Picking the Definitive Versions of 5 Christmas Songs

Listening to the radio every December, you hear the same fifteen to thirty Christmas songs. While I think it’s pretty regrettable that listeners and radio stations are likely to favor covers of songs they’re familiar with rather than new and original songs, I think we can appreciate the art of covering songs that have been covered hundreds and hundreds of times. Most versions don’t exactly try to do something unique, but I think it’s worthwhile to try to compare all of the versions and pick one that stands out among the others. And so, this post:

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Over the past few years I’ve slowly gotten more and more into Ella Fitzgerald, and I think everything she does is terrific. She does a neat, jazz take on this song that ends with her almost ad-libbing an additional verse. (Maybe that’s something about it that most people wouldn’t prefer, but I like it.)

I will admit, this version is more clearly jazzy and mature, so perhaps that’s why I prefer it. Children might prefer Gene Autry’s version, but as for me, this one’s definitely my favorite. And that’s just my personal bias.

“The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

I almost considered not including this one because the answer is so clear. That being said, Crosby, Sinatra, Buble, Ella Fitzgerald, Aguilera, Perry Como, Mel Torme… Forget all of them, this song belongs to Nat King Cole. And I feel like I probably don’t need to embellish on that. There’s a reason why Nat King Cole’s version is the most played recording. Everyone recording a cover of this song is trying to one-up Nat King Cole, which is impossible; this version is often imitated, never duplicated.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Out of all the more religious Christmas songs, this one’s probably my favorite. It’s definitely one I have strong associations with from It’s a Wonderful Life, the greatest film of all time, probably. In fact, I had planned on including the version from It’s a Wonderful Life as my selection, but I figured that wouldn’t count. The go-to choice would likely be Frank Sinatra’s, because like everything else the man did, it was a true classic. In particular, I do like Mariah Carey’s version because it’s wisely paired with “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.”

But try as I might, none of these recordings could match the emotional punch from It’s a Wonderful Life that I wanted to associate with it. That is, except for the recording by Vince Guaraldi Trio from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” this is another recording that benefits from being sung by children, making it sound more nostalgic and innocent.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”

There’s a lot of versions of this song, and most of them are pretty good. Mariah Carey has one, Bruce Springsteen has one, Bing Crosby has a version. And each of these is excellent in their own right. Bing’s voice is pretty synonymous with Christmas, and his song has a jazzy punch to it. Bruce Springsteen, it being a live recording, you get to hear his banter with the members of his band. And while Mariah Carey’s version ends up feeling derivative of “All I Want For Christmas is You,” that ends up being a huge part of its charm; she’s got such a beautiful voice and the arrangement of the song feels poppy and fun.

But I’ve always thought that the definitive version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has always been the version by the Jackson 5. Young Michael Jackson’s voice has always been one that has filled me with childlike nostalgia, even since I was, myself, a child, and that’s probably due to songs like “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” I don’t know how else to put it – this just feels like Christmas from when I was a kid.

“Santa Baby”

Y’know, I have a lot of respect for Jack White of the White Stripes – for many reasons – but in this case, I really respect his singing of the White Stripes’ cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” As a straight man, it takes courage to sing a song that says, “I’m begging of you please don’t take my man,” and to sing from a hetero-female perspective that makes the singer sound homosexual.

Micahel Buble would agree – that’s why rather than singing the actual words to “Santa Baby,” he sings “Santa Buddy.” This song is absolutely cringe-worthy. And I love it. I first heard of it last Christmas season, when my girlfriend told me about it. In the following year, I forgot entirely about it, and was reminded of it when she mentioned it again, and I absolutely erupted into laughter.

Santa baby, slip a Rolex under the tree
For me
I’ve been an awful good guy
Santa buddy, and hurry down the chimney tonight
Santa buddy, a sixty five convertible too
Steel blue
I’ll wait up for you, dude
Santa buddy, and hurry down the chimney tonight

What we end up with is something that tries so hard not to be gay, it becomes absolutely hilarious. But that’s the thing, “Santa Baby” was already something somewhat uncomfortably sexual that a version that tries so desperately hard not to be ends up being preferable. It’s like if you turned the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” joke from Seinfeld into a Christmas song.


Also, an aside, please read all of the comments on the YouTube video, they are absolutely roasting Michael Buble.

And then there were other songs that were too obvious to pick a definitive version. Here’s a brief list of songs I was going to rank, but the answer was just a little too clear:

“White Christmas” – Bing Crosby

“All I Want For Christmas is You” – Mariah Carey

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Brenda Lee

“You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” – Thurl Ravenscroft

“Blue Christmas” – Elvis Presley

“Feliz Navidad” – Jose Feliciano

What is your favorite Christmas song?

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas ☺️

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