There’s a reason that listeners seem to get more anxious every year for the Christmas music season to start: Nothing else feels quite like it. The things that make Christmas songs great — whether carols, old pop standards or newer enduring hits — are most of the same things that make pop great in general: emotional connection, universal relatability, unshakeable catchiness.
But Christmas music has a wavelength entirely its own, shared by an overwhelming majority of its most recognizable classics: a sort of sublime yearning that’s at once profoundly saddening and deeply comforting. It evokes a visceral, nearly oppressive sentimentality, one fortified and strengthened by a lifetime’s worth of associated holiday memories — personal, familial, romantic, nostalgic. It’s music for the most wonderful time of the year, even if it always makes you cry.
And it never goes away. Well, maybe for ten months of the year, it goes into hibernation — but you know it’ll be back next November at the latest, and it’ll include the same songs it has for your entire life. Unlike the oldies and classic rock canons, which are forced to update their timeline parameters every so often (or at least shed some old songs to make room for the new), being a Christmas standard is a lifetime appointment. Perennials that date back the better part of a century at this point are still ubiquitous every holiday season, while new seasonal releases often take whole decades to prove their worthiness. It makes every Christmas season a musical family gathering where everyone shows up and co-exists peacefully — something precious few of us are lucky enough to be able to say say about our actual families’ real-life holiday celebrations.
Here are Billboard‘s staff picks for the 100 greatest Christmas songs of all time — songs that, try as folks might, no amount of commercial overplay or corporate co-opting can seem to ruin.