Of the myriad traditional Christmas songs, do you think you could choose just one favourite? Really…? We asked 10 traditional singers to do just that – a clear winner, shining like a star, merrily on high above all others – because who doesn’t enjoy being a little bit of a Scrooge during the season of goodwill? Not us.
However, they totally called our bluff by choosing an amazing variety of songs and carols that celebrate, honour and explore the stories and customs of Christmas. We’re not really suggesting that this is list of the actual best traditional Christmas songs ever, but instead a chance to dig deeper into what gets a song to the top of someone’s list.
Keep reading to find out more about their choices – they’ve even pointed you in the direction of one or two recordings of each song (you can find most of these in a handy Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page too), but other than that, we’ll leave it to our singers to tell you what’s so special about their favourite Christmas song.
Coventry Carol: chosen by Angeline Morrison
Roud number: 19028
Why have you chosen the ‘Coventry Carol’?
I love the ‘Coventry Carol’ for its mysterious beauty and melancholy. It is a lullaby sung to a baby whose life is in danger, and the lyrics and melody are so eloquent about the collective agony of the mothers. The song tells the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, a particularly dark part of the Nativity narrative where King Herod of Judea orders the massacre of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem (Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18).
What’s special about this song?
The song has a fascinating history; it was very nearly lost forever. Originally, the song was part of the Coventry Mystery or Miracle Plays for the Feast of Corpus Christi (which took place in midsummer). This was one of three songs in the Nativity section, performed by the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors. Interestingly, some believe that this song would have been the only part of the Mystery Plays performed by women. There’s also a Brummie connection (more about that in a moment), which of course appeals to me…
Can you tell us more about its history?
The version we know is thought to have been composed around 1530, and noted down by Robert Croo. Here’s where it gets quite exciting. Croo’s precious manuscript was stored in Birmingham Central Library. In an accident in 1879, involving a workman trying to thaw some frozen gas pipes and setting fire to a pile of wood shavings instead, the library was engulfed by flames. Croo’s manuscript was destroyed, along with much other material relating to the Coventry plays.
It’s only thanks to Thomas Sharp, a Coventry antiquarian who had copied out Croo’s manuscript in 1817 and printed a few copies to sell, that we still have this hauntingly beautiful carol…
Suggested recording: The Young Tradition/Shirley Collins/Dolly Collins – The Holly Bears The Crown
Find out more about Angeline Morrison on her Bandcamp page.
On Christmas Day: chosen by Cohen Braithewaite-Kilcoyne
Roud number: 1078
Why have you chosen this song?
As someone that’s neither religious nor a particular fan of the Christmas festivities, there aren’t a huge number of Christmas songs that excite me, but this song is a real exception. I first heard it performed by Spiers and Boden on their album ‘Songs’, and the first thing that struck me is the mysterious melody. The song has one of those tunes that can’t really decide what it wants to be – it doesn’t seem to conform to a single time signature and is fairly ambiguous modally as well, which gives the melody a real chilling quality, perfectly matching the song’s narrative.
What’s interesting about ‘On Christmas Day’?
The song tells the story of a farmer who is cursed by Jesus for going out to plough on Christmas day. I find this character of the ‘vengeful Jesus’ that appears occasionally in English folksongs (‘Bitter Withy’ is another great example) to be fascinating, perhaps giving a glimpse into the views that ordinary people had of Jesus and the Biblical stories in years past. There is also a great economy of material in this song, the whole narrative is told in just four verses.
Can you tell us more about where it came from?
The song was collected from May Bradley, a Gypsy woman who was recorded near Ludlow in Shropshire, and a recording of her spine-tingling performance still survives. May Bradley learnt much of her repertoire (including ‘On Christmas Day’) from her mother Ester Smith, who was one of the singers that Ralph Vaughan Williams collected songs from in the early twentieth century. For the new book, A Secret Stream, I created a transcription of Ester Smith’s version of ‘On Christmas Day’ from Vaughan Williams’ manuscript and it is fascinating to see the differences between the melody that Ester Smith sang for Vaughan Williams and the melody that May Bradley was recorded singing a generation later. The two melodies are very similar but with a few subtle differences, a great example of the folk process in action. According to May Bradley, this was her mother’s favourite song, and I can certainly see why.
Suggested recording: Spiers & Boden – Songs
Find out more about Cohen Braithewaite-Kilcoyne through his website.
Ar fore dydd Nadolig: chosen by Owen Shiers
Why have you chosen ‘Ar fore dydd Nadolig’?
The song I’ve chosen is called ‘Ar fore dydd Nadolig’ (or ‘On Christmas Morn’). The well-known Christmas songs in Wales are mostly translations of English carols (with the exception, of course, of ‘Deck The Halls’ which started life back in the 16th century as a Welsh winter carol called ‘Nos Galan’). ‘Ar fore dydd Nadolig’ stands out to me not only because of its local origin, but because it sounds old… really old… almost like plainchant in its droneyness. It’s unlike anything else in Welsh music. Totally mesmerising in a dark church lit by candlelight at 3am!
What’s interesting about the song, and Welsh Christmas traditions in general?
Christmas traditions are a bit different here in Wales. We still celebrate the old New Year, which has its own customs, rituals and songs. One of these customs is Plygain singing, which has its origins in midnight mass. Although some churches still hold services in the early hours of Christmas Day, most Plygains are now held in January at the turn of the old new year. Recent years have seen a real revival, which is great to see. ‘Ar fore dydd Nodolig’ is one of the only Plygain songs recorded from the oral tradition and was collected from a lady called Myra Evans in Cei Newydd by Robin Gwyndaf in the 1960’s.
Suggested recording: Siwsan George – Traditional Songs of Wales
Find out more about Owen Shiers and his ‘Cynefin’ project.
Fleecy Care: chosen by Jackie Oates
Roud number: 3205
Why have you chosen ‘Fleecy Care’?
I first became aware of this traditional carol while I was living in Devon in the early 2000s; myself and melodeon player, Ed Rennie, were hunting for Christmas carols and found the text and melody in the Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, edited by Roy Palmer. The song jumped out at us because of the sweet title and the cheery tune. We were preparing for a concert of traditional Christmas carols at Topsham Folk Club with some amazing Devonshire ballad singers, and I remember how exciting it was to learn all these interesting festive songs that I’d never come across before. Every year subsequently, I’ve sung this song if I’ve been asked to perform at a Christmas gig or session, and I’m transported back to a former life in which I packed my evenings full of music and songs and travelling to little pubs in the middle of Dartmoor to be inspired by unaccompanied balladry.
Can you tell us more about the song?
‘Fleecy Care’ was written by Joseph Key, an excise officer of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, and published in 1785 in Five Anthems, Four Collects, Twenty Psalm Tunes, Book III. Folk song and dance collector Janet Blunt (1859-1950), of Adderbury Morris, also collected the song from William Walton of Adderbury, North Oxfordshire; her transcription includes a bass line, vocal/cello line and additional vocal harmony lines.
What if we wanted to know even more about Fleecy Care?
Andy Turner wrote a brilliant description of the song in his journal ‘A Folk Song A Week’ which you can read here.
Suggested recording: Magpie Lane – The 25th
Check out Jackie Oates’s latest projects, gigs and merch news on her website.
The Cock Sat Up in the Yew Tree: chosen by Nick Hart
Roud number: 230
What can you tell us about where ‘The Cock Sat Up in the Yew Tree’ comes from?
Usually taking place on Twelfth Night, wassailers would sing as they went door to door receiving donations from the householders, and most wassailing songs spend a lot of time detailing both the good wishes bestowed on the donors and the kinds of things the wassailers would be happy to receive in exchange. ‘The Cock Sat Up in the Yew Tree’ is from a family of wassailing songs which have mostly been collected in snippets and snatches, and generally from the counties bordering Wales.
The genius/powerhouse/heartthrob that is John Kirkpatrick very helpfully stitched together a number of these songs and his wonderful version, which he calls ‘Chuckling Hens’, can be heard on the album ‘Carolling and Crumpets’.
And why have you chosen this song in particular?
Wiggy Smith from Gloucestershire gives us a wonderful 30-second version in which he wishes us, “a merry Christmas and every day a pie”, as well as, “the fattest pig that ever was born”. I wouldn’t have much use for the latter but I should very much like a pie every day, and it may be for that reason that the song resonates so much with me.
However, it’s the widespread presence of the line, “The cock sat up in the yew tree”, or variants of it, that make this family of songs so odd and wonderful to me. I don’t know what it means and I don’t know why it’s there and I love it all the more for that reason.
Suggested recording: John Kirkpatrick – Carolling and Crumpets
Find out more about Nick Hart on his website (where you can also preorder his upcoming album).
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen: chosen by Mikey Kenney
Roud number: 394
Why have you chosen this song?
Since the days of playing the violin in the orchestra for school Christmas concerts, this has been my favourite Christmas melody. It’s probably the minor mode that it’s written in that makes it such a pleasure for me. Myself and Alex Ma, a fellow fiddler who sat alongside me in the orchestra, used to get pretty excited about reaching it after an endless run of major carols.
What’s special about ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’?
It’s listed as No. 394 in the Roud index and reckoned to be at least as old as 16th Century – it is one of our oldest popular Christmas carols. The position of the comma in the title and first line has been the subject of dispute; earlier versions place the comma after the word ‘Merry’ to mean “Rest well” as opposed to ‘Merry’ being used as an adjective to describe the proceeding ‘Gentlemen’.
A beautiful, stark and curious version of ‘God Rest Ye’ can be found on Jon Wilks’s album ‘Up the Cut’. It features Angels of God prophesying a Saviour who will, “throw Satan down”. This version, printed by D. Wrighton of Birmingham, is a slight variant of the early Roxburghe Collection version which can be found in the British Library.
Can you tell us more about it?
How about an interesting fact? The pronunciation of “wind” in 16th-Century English sounded as “waind”… which is why the present day pronunciation of the third verse doesn’t appear to rhyme in many English accents, including my native Scouse:
“And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.”
Suggested recording: Jon Wilks – Up The Cut
Find out more about Mikey Kenney’s work on his website.
While Shepherds Watched (Pentonville): chosen by Rosie Hood
Why have you chosen this version of ‘While Shepherds Watched’?
I had great difficulty choosing my favourite carol as there are so many with beautiful tunes or great lyrics, but I’ve picked the one that I think is best when singing together with other people, specifically in the pub. Pentonville is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ that I learnt at The Royal Hotel in Dungworth, near Sheffield, where I’ve been going to the weekly carol sings for about 10 years. Among other carols and songs, we sing at least 10 different versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched…’ and, while each has its own distinctive character, (I’d recommend listening to all the others, but especially ‘Hail Chime On’ and ‘Sweet Christmas Bells’), it was this version, with its great rousing melody, that gave me the most joy to be singing with other people again when I was at last week’s first sing of the season.
Can you tell us more about ‘Pentonville’?
My carol book The Joy of Christmas, compiled and presented by Worral Male Voice Choir (locally referred to as ‘The Blue Book’ due to its cover), tells me that the words of this popular carol were written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715) but that the composer of the music remains anonymous. For those of you who don’t know it, the tune of Pentonville builds through each verse to the canon on the last line that becomes louder with each subsequent verse, with the singers of each part seeming to compete to sing their part the strongest and loudest. The harmonies, either improvised or sung from The Blue Book or The Yellow Book (The Sheffield Book of Village Carols edited by Ian Russell) create huge chords that you almost feel rather than hear, and by the time we’re belting out “begin and never cease”, I really hope that it won’t.
Do you have a favourite recording?
For the full experience of Pentonville, I would have to recommend that you sing it with dozens of people in your local pub (COVID guidelines permitting, of course) but for an excellent taster you could listen to Jon Boden’s Folk Song A Day project from 4th December 2010 where he sings alongside Jess and Richard Arrowsmith, Gavin Davenport, Fay Hield and Sam Sweeney.
Suggested recordings: Jon Boden – A Folk Song A Day and Carollers from the Royal Hotel, Dungworth – English Village Carols
Find out more about Rosie Hood by visiting her website.
And while we’re in Yorkshire…
Holmfirth Anthem: chosen by Johnny Campbell
Roud number: 1046
What’s special about this song, and why have you chosen it?
The ‘Holmfirth Anthem’ is a 19th-century traditional song from South Yorkshire. It was sung by The Watersons [on their eponymous LP ‘The Watersons’], and appears on Kate Rusby’s second Christmas album, ‘While Mortals Sleep’. I first heard it from Leeds artist, Serious Sam Barrett, as an unaccompanied piece, and what I love about it is how free flowing it can be – the repetition of lines gives a mantra feel, almost psychedelic.
Can you tell us more about where it came from?
The Sheffield Carolling tradition [of which this song is a part] takes place from around mid-November right up until January. It’s a folk tradition from North Derbyshire to South Yorkshire and it generally focuses on traditional and folk song around the winter season. Before Christmas Carols, which are associated with Christianity, these carols and the singing of them are more a remnant from our Pagan past, and more of a celebration of this time of year. The carolling season now encompasses a variety of hymns, traditional carols and folk songs, and arguably the centre of the tradition is The Royal Hotel in Dungworth. The ‘Holmfirth Anthem’ is sung with gusto there, and there’s a great Dungworth version on YouTube that is raucous and belting, which is exactly what the song calls for.
Suggested recording: Carollers of The Royal Hotel, Dungworth
Find out more about Johnny Campbell through his website.
Wexford Carol: chosen by Michelle Holloway
Roud number: 22086
Why have you chosen the ‘Wexford Carol’?
When a message popped into my inbox asking if I wanted to contribute to a collection introducing the best traditional Christmas songs, my first reaction was to run in the opposite direction. Me?! One of the most Scroogy of Scrooges?! But I was curious – Christmas music as traditional music? Now there was a challenge for my brain; I certainly hadn’t approached Christmas music in this way before. A psychological reframing was about to take place. I trawled the internet for Christmas tunes/songs. Congratulations Tradfolk – for the first time ever, not only have I willingly listened to Christmas music in November… I also enjoyed it! I now have a favourite Christmas album (‘Christmas Star’ by The Outside Track) and a Christmas playlist, which is certainly something I never thought I’d be saying.
Choosing my ‘favourite’ song was a challenge. How could I choose a favourite piece when I felt like I hadn’t exhausted listening to all of the options? Versions of ‘O Holy Night’, ‘Ríu Ríu Chíu’, ‘Coventry Carol’ and ‘Picardy’ were all strong contenders, but it was the ‘Wexford Carol’ that just stopped me in my tracks.
Just to throw caution to the wind, my favourite version of the ‘Wexford Carol’ isn’t actually the Wexford Carol at all. In fact, it is the ‘Wexford Lullaby’, which features the same haunting tune but with more modern lyrics by John Renbourn. Jackie Oates describes it on her ‘Lullabies’ album as, “a story… telling of the journeys, wonderment, joy and sadness which life has in store for the newborn child.” But it still
remains rooted in the Christmas story, with Christmas imagery woven into the text.
The melody is hauntingly beautiful. The opening rising major scale is interspersed with carefully placed flattened 7ths and 3rds which introduce mixolydian and minor modal qualities. I also love the raised minor 7th at the beginning of the third phrase which cries out with emotion and intensity.
Can you tell us more about where the ‘Wexford Carol’ came from?
Often claimed to be one of the earliest known Irish folk carols, the ‘Wexford Carol’ melody can apparently be traced back to the 12th Century. It got its name after its discovery in Enniscorthy, in the Wexford County in Ireland, although it is also known by its first line, “Good people all, this Christmas time…”. It gained popularity in 1928 when it was published in the Oxford Book of Carols after being collected and transcribed from a local singer by William Gratton Flood – an organist and music director at St Aiden’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy. The carol tells the story of the Christian nativity, and despite its Irish roots, had English text when it was collected.
Do you have a favourite recording?
Jackie Oates’s recorded version is stunning. It starts with delicate unaccompanied solo voice, which is then enhanced in the second verse with the addition of a unison male voice. Gorgeous harmony is then weaved around this male/female unison sound for the third and final verse. The slow build and intimate singing beautifully capture the atmosphere of the lyrics.
Suggested recordings: Jackie Oates – Lullabies, and O’Hooley & Tidow – WinterFolk (who recorded it after Belinda performed it with Jackie)
Find out more about Michelle Holloway and her band, Bonfire Radicals, on their website.
The Miner’s Dream of Home: chosen by Jim Moray
Roud number: 1749
What’s special about ‘The Miner’s Dream of Home’?
‘The Miner’s Dream Of Home’ is not a traditional song in the strictest sense, as we know who wrote it and when. It’s a music hall song, written by the performer Leo Dryden in 1891 and then recorded on a wax cylinder seven years later. It did, however, find its way into the repertoire of traditional singers as many music hall songs have done. The Suffolk singer Bob Hart sang it for his Topic LP ‘Songs From Suffolk’ alongside such folk revival staples as ‘Bold General Wolfe’ and ‘The Banks Of Sweet Primroses’. It was also known to fellow Suffolk singer Fred Whiting, and there’s some evidence of it being sung in North America in the first half of the 20th Century, echoing the story in the song itself.
Can you tell us more about the song?
It has a lot in common with traditional emigration songs – the romanticised vision of life back in the old country, and the people left behind when they travel to, “a far distant country to roam”. In some ways it even resembles a sort of Victorian Christmas card in song form. The minor-key verse telling of ten weary years in the new world gives way to the warmth of a major chorus describing the joy of the Christmas scene – the log in the fire, the cheery faces of old friends, and the old village bells ringing in the new year. The protagonist moves (in astral-projecting form) to his childhood home to gaze through the window, observing his parents praying for the son they haven’t seen for a decade. Finally, the family are reunited and the narrator tearfully agrees to never leave them again (but it was all just a dream…).
Suggested recording: Bob Hart – Songs from Suffolk
Find out more about Jim Moray on his website.
The Best Traditional Christmas songs playlist
We’ve put together a playlist of these songs on Spotify, where possible. A few of them were either not available by the recommended performers, or not available at all. Take a listen, though. You might find a few traditional (and less traditional) Christmas songs you’ve never heard before. Good tidings to one and all.
Photo by Azzurra Visaggio on Unsplash.
I’ll stick a vote in for “Shepherds Arise!” from the Copper songbook, primarily because it’s an absolute belter to sing.
Some excellent choices. For an carol album recommendation I’d go for Coope,Boyes and Simpson’s A Garland of Carols, esp Down in yon forest
On Christmas Day It Happened So,,,
I love this song!
Actually seems to have been first appeared in print in London Society: The Christmas Number for 1867
The song is on page 76, this link goes to page 74 – the start of the chapter which features it.(it’s a good little story)
“Rather Suspicious: A Story of Some Christmas Minstrels” by Robert Hudson
By The Kitchen Fire’
There’s a transcription of the song text and a bit of the story at mudcat
(btw May Bradley – https://youtu.be/cEUo_RqDTh4)
Tim Van Eyken does a lovely version https://youtu.be/YMIAW_d4CE8
Another couple of spotify lists. Not as carefully chosen as the one above but good accompaniment to a busy day of Christmas preparations.