In Depth

Christmas songs: the best, the worst and the weirdest of all time

There are classics in the festive canon and plenty of ho-ho-horrible songs, too


What would Christmas be without Christmas pop songs? Less onerous, perhaps? Pipe down, Scrooge, and try to understand that the Christmas single is part of a noble tradition whose practitioners include such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and, er, East 17. Not all Christmas songs are equal, of course. Here’s a guide to the best, the worst and the downright weird:  

The best Christmas song of all time


Critics are united on this one. The festive ditty par excellence is Fairytale of New York, performed by The Pogues and Kirsty McColl. The song has it all, “careening wildly through a gamut of moods from maudlin to euphoric, sentimental to profane, mud-slinging to sincerely devoted in the space of four glorious minutes”, writes Helen Brown in the The Daily Telegraph. The song was released in 1987, but was kept out of the No. 1 spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always on My Mind.

Sample lyric: “You’re a bum, you’re a punk. You’re an old slut on junk”

The highest-earning Christmas song of all time


Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s plaintive White Christmas has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. Written in 1940, it has earned about $36 million in royalties – enough to buy a fleet of snow machines or a small ski resort. In terms of raw earning power, it dwarfs other festive cash cows such as the 1934 hit Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has earned a paltry $25 million.

Sample lyric: “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white”

The weirdest Christmas song of all time


In 1980, actor Anthony Daniels, best known as the voice of C-3PO in the Star Wars films, was the leading man of Christmas in the Stars, the first in a planned series of annual Star Wars-themed Christmas albums. Although the idea never quite took off, the album left us this version of Sleigh Ride, performed by C-3PO and his sidekick R2-D2.

Sample lyric: “Oh R2, I knew you could do it”


Weirdly, it isn’t the first time the sci-fi saga has been married to a Christmas tie-in. In 1978, TV executives attempted to capitalise on the enormous popularity of Star Wars with a variety special featuring the stars of the film.

The result – the Star Wars Holiday Special – was an instantly notorious addition to the annals of car-crash TV, “combining the worst of Star Wars with the utter worst of variety television" in the words of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.

The truly bizarre two hours ended with Carrie Fisher, in full Princess Leia garb, taking centre stage to warble a festive ditty. 

Infuriatingly for Star Wars fans already horrified by the transgressions of the Holiday Special, her song was set to John Williams’s iconic opening theme.

Sample lyric: “A day of joy we can all share together joyously”

Most unlikely Christmas duet of all time


Duets and Christmas go together like brandy and butter. But the pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby on Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy has justifiably been described as “surreal”. The song was recorded in 1977 for Crosby’s Christmas TV show Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. Nearly four decades later, we have another unusual double act in Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. Gaga, described by the Telegraph as the “quintessential modern pop star”, teamed up with old-school crooner Bennett in 2014, first for an album, Cheek to Cheek, and a Christmas song, Winter Wonderland.

Sample lyric: “Tony, it’s snowing!”

The most gratuitously offensive Christmas song of all time


By and large, Christmas songs try to avoid causing offence. Clearly, Weird Al Yankovic missed that bulletin because he wrote and performed Christmas at Ground Zero, which has a Christmas-meets-the-nuclear-holocaust vibe. But perhaps the most offensive Yuletide song is Monty Python’s Eric Idle and F*** Christmas. It pretty much does what it says on the tin.

Sample lyric: “F*** Christmas. It’s a waste of f****** time”

The most sexual Christmas song of all time


Christmas songs tend to be relatively chaste. In I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, for example, the amorous Father Christmas doesn’t make it past first base. Bucking the trend is Clarence Carter’s Back Door Santa, released in 1968. The song is the apex of “the longstanding tradition of the double entendre in Christmas songs” says the Hip Christmas website. In 2014, TVXbabes from the adult channel Television X took it to another level with the first Christmas single released by Pornhub Records called Coming for Christmas. With Ben Dover on drums, the girls sing about Santa’s sack, “massive” presents and licking Christmas puddings. Get it?

Sample lyric: “Nothing says Christmas like a good snow blowing”

The most controversial Christmas song


The latest Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas? stormed to the top of the UK charts but sparked controversy along the way. Proceeds of the track went towards the fight against Ebola in west Africa, but critics complained that it was patronising to Africans. Ebola survivor William Pooley said its “cultural ignorance” was “cringeworthy”, while Emeli Sande, who sang on the single, later said she thought the lyrics needed changing. Bob Geldof responded by telling critics they could “f*** off” because “it’s a pop song, not a doctoral thesis”.

Sample lyric: “No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa. The only hope they’ll have is being alive”

What is this year's Christmas No 1?

The Christmas No 1 song isn’t due to be revealed until Friday 21 December. But, of course, bookmakers across the country are busy taking bets on which tune will take the top prize.

According to betting aggregator Oddschecker, almost every major bookmaker is tipping Ariana Grande to take the top spot with her single thank u, next, having already seen major success around the world. The US pop star’s new single has been number one for two weeks’ now, and has received “almost 10 million streams” and “eclipsed the competition”, says iNews.

However, she might be given a run for her money by Elton John, whose classic 1970 hit Your Song has seen a surge in sales after it was featured on the John Lewis Christmas advert, charting the life of the singer from when he was first given a piano as a child.

The single E-Lo by Los Unidades may also be in with a shot, says Radio Times. Never heard of them? That’s because it’s a pseudonym being used by platinum-selling band Coldplay for the release of an EP containing three new tracks.

“Despite the ostensible rebrand, E-Lo is still most definitely a Coldplay song, coloured by Chris Martin’s distinct vocal – and while Coldplay is not for everyone, they remain one of the biggest and best-loved bands in the world, which makes them a real contender,” Radio Times says.


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