Some time later, a reporter traced him down to ask why he did this insanely stupid thing. The old man said that it was his way of proving that despite all evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.
"The song basically wrapped itself around him. We used some of the oldest Christmas melodies we could find, like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells" part of the medley (which is from Ukraine, near that region). The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope. "
The Christmas Song- Nat King Cole
Better known by its opening line, "Chestnuts Roasting By An Open Fire", The Christmas Song has been immortalized for its warm, smooth, and mellow invitation to Christmas season happiness. Written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, the song was first performed by Nat King Cole in the 1940's. He added stringed instruments to the arrangement to get the iconic sound that comes from the 1961 version depicted below. Nat King Cole was the first black performer who had his own televised variety show, (starting in 1956 on NBC), and he was a pioneer and inspiration. This song was his most famous one, and he died in 1965, shortly after he reached his zenith.
Christmas Wrapping The Waitresses
In 1981 an obscure new wave group called The Waitresses introduced this catchy song that has endured to become a classic. It tells the story of a young woman who has had enough of Christmas and wants to stay in, but keeps thinking about a cute guy who she just keeps missing connections. By the end of the song they bump into each other on Christmas eve at an all-night grocery, and there's a happy ending.
Christmas Wrapping was written by Chris Butler, an admitted Scrooge, who was assigned by his record label to come up with a festive Christmas song. The songs success and longevity has surprised its composer, and the band broke up in 1984.
Do They Know It's Christmas? Band Aid
This song was one of the first joint efforts by musicians to make the world a better place. Composed by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984, Do They Know It's Christmas? was a response to the hunger crisis in Ethiopia of that time. The song sold over 2 million copies and raised over $24 million dollars, enough to inspire remakes in 1989, 2004, and 2014, each time with different artists and a different cause. The original version was sung with famous artists from the UK and Ireland, including Sting, Bono, George Michael, Boy George, Phil Collins, and many more.
It's Christmastime There's no need to be afraid At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
But say a prayer, pray for the other ones At Christmastime, it's hard but when you're having fun There's a world outside your window And it's a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears And the Christmas bells that ring there Are the clanging chimes of door Well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime The greatest gift they'll get this year is life, oh Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow Do they know it's Christmastime at all?
Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano
While just starting out in the 1960's, Jose Feliciano almost killed his career with a disastrous performance of the national anthem where he changed the arrangement. This song followed in 1970 to save his career and cement him in Christmas song history. Feliciano was born blind due to a genetic condition, and his acoustic guitar arrangements made him one of the most famous musicians to come from Puerto Rico ever.
Hallelujah Chorus- Handel's Messiah
This inspiring piece was composed by George Frideric Handel in 1741, and it has lived on for nearly three centuries now, becoming a Christmas staple. The entire Messiah composition comes in three acts and is over two hours long, but this chorus is the most famous part. It incorporates soprano and bass voices in beautiful harmonies that express the joy of the birth of Jesus. You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate the music, and I recommend everybody try to see a performance in person with the full decorative Christmas atmosphere. Talk about uplifting.
Happy Xmas (War is Over) John Lennon
John Lennon broke up with the Beatles in 1970, and this song came out in 1971. It's a different kind of Christmas song, with a trademark Lennon/Ono political message- war is bad. When released, the Vietnam War was in its last few years and protests were still common in the United States. The song was accompanied by a billboard campaign in major cities with giant billboards saying "War is over, if you want it- Happy Christmas, John and Yoko". What's amazing to me is how he crafted a protest song that's still beautiful and uplifting. The Harlem Community Choir provides background vocals, and this song has persisted and been covered by many other performers. War contradicts everything that Christmas is about- love, fellowship, and kindness, and this is the only song that takes it on directly while still being inspirational.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Judy Garland
This song is slow and melancholy, yet one of the most uplifting and inspiring once you think about it. Originally written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin for the MGM movie, "Meet Me In St. Louis," the song is sung by Judy Garland to her little sister as they prepare to move across the country. The little sister, precocious little Margaret O'Brien then proceeds to cry after the song ends and runs outside to destroy all the snow people that she built. This inspires the father to cancel the move and let the movie end triumphantly at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is actually about World War 2, and the many people who were separated at the time that the film was made and released. It's a song for a troubled time, and it inspires those who yearn for family, normalcy, and love in times of turmoil.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Let your heart be light From now on Our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Make the yuletide gay From now on Our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days Happy golden days of yore Faithful friends who are dear to us Gather near to us, once more
Through the years We all will be together If the fates allow Hang a shining star Upon the highest bough And have yourself a merry little Christmas right now
Joy to the World
The roots of this Christmas staple are complex, and go back to 1719 and a man named Isaac Watts who used inspiration from the bible and music from Handel to come up with this iconic song. Joy to the World is the most published hymn in North America and has been covered for centuries by many famous musicians.
What strikes me about this song is its joyfulness and grandiosity, striking universal themes of joy, love, truth and grace. I was impressed to see the comments for the Celtic Women's version (below) that included statements from Hindu and Muslim viewers saying how much they enjoyed it. There seems to be a divide in holiday music between religious and secular, or between Christian and non-Christian, that misses the entire point of the season, and maybe this is one song that can cross that divide.
Last Christmas- Wham
George Michael and Wham wrote this song back in 1984, and it's a sappy love song that I had not intended on including in this list. Then I saw the 2019 movie by the same name with Emilia Clark, aka the Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones, and I fell in love with it. This surprising movie about redemption with a twist ends in a homeless shelter with everybody wearing Christmas lights. It doesn't get much more magical than that.
Merry Christmas- Ed Sheeran and Elton John
This song came out in December 2021 and had nearly 25 million views in just a few weeks. It's a fun song by two of music's superstars, and time will tell if it has staying power to become a new classic. In true Christmas Spirit both stars announced the UK profits from the song would be donated to their respective charitable foundations.
Nutcracker Suite- Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker was a ballet written in 1892 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It was originally unsuccesful, but was picked up by Walt Disney in the movie Fantasia and has been a popular Christmas staple ever since. The ballet tells an intricate story of a young girl, Clara, and her adventures into a magical land of sugar plum fairies and nutcracker princes. It is a roughly 90 minute ballet, and only some of the more popular segments are well-known at Christmas time, such as the below.
Riu Chiu- Portuguese carol, 16th century
I recently discovered this song on the Monkees Christmas episode. It is sung a capella without any instruments, and is hauntingly beautiful, albeit from a goofy rock and roll band not known for Christmas songs.
Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer- Burl Ives
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was first introduced in book form in 1939, and then immortalized by Rankin-Bass in a 1964 special that lives on to this day. The story of the oddball and outcast reindeer and his elf companion spoke to many who felt judged by their differences. Santa was portrayed somewhat as a jerk in this special, but all was redeemed just as in any good Christmas story. I will always treasure the stop-motion animation that I first saw in this iconic special, and the song went on to be a huge hit for singer Burl Ives and composer Johnny Marks. Also included in that special was Holly Jolly Christmas, another popular tune that almost made this list. Multiple sequels have been inspired by this song, all spawned by a misfit reindeer that saved Christmas.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
This Christmas staple came to us in 1934, written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. It has been sung by many popular artists, and it rose in popularity after the 1970 Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated special starring Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire. The legend of Santa Claus had been growing in the US since the mid 19th century, and this song and special added a bit more to the story, making Santa even more real. My favorite instance of this song in popular culture, though, is at the finale of the movie Elf, when Zoe Deschanel starts a movement and saves Christmas with this song.
Silent Night has an interesting origin story in that it was created by an Austrian priest, Franz Gruber and organist Joseph Mohr as a last-minute replacement song for a church service when the organ broke down. Silent Night is a beautiful, peaceful vocal song and requires no accompaniment by other instruments, and it has lived on into history after having been translated from the original German into dozens of languages. The song also made history in 1914 as the instigator for the famous Christmas Eve truce during World War I when soldiers put down their weapons after hearing the song. The song tells the story of the nativity and is a popular carol in both religious and secular settings.
There are too many wonderful performances of Silent Night to count, but the one below by Jackie Evancho at age 10, with Katherine Jenkins is perfect.
Someday at Christmas- Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is a most talented musician and composer, and this little 1967 gem flew under the radar next to many of his blockbuster hits. The song is sweet and mellow, but the lyrics are what deliver the largest emotional punch. This song came out during the Vietnam War amidst the protests against the war and racism. While it failed to reach the top of the charts, it has endured and it's message embodies the Christmas spirit.
Someday at Christmas men won't be boys Playing with bombs like kids play with toys One warm December our hearts will see A world where men are free
Someday at Christmas there 'll be no wars When we have learned what Christmas is for When we have found what life's really worth There' ll be peace on earth
Someday all our dreams will come to be Someday in a world where men are free Maybe not in time for you and me But someday at Christmastime
Someday at Christmas we'll see a land With no hungry children, no empty hand One happy morning people will share Our world where people care
Whoa, someday at Christmas there 'll be no tears When all men are equal and no man has fears One shining moment one prayer away From our world today
Someday all our dreams will come to be Someday in a world where men are free Maybe not in time for you and me But someday at Christmastime
Someday at Christmas man will not fail Hate will be gone and love will prevail Someday a new world that we can start With hope in every heart, yeah
(Someday in a world where men are free) Maybe not in time for you and me But someday at Christmastime Someday at Christmastime
Underneath the Tree- Kelly Clarkson
This song debuted in 2013 and has quickly become a Christmas classic. It's upbeat tempo and positive message remind me a lot of Mariah Carey's classic Christmas song, but they are both excellent tributes to love over stuff. Kelly Clarkson first made fame as the original winner of American Idol, and this song cements her reputation as a world-class singer.
I found, what I was looking for
A love that's meant for me
A heart that's mine completely
Knocked me right off my feet
And this year I will fall
With no worries at all
'Cause you are near and everything's clear
You're all I need
Underneath the tree
We Need a Little Christmas- Mame
Mame was a Broadway musical from 1966 that's now mostly forgotten, but it spawned this Christmas classic that's been borrowed by Johnny Mathis, the Muppets, and Disney World at every Christmas parade. The song takes place after Mame loses everything in the crash of 1929 and decides to perk up everyone's spirits with Christmas decorations. The original performance was by the wonderful Angela Lansbury, and the movie version featured Lucille Ball, (a legendary comedienne and not much of a singer), but it still shows us how this wonderful song inspires those who may be down at Christmas time.
For I've grown a little leaner Grown a little colder Grown a little sadder Grown a little older And I need a little angel Sitting on my shoulder Need a little Christmas now
For we need a little music Need a little laughter Need a little singing, ringing through the rafter And we need a little snappy Happy ever after Need a little Christmas now
Trivia question- name the best selling single of all time according to Guiness. Well that would be White Christmas, by Bing Crosby. The song debuted in 1942 in the movie Holiday Inn, and would be repeated by Crosby in another movie, White Christmas. It was a gigantic hit, and one of the first secular Christmas songs that hit it big. Ironically, the song was written by a Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin. The mellow, slow song that became the most popular song of all time is amazingly short and simple- just 9 lines repeated twice with feeling.
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
Wonderful Christmastime- Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney is one of the great music composers and performers of his generation. While the Beatles never came up with an original holiday song, McCartney released this song on his own in 1979 a decade after the Beatles broke up. (Though the Beatles did do some Christmas messages for their fan club) The song is a current Christmas staple, earning McCartney hundreds of thousands every year. It's a light-hearted song and incorporates synths, sleigh bells, and special effects for a unique sound.