Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees: Top 20 Christmas Songs and Stories

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee with Christmas lights

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee with Christmas lights

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 22, 2013

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we… we… we smile a little easier, we… w-w-we… we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!” Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged

Ryan Barr Hilligoss with his brothers Kevin Lee and Robert Sean, Christmas morning, 1980, Godfrey, Il

Ryan Barr Hilligoss with his brothers Kevin Lee and Robert Sean, Christmas morning, 1980, Godfrey, Il

It’s that special time of the year once again. The time is rapidly approaching of my favorite holiday, and my favorite time of the year where we all try a little harder to be the people we always hoped we would be like Bill says. I’ve watched my usual favorite movies like Elf about 5 times with the kids, Love Actually, The Family Stone and The Family Man. I’ve pulled my normal Clark Griswold and hung as many lights as possible on the house without killing myself by falling off the roof or a ladder. We’ve drug out boxes of favorite decorations from the basement and turned our living room into a veritable North Pole of Cortland, Illinois. These are all steps on the way to remembering what is most important in life, friends and family close and far, living and gone who have all been a part of my life and who I am.

Also to get me along the way are countless hours spent listening to holiday music starting on Thanksgiving and not a day before. Unless I am in a store that is piping in canned Christmas music on what seems an ever earlier time as corporate America keeps expanding the “shopping season”. Thanksgiving used to be the normal time to see decorations and displays, but this year as I was walking through one of an unnamed, large multinational drugstore, I saw snowmen figurines lining the shelves before Halloween was over. Son of a nutcracker!!!! Can’t we leave some things the way they used to be. Below are my top 20 favorite Christmas songs and stories from my favorite artists. It started as a top 10 list but grew into 15 and more since I have so many favorites. Read and listen and once you are done, tell me some of your personal favorites that are missing from my list or may have not heard yet. Santa’s got a brand new bag!!

20) Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes- Say what you may about Phil Spector as a person, but his recordings and productions from the 1960s were cornerstones of rock and roll/pop music and influenced all other artists recording from then on. Sung by Ronnie Spector and featured on Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, released in 1963, and includes turns by R&R Hall of Famer Darlene Love who was lead singer of The Crystals, and layers and layers of backing instruments and music.

Shitter's Full!!! Cousin Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the sewer

Shitter’s Full!!! Cousin Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the sewer

19) Mele Kalikimaka by Jimmy Buffet. Originally recorded by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters in 1950 and featured in National Lampoon’s Christmas with Randy Quaid as Eddie with taking a dive into a magical swimming pool while wearing a white tank top and tiger print speedos. Here is Jimmy Buffet’s version which puts me in a very Hawaiian state of mind on this cold winter’s night.

18) Jingle Bells by Dean Martin. Nothing says Christmas time more than Martin’s Making Spirits Bright album….silky smooth and classy.

17) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Ella Fitzgerald. One of the finest American voices and artists. Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swinging Christmas gets played heavily every year.

16) Winter Wonderland by Ray Charles. Master craftsman and musical arranger at work on this classic which he gives fresh life with the sleigh bells ringing out as an intro and then a sharp break as the music kicks in. Released in 1985 on his The Spirit of Christmas album. Featured in one of my holiday movie favorites, When Harry Met Sally.  

15) The Night Before Christmas read by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Recorded in 1971 by one of America’s greatest gifts to music and culture around the world. The Armstrong growl is on full display here and he gives the story by Clement Moore vivid, clear life.

14) The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne. Thanks to my good friend Shawn Poole for pointing this one out I had somehow missed since I love Jackson Browne’s music. Played solo on piano and included on his Acoustic Solo Volume 1 release. “The families gather and give thanks for God’s graces and the birth of the rebel Jesus/They’ve turned the spirit I worship from a temple to a robber’s den, in the words of the Rebel Jesus”

13) 2,000 Miles, The Pretenders. One of rock’s great bands fronted by Chrissie Hynde.

12) Daddy Looked A Lot Like Santa, Buck Owens. Owens was the founding force of the Bakersfield sound in country music and his Buckaroos backing band could play country or rock as hard as any other pop band of the time. The song was released on November 8, 1965, with “All I Want for Christmas, Dear, Is You” on the B-side.] It placed at number 2 on the yearly Christmas singles chart issued by Billboard at the time.

11) The Christmas Waltz by She and Him. Released in 2011 by the group featuring actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and guitarist M.Ward on their a Very She and Him Christmas. Deschanel has a terrific voice, yes that is her singing Baby It’s Cold Outside in the shower during Elf when she yells at Will Ferrell to get out, and they have released other good music.

10) Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan. Christmas in the Heart is the thirty-fourth studio album and first Christmas album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released in October 2009 by Columbia Records. The album comprises a collection of hymns, carols, and popular Christmas songs. All Dylan’s royalties from the sale of this album benefited the charities Feeding America in the USA, Crisis in the UK, and the World Food Programme.[1]Dylan said that, although Jewish, he never felt left out of Christmas during his childhood in Minnesota. Regarding the popularity of Christmas music, he said, “… it’s so worldwide and everybody can relate to it in their own way.”

Chuck Berry, The Father of Rock and Roll and Father Christmas

Chuck Berry, The Father of Rock and Roll and Father Christmas

10) Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry. Recorded by Berry at Chess Records and released in 1958 with backing by Johnnie Johnson, Willie Dixon and Fred Below. Contains the usual Chuck Berry beat and guitar rhythm  and Santa riding the freeway down in a Cadillac sleigh, what else would you expect.

9) James Lundeen’s Christmas by Garrison Keillor. One of the master storyteller’s News From Lake Wobegon segments from his Prairie Home Companion shows, released in 1983. Here, Keillor brings a fictional story to life and paints a picture of small moments in life as they relate to the true meaning of Christmas. The true gifts in life are the moments we share with friends and family.

Ryan and Robert Lee Hilligoss with Garrison Keillor

Ryan and Robert Lee Hilligoss with Garrison Keillor

8) We Wish You a Merry Christmas by Booker T and The MGs. Released in 1966 on their In The Spirit of Christmas album. The band consisting of Booker T Jones on organ, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar and Al Jackson on drums was the house studio band at Stax studios in Memphis, Tennessee and was one of the finest bands in history as it laid down the music on so many classic songs for artists including Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Arthur Conley and many others. This song is a great representation of their sound: soulful organ, funky bass, tight beat and crystal clear, biting guitar.

7) Christmas As I Knew It by Johnny Cash. Written by June Carter Cash and first recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in 1970 during recording for The Johnny Cash Show. It basically tells the story of John’s childhood memories of growing up in very humble beginnings in Dyess, Arkansas where his father tried to grow cotton to support the family. Reminds me of both sets of my grandparents and father who grew up in similar circumstances. This version has a short introduction by John’s mother, Carrie Cash on how they were just happy to be together around the holidays.

6) Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan. She has one of the purest, best voices in modern recording and her Wintersong album is a yearly highlight. She wrote the song and the haunting, mellow lyrics and arrangement could be about a friend who has moved on or a child who has grown up and is no longer the one who snuggled in bed with the narrator. I hear it as a remembrance of a child which makes me imagine how it will be when my two kids are grown. I’ll always hold the memories of all the Christmas mornings and of sledding in the snow.


Robert Lee, Ryan Barr, Graham Ronald, and Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss. Christmas 2012, Godfrey, Il

5) Six to Eight Black Men, read by David Sedaris. One of the funniest writers working today as well as being heard on public radio and in person at live readings where he packs the theaters. Sedaris has a distinctive voice and biting, dark wit. In this piece, he reflects on social and cultural chauvinism while he talks about small differences in cultures around the world including when people open presents and their Santa Claus story. Apparently in Holland, Santa used to be the bishop of Turkey, lives in Spain, and instead of having elves, has 6-8 black men who are his assistants. Like a great episode of Seinfeld, Sedaris talks of many various topics throughout the piece but connects them all in the end when he circles back from the beginning.

4) Santa Clause is Coming To Town by Bruce Springsteen. Most of the time, Bruce would be number one, but there are three other holiday selections I like better. While he has played this version often over the years, this version was recorded December 12, 1975 at CW Post College in Greenvale, NY. Opening with Bruce talking about the wind whipping down the boardwalk of Asbury Park and asking Clarence if he’s been practicing so Santa bring him a new saxophone, it soon explodes into a full E Street sound closely following the Crystals version on Spector’s Christmas album. I love the portion where Clarence takes on the Santa role and offers several hearty ho ho hos which crack Bruce up as he attempts to keep a straight face and voice.

3) It Won’t Seem Like Christmas Without You by Elvis Presley. This is my favorite Elvis recording taken from his great Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas album, released in 1971, which includes Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees, If I Get Home on Christmas Day and If Everyday Was Like Christmas. Elvis was in great voice during these recording sessions and puts a lot of emotion into this one. “I’ll see you tonight in my dreams.”

2) A Christmas Memory read by Truman Capote. I first heard this on a Christmas episode of This American Life. This is an abridged version of a short story Capote wrote on his boyhood memories of a special friend he had as child.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

1) White Christmas by Otis Redding. It doesn’t get any better than this with Redding, The King of ‘Em All Y’all, singing his heart out with Booker T and The MGs laying down the backing music. “May your days, may your days, be merry, so merry and bright.”

If you’ve made it this far, I appreciate your time and attention. Let me know some of your favorites I may have missed. I wish you all the best for you and your family and as the Hawaiians say on a bright Christmas day, Mele Kalikimaka!!!

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