Christmas movies are the bread and butter of the holiday season, providing us with something warm and familiar to throw on the TV while we spend quality time with our loved ones. And it just so happens that many Christmas movies — if we’re not counting the dozens of Hallmark TV specials that make their rounds on cable — feature musical numbers. Some are definitely more memorable than others, becoming even more iconic than the movies they come from.
In the heyday of the Rankin/Bass special, movies were being written about particularly memorable Christmas carols. For example, the tune “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” inspired an in-depth origin story centered around Kris Kringle, who would eventually transform into the jolly Santa we know today. Other times, a Christmas song is debuted in a movie, such as “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which was introduced in the 1944 MGM movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Not to mention, a holiday movie even has the power to make an already-beloved tune even more popular — Love, Actually’s inclusion of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in the movie’s holiday talent show is a perfect instance.
The Christmas musical genre is still going strong today. Just this year, Apple TV+ released an original holiday film starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds called Spirited that’s packed with musical numbers (one of them even made it onto this list). Without further ado, here are the best Christmas musical numbers in movies, ranked according to their overall merriness.
“Jingle Bell Rock” from Mean Girls
So, it may not technically be a Christmas movie, but a fair portion of Mean Girls does take part during Christmastime. This includes the Plastics’ annual holiday tradition, throwing on ultra-short dresses and shaking their hips to “Jingle Bell Rock” in front of the whole school — and their parents. After a crucial misstep, the quartet is left standing in awkward silence, inspiring Cady (Lindsay Lohan) to get the crowd singing along while their teacher Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey) covers them on piano. The musical number serves as a testament to Cady’s likability while also establishing tension within the friend group — Amy Poehler’s stage mom coaching from the sidelines is also just plain hilarious.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” from Love, Actually
There are a lot of moving plot points in Love, Actually, but one of the sweeter developments occurs when 10-year-old Joanna (Olivia Olsen) sings Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” at her school’s talent show. She’s backed by a lovelorn Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) on drums, who plays his little heart out — it’s really quite inspiring. While entertaining, this entry is lower on this list because it ruined our expectations for school talent shows. They’re really nowhere near as good as this performance.
“Sleigh Ride” from A Very Murray Christmas
Where else can you see Bill Murray and Miley Cyrus sing and dance together than in A Very Murray Christmas? The Netflix special is stuffed with A-list appearances and performances, but “Sleigh Ride” stands out thanks to its crisp, dreamlike set reminiscent of the days of old Hollywood — complete with a team of glistening reindeer dancers and a live band. Cyrus and Murray feed off each other’s energy in the surreal scene, while none other than George Clooney whips up martinis in the background. Yeah, this is a Christmas party we want to be invited to.
“Walking in the Air” from The Snowman
The Snowman may not be as ubiquitous as Frosty, but this 1968 British animated TV film does feature a particularly beautiful, haunting song — “Walking in the Air”. In fact, the entire special is wordless except for this song, which creates the perfect sonic backdrop to the entrancing visuals. Even if you’ve never seen it before, this musical number has a way of making you feel nostalgic for memories you never even had. The scene that follows is downright depressing — you know what happens to snowmen when it gets too hot? Yeah, that happens. At least this song is pretty, though.
“When Christmas Comes To Town” from The Polar Express
There’s no denying that The Polar Express has some visual issues — its stilted motion capture animation style takes us straight into the uncanny valley, far from the comforting illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book. That being said, the soundtrack is actually high quality — its composer, Alan Silvestri, has worked with director Robert Zemeckis on all of his feature films, including Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. So, is it really surprising that “When Christmas Comes To Town,” a sweet mid-movie ballad, is legitimately a good song? The fact that it’s sung by such unsettling animated children knocks it down a few pegs, but the song is well-crafted, nonetheless.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” from Elf
Elf is one of those holiday movies that’s pretty much impossible not to like. Will Ferrell is so lovable as Buddy the Elf, and his charming character eventually wins the heart of unenthusiastic Christmas store employee Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). In fact, it’s Jovie who leads the people of New York City in an a capella rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” in order to generate enough Christmas spirit to power Santa’s broken sleigh. Her efforts are broadcasted via television to thousands of others, who sing along from the comfort of their homes. It’s a heartwarming moment that brings a happy ending for all involved — who could ask for anything more?
“It Feels Like Christmas” from The Muppet Christmas Carol
Very few ensembles pull off musical numbers better than the Muppets, and the performance of “It Feels Like Christmas” from The Muppet Christmas Carol is no exception. The Ghost of Christmas Present’s carol of good tidings is so infectious, even Michael Caine’s grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge can’t help but smile. Feeling a little blue this holiday season? Watching Jerry Nelson’s performance as this jolly Christmas spirit will make you feel a little bit lighter.
“My World Is Beginning Today” from Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
In what can be described as the only torch song to ever grace a Rankin/Bass special, “My World Is Beginning Today” is a surprisingly soulful highlight of Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. Miss Jessica (Robie Lester)’s standout musical number is replete with trippy visuals and self-reflection — it truly is a shame that it’s cut out of so many cable airings of the film. Let the people watch a young Mrs. Claus let her hair down against a psychedelic dreamscape, for heaven’s sake!
“That Christmas Morning Feelin’” from Spirited
Released in November of 2022, Spirited is a contemporary take on A Christmas Carol that’s packed with song and dance — it’s also your not-often-enough reminder that Will Ferrell can really sing (see also: Elf). “That Christmas Morning Feelin’” is a rousing opening number overflowing with charisma in a way feels Broadway-esque. It’s peppered with cheeky lines such as “Everything’s super holly jolly / It’s like we’re all on molly / But it’s a natural high” — just to remind you that this isn’t your mother’s Christmas Carol. All in all, it’s good fun.
“Mr. Snow Miser/Mr. Heat Miser” from A Year Without A Santa Claus
A Year Without A Santa Claus is perhaps one of Rankin Bass’ most underrated Christmas specials, featuring two of the holiday’s most entertaining characters — brothers Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving). Each one is given his own spotlight in a musical number, with Snow Miser revealing himself to be a song-and-dance man a la Fred Astaire, and Heat Miser shows off his fire-eating tricks. It’s hard to pick a favorite, that’s for sure.
“What’s This?” from The Nightmare Before Christmas
It’s true that The Nightmare Before Christmas does double duty as both a Halloween and Christmas film, but the upbeat musical number “What’s This?” falls distinctly into the latter holiday. Jack Skellington (whose singing voice is provided by Danny Elfman) explores the beguiling world of Christmas Town, becoming euphoric after witnessing the residents’ mirthful festivities. Elfman’s spirited performance combined with the captivating stop motion animation makes “What’s This?” a must-have on this list.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis
While it may not feature jolly carolers or a brigade of dancing elves, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis emulates the holiday spirit in its purest, most poignant form. In contrast to many Christmas songs, which predated their respective movies, this tune was written for this particular MGM musical. Judy Garland’s voice is smooth and clear as a bell — she sings the song as it is written, without unnecessary embellishment. There’s also a tinge of melancholy to her crooning, as her character, Esther, tries to comfort her 5-year-old sister. Sometimes, the simplest, least ostentatious melody is the one that resonates the strongest.
“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
No shade to the 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey, but the 1966 animated film How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is the adaptation with the best musical number. Thurl Ravenscroft’s booming baritone voice is a perfect fit for “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a jazzy ballad that plays while the Grinch (Boris Karloff) swipes ornaments off of Christmas trees and raids the refrigerator for the last of the Who-Hash. The lyrics are wonderfully descriptive, likening the titular character to a prickly cactus, a slithering eel, and a moldy banana in one fell swoop. It’s quite marvelous.
“Holly Jolly Christmas” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
From Clarice’s enchanting “There’s Always Tomorrow” to the Misfit Toys’ hopeful “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year”, Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is brimming with memorable music numbers. Sam the Snowman, however — voiced by Burl Ives — gets the best songs in both the charming ballad “Silver and Gold” and the spirited, uptempo “Holly Jolly Christmas”. The latter comes towards the end of the special, when Rudolph’s woes have been resolved and all is merry and bright. It’s a joyful, heartwarming musical number that just feels like Christmas.
“White Christmas” from White Christmas
Filled with good old fashioned pageantry and tinsel-loaded trees, the gorgeous titular number from Michael Curtiz’ 1954 musical film White Christmas remains a cultural touchstone to this day. Stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen are decked out in fabulous, festive outfits, flanked by adolescent ballet dancers and carolers who lend an air of innocence to the tableau. By the end, the audience has joined in the chorus as a blanket of snow covers the Vermont pine trees outside. There’s no place for cynicism — only unabashed warmth and sentimentality. It’s hard to think of a musical number more iconic or quintessential than this one.