14 Holiday Songs That Don’t Mention Christmas

Christmas is here, which means Christmas songs – yay!

winter forest
Photo by Simon Matzinger from Pexels

I look forward to this music all year. I do not listen to it off-season, as I don’t want it to lose potency. If I’m honest, the holiday-themed songs that play at the mall are not usually what makes me feel festive. Although my relationship to Christianity is complicated, to me Christmas music will always be what I was brought up on: sacred music written between 1550 and 1860 (plus a few worthy classics from the 20thcentury). Some of my favourite melodies ever in the world are traditional Christmas carols: Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Angels We Have Heard on High. (This is not to say that current musicians aren’t making some great versions of classic Christmas songs, as well as new ones that deserve to be classics… I just don’t often hear those at the mall.)

A few weeks ago, I was shopping with AB for a birthday present for her friend, and we heard singing outside the toy store. There was a women’s choir, spanning at least three generations, singing carols for passersby. AB was really excited and we made the time to listen to a few songs. Being the mush-ball that I am, and especially now, being a music teacher, I got teary-eyed. I never fail to be moved and exhilarated by a group of human voices singing a beautiful song together. It just makes me really happy – and generally speaking, it’s more likely to happen at this time of year than at any other.

Being a teacher in the public school system, I’ve also learned to tread very carefully when it comes to cultural and especially religious traditions. That is partly what inspired this list of “Christmas” songs that don’t contain the word Christmas (or Jesus, or Mary – or even Santa). It’s good to know what the options are, if you need to be secular. It’s also good to know what other traditions have inspired singing around midwinter – since there are lots. Lastly, it’s an interesting exercise to look at songs that are ingrained in the holidays and realize that some are not Christmas – just jolly.

{Side note: I am aware that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” qualifies for this list. I’ve decided not to talk about it at this embattled moment. Not because I usually shy away from hot-button issues, but because I can see both sides of the argument, and that’s boring. Plus, no one’s going to sing this one for an elementary school holiday assembly. Plus, I began writing this post at the beginning of December. Get ‘er done already, Dilovely.}

1) Gloucestershire Wassail (Middle Ages)

Okay, chances are that this isn’t going to be sung at a school assembly either. Songs about wassailing come from the tradition described thus by Wikipedia: “In the middle ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging.” It’s mostly about drinking and sharing food. There are at least six verses to this song, and one of them does mention Christmas pie – but many recordings leave that one out. My personal point about this song is that it’s simply exuberant and I love it. (In case you’re all “WHAT is this ancient song I’ve never heard of,” my mom was in a Renaissance choir when she was pregnant with me, and for many years of my childhood. I come by my early music fetish honestly.)

2) Deck the Halls (Tune written 16th c., English lyrics 1862)

This is one of those songs that was actually about Yuletide (a 12-day pre-Christian festival beginning on the winter solstice) until someone switched out the word “Yuletide” for “Christmas.” Both versions still seem to be well-known. I relate deeply to celebrating the solstice – the fact that people instinctively gather together, share meals, and burn candles and wood fires to bolster themselves against the darkness and cold.

3) Ding Dong Merrily on High (Tune written 16th c., English lyrics late 19th c.)

Is there anything more thrilling than the beautiful notes of the Gloria section, weaving around each other like dancers? Ach, so great. And this song does mention heav’n and angels, but it doesn’t say what or whom all the hosannas are about. This video was taken in Australia, which is why the audience is outside… IT’S SUMMER.

4) Here We Come a-Wassailing (c. 1850)

More boisterous singing door-to-door in exchange for food/gifts. As above, there is a mention of Christmas in some versions, depending on how many verses you sing – again, asking for Christmas leftovers – “Christmas loaf” along with some “mouldy cheese.” I always wonder – is that the good cheese mould, or is that just whatever crappy cheese is still lying around?

5) Good King Wenceslas (1853)

For the longest time, I thought the “feast of Stephen” was a hill or plain that the good king looked out on, because OBVIOUSLY. That’s where the snow was lying round about. Turns out it’s St. Stephen’s Day, variously mentioned as December 26th or 27th. Good old K-Wen brings flesh and wine to the poor man who lives by Ste. Agnes’ fountain – and, I would think, probably some mouldy cheese or Christmas pie, although that’s not mentioned. The poetry of this song plus the rather swashbuckling tune is a winning combo. Oh, and the message of being kind to those less fortunate (St. Stephen was all about that). That’s great too.

6) Jingle Bells (1857)

Arguably the most iconic holiday song ever EVER. When I ask kids to think about the first “Christmas” song that comes to their minds, the first hand up is for Jingle Bells. People compulsively incorporate bits of it into other songs, it has a proper fully-realized French version, and everyone knows the words to the chorus (which, I’ve recently realized, can be played on a class set of handbells). So joyful, so simple, and it’s always fun to sing a good, hearty “hey!” – not to mention a nice overdone “HA HA HA.” Kinda perfect.

7) Winter Wonderland (1934)

Not only is this song not about Christmas, it’s not even really about snow, in my opinion. It’s about being giddy in love, and the world seeming enchanted as a result. Which is sweet – I know the feeling of being all in a tizzy about a guy (in the winter), and it does feel magical. The “glistening” and the “heaven of diamonds” and all that.

8) Let It Snow (1945)

This may be the story of the same couple, a little later in the relationship, a bit more settled and cozy. It’s got that feeling of a snow day when you’re a kid – you watch the snow coming down and cheer for it to keep coming so you can stay home all day in your pyjamas.

9) Marshmallow World (1949)

This one is whimsical, childlike – though I must say that the lines “Those are marshmallow clouds being friendly / In the arms of the evergreen trees” have a psychedelic poetry to them that seems ahead of its time to me.

10) Sleigh Ride (Instrumental 1948, lyrics 1950)

The instrumental version of this is my favourite, with the vivacious tempo, the clip-clopping woodblocks, and the masterful trumpet whinny at the end. (Probably because I have great memories of playing it with the Concert Band in the main foyer of my high school before Christmas break – ages ago.) But I like the lyrics too. I can’t help but agree with “There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy / When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.” Having a festive meal with people you love is one of those human things I would really miss if I had to go live among the aliens.

11) Frosty the Snowman (1950)

“Thumpety-thump-thump” is almost as Christmassy as the sound of sleigh bells, no? Well, maybe not. But Rudolph and Frosty go hand-in-hand – at least in my mind – even though one is absolutely Christmas Eve and the other, if we think about it, probably takes place in March. On one of those freaky days when the temperature shoots up and you go tromping through slush in a T-shirt and rubber boots.

12) Jingle Bell Rock  (1957)

I have really liked this song ever since several years ago when a couple of my Grade 2 students accosted me at recess and sang it to me, with actions. Especially “Giddy-up, jingle horse, pick up your feet,” because of the way they bounced around, full of joyful energy.

13) Shall We Gather by the Fire (2010)

This is from an album of the same name, by a Ren-Fest group called Three Quarter Ale. Interestingly, the majority of the songs on it are not about Christmas – some are about Hanukkah, and quite a few are just about life, but relate somehow to the holiday season. This carol ends the album, and is just as cozy a Neo-Renaissance song as you will ever find. I also love “Any Day’s a Holiday” from the same album – it’s just about the exhilaration of conviviality, and dang if it doesn’t make you wanna go dancing in your pantaloons.

14) The Holly and the Ivy

I’ve put this in the last spot because it’s a bit of a mystery. There is some debate about how old its origins are; some say it began as a druidic song, before Christmas was a thing. I came upon a post written by someone who grew up with a secular version of this song and who didn’t know until much later that the most common version is Christian. I was intrigued, because the forest-y imagery is what I love best about this song – the bright plants, “the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer” through a majestic snowy woodland in my mind. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a truly listenable pagan version, so here’s a very listenable Christian version… and for your reference, two different non-Christmas lyric pages here and here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the list, and are enjoying some togetherness with good people, yummy food, and warm toes. Wait, that kinda sounds like toes are food. No. Dang it, Dilovely, wrap it up.

I just wish you happy glowy times. Love to you and yours!

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4 thoughts on “14 Holiday Songs That Don’t Mention Christmas

  1. Helen says:

    This past weekend, I heard an interview about this album: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/jd-mcpherson-christmas-album-socks-762447/ and they played some clips. The songs are rocking, and they didn’t sound very overtly Christmassy to me (at least the clips I heard), so it might be worth checking out to add to your list.
    Otherwise, I can’t think of any to add! I kept thinking of ones, then I’d read further and realize you addressed them. Great job!
    By the way, “jingle horse” has to be my favorite phrase in any holiday song ever.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Agree about jingle horse: incredibly fun to say. And I will check out this album! In case you are interested in a Canadian hero whose Christmas album is also really interesting and fun and original, Hawksley Workman’s “Almost a Full Moon” (or “Full Moon Eleven” for the acoustic version) is one we like a lot.

  2. Helen says:

    I just thought of one you missed (but it’s not in English): “O Tannenbaum.” Now, the English translation is “O Christmas Tree,” but Tannen doesn’t mean Christmas. According to Google Translate, it means “fir.” And I looked up the rest of the lyrics, and I don’t think there’s anything overtly Christmassy about the song–it’s literally about how awesome fir trees are because they never lose their needles.

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