A Treasury of Christmas Carols


 Part 2. Composition of Carols

The writing of carols, too, continued in the 20th century, although primarily in a secular vein with some notable exceptions (for example, Do You Hear What I Hear?).  Particularly after the release of the movie Holiday Inn in 1942, the writing of carols increased significantly, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. The improvements and popularity of inventions in the late 19th century of the phonograph, the radio, and television would bring carols to even larger audiences. 

It has been said that the First Golden Age of Christmas Carols occurred in the 15-16th century, and that the Second Golden Age of Christmas Carols occurred in the 19th century.  Based on the list below, the 20th century was surely the Third Golden Age.

Studwell noted that there was a uniquely productive period of Christmas carol writing from 1932 to 1951, including:

  • Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1932)

  • I Wonder As I Wander (1933)

  • Winter Wonderland (1934)

  • Carol of the Bells (1936)

  • The Little Drummer Boy (1941)

  • Happy Holiday (1942)

  • White Christmas (1942)

  • I'll Be Home for Christmas (1943)

  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)

  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)

  • All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth (1946)

  • Here Comes Santa Claus (1946)

  • The Christmas Song (1946)

  • Sleigh Ride (1948/1950)

  • A Marshmallow World (1949)

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)

  • Frosty the Snowman (1950)

  • Silver Bells (1951)

  • It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas (1951)

"Nineteen holiday favorites in about the same number of years!" exclaimed Studwell. [1]

Irving_Berlin.JPG (58019 bytes)Irving Berlin, 1888-1989 

In 1998, ASCAP President and Chairman Marilyn Bergman announced the Society's 25 most-performed holiday songs. "These classic songs brighten the season year after year, and are a cornerstone of the ASCAP repertory," she said. "Most of them have been recorded in renditions by artists in every genre, yet each song retains the original stamp of its creators." Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" heads the list of ASCAP holiday hits of the Twentieth Century. The date behind each carol is the date of publication.

1. "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin - 1942 [2]

2. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie - 1934

3. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Mel Torme and Robert Wells - 1946

4. "Winter Wonderland" by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith - 1934

5. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks - 1949

6. "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson  – 1948 (words added in 1950 by Mitchell Parish)

7. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin - 1944

8. "Silver Bells" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans - 1950

9. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne - 1945

10. "Little Drummer Boy" by Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati and Harry Simeone - 1941

11. "Jingle Bell Rock" by Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe - 1957

12. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Walter Kent, Kim Gannon and Buck Ram - 1943

13. "Frosty the Snow Man" by Steve Nelson and Walter E. Rollins - 1950

14. "Blue Christmas" by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson - 1948

15. "Carol of the Bells" by Peter J. Wilhousky and Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovich - 1936

16. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" by Meredith Willson - 1951

17. "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman - 1946

18. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" by Bob Allen and Al Stillman - 1954

19. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Johnny Marks - 1958

20. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by Tommie Connor - 1952

21. "We Need a Little Christmas" by Jerry Herman - 1966

22. "The Christmas Waltz" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne - 1954

23. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by Ross Bagdasarian (David Seville) - 1958

24. "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano - 1970

25. "A Holly Jolly Christmas" by Johnny Marks - 1962

Bing_Crosby.JPG (74637 bytes)Bing Crosby, 1903-1977 

The oldest songs on the list were "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Winter Wonderland", both written in 1934. The newest song is "Feliz Navidad" (1970). 

The writer with the most hits on this list was Johnny Marks with three:

  • "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,"

  • "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"

  • "A Holly Jolly Christmas"

The team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne contributed two songs:

  • "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"

  • "The Christmas Waltz" 

Songs introduced in motion pictures included:

  • "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn (1942) [performed by Bring Crosby]

  • "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) [performed by Judy Garland]

  • "Silver Bells" in The Lemon Drop Kid (1950) [performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell; first recorded by Bing Crosby]

Angela_Lansbury.JPG (102771 bytes)One song was introduced in a Broadway musical: "We Need a Little Christmas" in Mame (1966) [originally performed by Angela Lansbury, see right]

One song was introduced in a television special: "A Holly Jolly Christmas" in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1962) [performed by Burl Ives]

Finally, the most recorded song was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1942), which has been recorded over 500 times, in dozens of languages. ASCAP released Holiday [3], a CD of the top 25 -- often with the first or most popular performer -- in November, 1999. It was still available in October, 2001. The cost was $14.95, plus postage and handling.

On December 27, 1999, ASCAP announced its top 25 songs of the century (in terms of most often performed). Four Christmas songs made the list:

  • Santa Claus is Coming To Town (1934)

  • Winter Wonderland (1934)

  • White Christmas (1942)

  • The Christmas Song (1946)

Not making the list of most performed Christmas songs is the significant body of carols written by composer Alfred Burt (see right), with lyrics by his father, Rev. Bates Burt, and family friend, Wilha Hutson (following the death of Rev. Burt). The last of these carols was written shortly before the death of Alfred Burt in 1954. The Alfred Bates carols and their dates of composition are:

  • Christmas Cometh Caroling, 1942

  • Jesu Parvule, 1943

  • What Are the Signs, 1944

  • Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind, 1945

  • All On a Christmas Morning, 1946

  • Nigh Bethlehem, 1947

  • Christ in Stranger’s Guise, 1948

  • Carol of the Mother (Sleep Baby Mine), 1949

  • Bright, Bright the Holly Berries (This Is Christmas), 1950

  • Some Children See Him, 1951

  • Come Dear Children, 1952

  • Oh Hearken Ye, 1953

  • Caroling, Caroling, 1954

  • The Star Carol, 1954

  • We’ll Dress the House, 1954

All carols bear the copyright date of 1954. Lex de Azevedo's Millennium Choir has recorded all of them on a single album — the first digital CD recording of the entire collection. Caroling, Caroling is available on both CD and cassette on Deseret Book's Shadow Mountain label. For more information about Alfred Bates and his carols, see the Alfred Burt Carols website formerly maintained by Anne Shortt Burt, Al's wife, and now maintained by his daughter, Diane Burt D’Amico. This sites gives details about Alfred Burt and his carols that cannot be found elsewhere.

This is not to say, however, that the traditional hymns and carols have been ignored.  Bing Crosby's first Christmas recordings in 1935 were Silent Night and Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful). Indeed, my collection of over 1100 recordings in the winter of 2001 included 45 different versions of Silent Night, which was the most number of recordings of a single song in the collection. Second, by the way, was White Christmas (28 recordings) and  third was Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful (29 recordings). The traditional hymns and carols continue to be well represented in the popularly published collections of Christmas music, and in Christmas music released on CDs and cassette tape on an annual basis.

In spite of the many changes which this genre has seen over the centuries, the carol remains generally festive in manner, as opposed to hymns which are more devotional and theological in nature. Unlike the Puritans, today we hear Christmas carols and hymns in almost every venue during the month of December: elevators, stores, malls, banks, homes, schools, churches, on radio, and on the dozens of television specials devoted to this special time of year. And each year, new artists release new carols; perhaps the new carol you hear this holiday season will be the "classic" carol a century from now.


1. William Studwell The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Books, 1995), pp. 178-179. Another, more extensive, list is created by Dale V. Nobbman, Christmas Music Companion Fact Book (Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publishing, 2000), pages 8-13. Return

2. See Appendix for a biography of Mr. Berlin and for a biography of Bing Crosby. Return

3. Copyright 1998 ASCAPReturn


By the end of 2004, the ASCAP list had changed. The full list, as of December 2, 2004:

1. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) Mel Tormé, Robert Wells)
2. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)
3. Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith)
4. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie)
5. White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne)
7. I'll Be Home For Christmas (Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram)
8. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks)
9. Little Drummer Boy (Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone)
10. Jingle Bell Rock (Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe)
11. Silver Bells (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)
12. Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish)
13. Feliz Navidad (José Feliciano)
14. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Edward Pola, George Wyle)
15. Blue Christmas (Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson)
16. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree (Johnny Marks)
17. Frosty The Snowman (Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins)
18. A Holly Jolly Christmas (Johnny Marks)
19. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Tommie Connor)
20. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (Meredith Willson)
21. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) (Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman)
22. Wonderful Christmastime (Paul McCartney)
23. Carol Of The Bells (Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola Leontovich)
24. Santa Baby (Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer)
25. This Christmas (Donny Hathaway, Nadine McKinnor)

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Douglas D. Anderson

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