Defining what the "best" Christmas songs are may largely be a matter of personal musical and lyrical preference, but there's no denying that a handful of Christmas songs have had an enormous commercial and cultural impact, in terms of their widespread popularity and longevity. The list of well-known Christmas songs is unsurprisingly long, but a few songs deserve a place at the top of that list, based on their impressive, decades-long success. The following Christmas songs are among the top-selling, most recorded and most performed Christmas songs of all time.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) stated in a 1998 press release that "White Christmas" was the most performed Christmas carol, as well as the most recorded, with over 500 versions in multiple languages. The song was written by composer Irving Berlin in 1940 for the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire film Holiday Inn. The song and film were officially released in 1942, and by the end of World War II, the song had become the biggest selling single ever up to that point in history. It remains the best selling Christmas song of all time.
"The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" was written in under an hour by crooner Mel Torme and lyricist Bob Wells on a hot July day in 1945. Nat King Cole recorded the song in 1946, and again in 1953, but it was his third recording of the song from 1960 that become the best-known version most often played to this day. "The Christmas Song" was also the first holiday recording of established and prolonged popularity by an African-American performer.
This extremely well-known, kid-oriented Christmas standard was composed in 1932 by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. The songwriting partners tried in vain to get someone to record their composition for two years, with many of the approached performers claiming that the childlike nature of the song would prevent it from selling well. Eddie Cantor finally agreed to perform the song on his radio show in November 1934. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" became an instant hit, and was soon covered by other big stars of the day such as Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Perry Como.
Written in 1943 by songwriter Hugh Martin, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was originally written as a much more dark and depressing tune for a Judy Garland movie titled Meet Me in St. Louis. Under pressure from the stars and producers of the film, Martin rewrote the lyrics to make the song more hopeful and less despondent. The song became a perennial classic after Frank Sinatra recorded his version in 1957, and the multitude of covers that have been made since still garner significant airplay.