Welcome to my sort of annual celebration of Christmas music! I say, “sort of annual” because while I technically haven’t written about this topic every year, at least not in this format, I have written about Christmas music quite often in the past for Rambling Ever On. Today, we’re going to look at some of my favorite versions of one of my favorite Christmas songs, “O Holy Night”.
Previously, I have written about “Little Drummer Boy” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. (Click on the links to read those articles and to hear each of the songs I discuss.) When I write these articles, it’s important that I share the actual songs because that’s the whole point of this exercise. It’s not so much what I have to say about each song as much as it is what each song brings to the table.
“O Holy Night” was my favorite Christmas song for a long time. It might have been passed by a few songs at this point, but it is still very high on my list. It’s theologically strong, musically rich and poignant, and emotionally resonant. In my book, that’s the Christmas music trifecta!
Before we dive into my seven favorite versions of “O Holy Night”, I would be remiss if I overlooked what is perhaps my favorite version of the song. I am not including it in my list because there is no recording of it. Years ago, back in my days at Welch College, my good friend, Ben Plunkett, and I would make our way to the Academic building where the computer lab was located. This was back in the dark days when very few students owned their own computers.
Ben and I would walk from our dorm and head up the stairs to the 3rd floor of the building. The stairwells in that building had incredible acoustics so of course we would sing. Neither of us had a great voice but in that stairwell, we sounded like angels. Ben’s gravely baritone and my nasally tenor would blend into a harmonious crescendo as we would hit the high notes of “O Holy Night”. (And to be clear, we sang this song throughout the year, not just at Christmas, because it was awesome, and it sounded awesome in that wonderful stairwell.) I weep for all who missed our performances. Heaven came to earth when we sang. True story!
Now, to the list!
We’ll kick things off with one of the big hitters, Celine Dion. I realize picking something this obvious might lose me some points with our readers but I’m willing to accept that. This version of “O Holy Night” is strong enough to withstand some pushback. Celine’s voice is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. She hits every note effortlessly. The arrangement is strong, and I particularly love the restrained second verse, with Celine taking a step back to a small group on child singers. Of course, Celine reappears and crushes the finale of the song in a way that very few singers can. What’s not to love?
John Williams (Home Alone)
I love the movie “Home Alone”. It’s a family favorite every Christmas. Beyond being an incredibly entertaining and funny movie, it’s also quite moving. Perhaps one of the primary reasons the film has had such lasting power and popularity is due to the magnificent score by John Williams. While the film creatively incorporates many classic Christmas songs, the orchestral score composed and conducted by John Williams ties it all together. Particularly his lovely choral rendition of “O Holy Night”.
It’s no coincidence the film employs this song when it does. During perhaps the most pivotal moment in the film for our protagonist, a children’s choir sings this wonderful song of peace and hope. And not surprisingly, the arrangement by John Williams is at once timeless yet refreshingly new and inventive.
When I first decided to focus on “O Holy Night” for my Christmas song article this year, I asked for some suggestions from my friends. My brother, a big Manchester Orchestra fan, recommended their version. I was hooked immediately. I realize it won’t be everyone’s favorite, but I really dig the vibe and Andy Hull’s vocals are drenched in emotion. It’s a nice change of pace in style and I’m so happy to add it to my regular rotation.
Nat King Cole
Christmas music and Nat King Cole go hand in hand. I’ve actually felt a little guilty for not picking a Nat King Cole song in my previous articles. I rectify that great error today!
“O Holy Night” in the hands of Nat King Cole is everything. It feels like home; Gentle, peaceful, beautiful, and full of wonder. He hits all the notes but does it with such grace you don’t even notice how challenging it actually is. “O Holy Night” is a great song, but it’s made all the better due to this version.
If you asked Artificial Intelligence to produce its version of Mariah Carey singing “O Holy Night” my guess is that it would sound almost exactly like this. Big R&B vibes and Mariah doing Mariah sort of things, particularly at the end of the song with her whistling high note.
I submit it is borderline criminal to not have a Mariah Carey song in your Christmas music rotation.
Future of Forestry
I might as well warn you now. I’ll probably continue writing these “Seven Favorite Versions” articles for as long as I can. A new one each year. And as long as I have breath, Future of Forestry will make the final cut.
“O Holy Night” in the hands of Future of Forestry is timeless with just enough creative flourish to make it stand out from the rest of the pack. The electric guitar after the second chorus is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The song is treated with the reverence and respect it deserves but that little touch elevates this version above so many others.
Have you seen those videos where people react to musical performances? Often, it’s someone reacting to a song they have never heard before. David Phelps performing “O Holy Night” for the Gaither Christmas special is why those reaction videos exist.
This is a powerhouse performance by Phelps. I don’t care if you like Southern Gospel. If you can’t appreciate this rendition, I can’t help you. Special shoutout to the pianist who clearly didn’t want Phelps to get all the accolades.
Final thoughts about “O Holy Night”
“What about _______’s version?”
“How could you leave ________ off your list?”
“You are the worst. YOU FORGOT ABOUT ________!!!!”
These are the sorts of comments I’m anticipating. Bring it on. I’m a big boy and I can handle all your negativity. I’m being a little facetious. Most of the comments I receive for these articles are extremely positive. But if you have a favorite version of “O Holy Night” that I left off this list, please let us know in the comments.
The most important takeaway is that you comment. We LOVE to read your comments so don’t hold back. Thanks for reading and keep listening to great Christmas music.