Looking for classical Christmas music? While the best Christmas songs are often heavy on the schmaltz and pop, these songs will fill your need for holiday cheer backed by full orchestras and filled with magnificent choral performances. So take a break from all that holiday-gift-guide-fueled shopping and appreciate the music: Who knows, maybe you’ll feel inspired to see some live music at a Christmas concert before the season is out.
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Best classical Christmas songs
“Christmas Oratorio” by J.S. Bach
Though over a hundred years passed between when this piece was first performed near the end of Bach’s career in 1734 and the next recorded airing in the mid-19th-century, the Oratorio has become a staple of classical music during the holidays. The six-part piece follows the birth of Jesus and the first visit from the shepherds through the Epiphany when the magi bring gifts to the holy baby.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Elias Gottlob Haussmann
“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Tchaikovsky
Even if you have never seen Tchaikovsky’s most famed ballet, this song should capture your imagination, as the prima ballerina (playing the part of the Sugar Plum) brings Clara, the young girl who is given the Nutcracker Doll, into a fantastical world. The sounds of the celesta—an instrument that looks like a small upright piano—sounds almost like a softer, more playful version of the traditional handbells that fill many churches around the holidays.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Carlos yo
“Messiah” by George Frideric Handel
Baroque composer Handel’s oratorio Messiah is performed in full by many orchestras for the Christmas season, but even if you’ve missed hearing the work in full, you’ve certainly heard the “Hallelujah” chorus. The joyful, operatic refrain is so synonymous with celebration it’s become shorthand in plenty of films and television for feelings of jubilance.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Attributed to Balthasar Denner - National Portrait Gallery
“Sleigh Ride from Three German Dances” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
It’s hard to deny the seasonal aptness of the third of Mozart’s Three German Dances, especially when the sleigh bells come in. It is said that the composer wrote this song to mimic the sensation of going up and down the snow-covered hills on an 18th century sleigh, which is about as idyllic a winter wonderland as any.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Barbara Krafft
“Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky
After the turmoil of the earlier portion of the ballet, when the Nutcracker battles the Mouse King, this tranquil song seems to bring to life the experience of a beautiful sunrise after a night’s storm and a renewed sense of peace and happiness.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Rodrigo Fernández
“Magnificat” by J. S. Bach
Though Bach is often seen as a more somber composer, this uplifting orchestral masterpiece serves as the music for a Latin liturgy centered around the portion of the Gospel of Luke, in which the Virgin Mary is visited by an angel telling her that she will give birth to Jesus. The twelve-movement baroque composition was expanded by the composer to include Christmas hymns.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Appaloosa
“L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell)” by Hector Berlioz
Though this song takes place shortly after Christmas, when the shepherds bid the Holy Family farewell as they flee from the evil King Herod to Egypt, this number from the 19th century ontario L'enfance du Christ by the French composer Berlioz brings a lightness to this dark moment in the baby Jesus’ story.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Karl Reutlinger
“There is No Rose of Such Virtue” by Anon
This magnificent carol dates back to 15th century England, making it one of the oldest Christmas songs still performed today. The lyrics praise Mary as a rose with virtue beyond all others, “For in this rose contained was heaven and earth in little space.”
“Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” by J.S. Bach
Though this song is more frequently associated with spring, Bach wrote it in celebration of Advent, the season before Christmas when churches celebrate the coming of the birth of Christ. The song was later often used to celebrate Mary in general.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Ralf Lotys (Sicherlich)
“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Leon Jessel
Like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, this jaunty 19th century march is about toys being brought to life. It is particularly popular here in America where it has become a staple of the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular and a favorite of the Boston Pops.