Holiday music is a divisive issue. Some people love the time of year when sleigh bells and Dean Martin rule the air waves, while others don’t necessarily want to hear the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” 10 times when they’re trying to get their grocery shopping done. Love it or hate it, though, you’re going to hear it. We have one helpful way to mix up the seasonal tunes: exploring the world of multilingual holiday music.
We at Babbel decided to give you your gift early this year by putting together a mixtape of our favorite multilingual holiday music, meaning songs that feature languages other than English. The English language does tend to have a monopoly on the musical world (thanks cultural hegemony!), but your options are vast. And in addition to broadening your worldview, listening to music in other languages is a great way to practice your skills.
It’s an eclectic collection, but hopefully within it you’ll find a more expansive way to usher in tidings of good cheer. You can listen to the playlist on Spotify, and learn more about the background of these songs by reading on below.
Babbel’s Multilingual Holiday Music Guide
“Xin Nian Hao” by Teresa Teng
Title in English: “Happy New Year”
The Lunar New Year celebrated in China, Vietnam and a few other countries falls a few weeks after January 1, but it can still be counted as part of the holiday season. That’s why we’re including this Chinese-language song that you might hear during that two-week festival. The concept of the song is straightforward: it wishes people a happy new year. This version is performed by Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese singer who performed across Asia in the second half of the 20th century.
“Huilen (kerst)” by Stippenlift
Title in English: “Cry (Christmas)”
Not a fan of all the bright and cheery holiday music? Then you’ll love 2016’s “Huilen (kerst),” where the chorus is a repeat of the line Ik wil alleen maar huilen, which translates to “I just want to cry.” Holidays can be a tough time of the year for sure. So if you’re one of those people who likes listening to sad music, then this is perfect for you. The artist Stippenlift is sometimes considered the inventor of his own genre: depressedwave.
“Varpunen Jouluaamuna” by Suvi Teräsniska
Title in English: “A Sparrow on Christmas Morning”
“Varpunen Jouluaamuna” is an example of a joululauluja, which is a lovely Finnish word that means “Christmas carol.” The song tells the story of a sparrow’s flight on Christmas morning, touching a bit on the religious significance of the day. The song is performed by Suvi Teräsniska, a singer who’s popular in Finland.
“Petit Papa Noël” by Tino Rossi
Title in English: “Little Father Christmas”
Originally from the 1946 French film Destins, “Petit Papa Noël” is a classic French song around the holidays. The song was first performed by Toni Rossi, an actor and musical artist who appeared in several movies during his lifetime. “Petit Papa Noël” is one of his most lasting legacies, selling millions of copies since its release. It’s also been covered by numerous people, including Josh Groban, who gave it some renewed attention in the English-speaking world. The lyrics of the song tell the story of Papa Noël, better known to English speakers as Santa Claus.
“O Tannenbaum” by Nat King Cole
Title in English: “O Christmas Tree” (lit. “O Fir Tree”)
We would be remiss to not include this German classic. And when we say classic, we mean that this song goes way back. The melody is based on a German folk tune that at first had no connection to any particular holiday. The Christmassy lyrics were added in 1824 by German Composer Ernst Anschütz. The lyrics themselves were based on a Silesian poem called “Ach Tannenbaum,” which used the fir tree as a symbol of a steady lover (the Christmas tree tradition wasn’t common in Europe until the 19th century). This song has since been translated into a popular English version, but the original is still a staple in Germany. We chose one of the classic performances by American singer Nat King Cole.
“Weihnachts-Oratorium” by Johann Sebastian Bach
Original Language: German
Title in English: “Christmas Oratorio”
If “O Tannenbaum” isn’t old enough for you, you should listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1734 “Weihnachts-Oratorium,” which he wrote to be played at churches during the Christmas season. We included only a small part of the piece because the entire composition takes about two and a half hours to get through. It’s also split into six distinct parts, meant to be played on specific days that extend from Christmas (December 25) to the Epiphany (January 6), encompassing the story of Jesus Christ’s earliest days.
“Mele Kalikimaka” by Cyril Panihui
Language: Hawaiian and English
Title in English: “Merry Christmas”
You’ve almost certainly heard “Mele Kalikimaka” before. Originally performed by Christmas crooner Bing Crosby in 1949 and written by Hawaii resident Robert Alexander Anderson, this song has been covered by countless artists over the years. To strive for slightly more authenticity, we’re including the version by Hawaiian musician Cyril Panihui.
“Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” by Luciano Pavarotti
Title in English: “You Come Down From the Stars”
What would an Italian Christmas be without a little Pavarotti? This religious holiday song is well-known by children across Italy. It’s another telling of the Christian story of Christmas, and it’s a common choice among Italian church choirs. This version is performed by universally acclaimed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
“クリスマスイブ” by Tatsurō Yamashita
Title in English: “Christmas Eve”
Tatsurō Yamashita is a Japanese singer-songwriter who was one of the first performers of a style of music called “city pop,” which was popular in Japan during the 1970s and ’80s. He’s also very well known for this Christmas song, which has become a holiday standard in Japan. When you listen to the song, you should recognize some English words, as the refrain of the song is “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Don’t let that mislead you, though. This song isn’t so much about the religious aspect of the holiday as it is another common theme of Christmas music: missing someone you love.
Note: Tatsurō Yamashita’s original song isn’t available on Spotify, so we instead included a version performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus. If you do want to hear the original, you can easily find it on YouTube.
“Ocho Kandelikas” by Pink Martini
Title in English: “Eight Candles”
Ladino, sometimes called Judaeo-Spanish or a number of other names, is a language spoken by only about 50,000 people. It’s related most closely to Old Spanish, with influences from a few other Romance languages, as well as Hebrew and Aramaic. Ladino is spoken primarily by Sephardic Jews, who are the descendants of the Jewish population who lived in the Iberian Peninsula before being expelled in the 15th century. This is a lot of background, but it’s important to know all that to see why a Hanukkah song was written in this language in the year 1983 by Jewish-American composer Flory Jagoda. It’s a pretty simple song about the traditions of this Jewish holiday, but it gives representation to a language that isn’t very well known.
This version is performed my Pink Martini, a 21st century American band that performs across genres and languages. They have a whole album featuring multilingual holiday music, should you be inclined to seek out more.
“Bate O Sino Pequenino” by a Children’s Choir
Title in English: “Hit the Little Bell”
When this song starts up, you’ll probably immediately recognize the melody. It’s “Jingle Bells,” which is perhaps one of the most commonly adapted Christmas songs of all time. The lyrics, however, are the Christian story of Christmas told in Portuguese, sung by children.
“Sus, La Poarta Raiului” by Paula Seling
Title in English: “At Heaven’s Door”
“Sus, La Poarta Raiului” is a classic Romanian holiday song, performed by countless people over the years. The lyrics use repetition to tell the Christian story of Christmas, and it is a song you might hear in a Romanian church around the holidays. This particular rendition is by Paula Seling, a Romanian performer who is perhaps best-known internationally for having participated in the Eurovision Song Contest twice (most recently in 2014). She’s also put out quite a bit of music, with 13 albums. Of those 13, three are Christmas albums specifically, which might be because her birthday happens to fall on December 25.
“Auld Lang Syne” by Dougie MacLean
Title in English: Lit. “Old Long Since”
Another song you’re bound to recognize, “Auld Lang Syne” is based on a 1788 poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns. If you’ve ever looked at the lyrics and thought, “What the heck does this mean?,” you’re not alone. But that’s because it’s not in English, it’s in Scots. The Scots language is closely related to English, but it’s different enough that it looks “wrong” to an English speaker. The problem worsens because the song is often Anglicized, with certain words translated into their English equivalents but others — like the titular “Auld Lang Syne” — being left alone. We chose a version of the song that sticks close to the original Burns text, which, if you didn’t know, is a poem about wishing the old year goodbye.
“В лесу родилась ёлочка” by Kvatro
Title in English: “The Little Fir Tree”
This song is a very common tune to hear during the holiday season in Russia. It’s often sung by children the same way “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls” is in English. It might be closest to “O Christmas Tree,” however, because it tells the story of a small fir tree that grows up to become a holiday decoration (which is a happy story if you don’t think about it too hard). We included a version sung by the Russian vocal group Kvatro, which puts a bit of a jazzy spin on the holiday classic.
“Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano
Language: Spanish and English
Title in English: “Merry Christmas”
It’s impossible to make a multilingual holiday music playlist without mentioning “Feliz Navidad” by Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano. The song was first released in 1970, and has since become part of the Christmas music canon. The actual Spanish element is pretty simple, though, with the only line being Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad, which translates to “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, happy new year and happiness.”
“Cantares de Navidad” by Rodolfo Aicardi con los Hispanos
Title in English: “Songs of Christmas”
For a holiday song that’s more fully in Spanish, you can listen to “Cantares de Navidad.” The song is performed by Rodolfo Aicardi, a prolific Colombian singer who performed through the second half of the 20th century. He spent his career singing tropical music, and this Christmas song is no exception, so expect upbeat rhythms and no mentions of snow. And while the song sounds happy, the lyrics are more mixed. It’s about the contradictions of Christmas, and how people who are poor might hate the season because it reminds them they have nothing.
“Amarga Navidad” by José Alfredo Jimenez
Title in English: “Bitter Christmas”
As the title makes clear, this song is another entry into the painfully sad multilingual holiday music canon. Something about Christmas makes the lovelorn side of people really pop out. It’s a beautiful song, however, sung by Mexican singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jimenez, who made countless contributions to music in the 20th century. This song, which came out in Jimenez’s 1958 album Ella…La Que Se Fue, has been covered countless times over the decades.
“Blanca Navidad” by Eydie Gormé y los Panchos
Title in English: “White Christmas”
We’re not including too much multilingual holiday music that’s been translated from English, simply because they would overwhelm the rest of the list. There are plenty out there, though, and they can be useful if you’re learning a language because you’ll likely know what some of the lyrics mean already. But we thought we’d include at least one of our favorites, which is “Blanca Navidad,” based on Bing Crosby’s classic “White Christmas.” It’s sung by Eydie Gormé, who is an American by birth, but who broke onto the Latin music charts when in the 1960s she started performing with Los Panchos, who had already cemented their status in Latin America as accomplished bolero singers in the ’40s and ’50s.
“Jul Jul Strålande Jul” by Peter Jöback
Title in English: “Christmas, Christmas, Brilliant Christmas”
For a holiday song you might hear in Swedish churches, “Jul Jul Strålande Jul” is a good choice. It’s a song about the glories of the Christmas season often sung by choirs. This version is by Peter Jöback, an accomplished singer and actor who got his big break working on a Swedish musical with Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.
“Mer Jul” by Adolphson & Falk
Title in English: “More Christmas”
While church music is great for some, “Mer Jul” is a much better holiday option for people who love Swedish music that’s heavy on the synth. The song was released in 1982 by the Swedish synth-pop band Adolphson & Falk. The lyrics are kind of ironic, with playful allusions to various Christmas traditions. It was an instant hit once it was released, and has remained one of the most-played holiday songs in Sweden to this day.
“Щедрик” by the Crimean Chamber Choir
Title in English: “The Little Swallow” (lit. “Bountiful”)
This song, as you’ll immediately recognize, is the basis for the English song “Carol of the Bells.” “Щедрик” predates that song, however. It was composed in 1916 by Mykola Leontovych, and was originally sung on New Year’s Eve. The lyrics are the story of a small swallow who flies into a home and tells a man about how bountiful his farm will be that year. In 1936, “Carol of the Bells” was written in English, which has very little in common lyrically with the original song.