Learn English With These Classic Christmas Songs

It's Christmas season again! And in many English-speaking countries, this means the time of year when Christmas songs get played every day, over and over again.

So today, we'll introduce ten classic songs and explain some words from each of them, so you can learn useful English vocabulary as you listen! You can even use some of these phrases in holiday greeting cards.

Here are the songs in order of the year they were released:

  1. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (1934)
  2. "White Christmas" (1941)
  3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944)
  4. "The Christmas Song" (1946)
  5. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949)
  6. "Frosty the Snowman" (1950)
  7. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (1952)
  8. "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" (1958)
  9. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1963)
  10. "All I Want for Christmas is You" (1994)

1. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1934) – Harry Reser

This song tells children to be nice so they get presents from Santa Claus. The chorus goes like this:

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

A child pouting

"Pouting" is when children push out their lips to show that they are not happy.

You'll often hear parents telling their kids to "stop pouting": e.g. "Stop pouting and do your homework!" or "Stop pouting and go to bed!"

2. “White Christmas” (1941) – Bing Crosby

In "White Christmas," a person happily looks back on Christmases he experienced in the past.

I said, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

"Glisten" means "to look wet and shiny." For example, ocean waves glisten in the sun and a nice shampoo might make your hair glisten.

"Sleigh bells" isn't a useful phrase in daily life, but you'll hear it in many Christmas songs, like "Jingle Bells." They refer to the bells on Santa's sleigh. According to Oxford University Press, sleighs were "unable to stop quickly enough so they needed a warning sound."

3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944) - Judy Garland

This song tells people to have a merry Christmas and not worry about things.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light.
From now on your troubles will be out of sight.

Native English speakers don't usually say that their "heart is light," but there is the phrase "light-hearted." Something that's light-hearted is not meant to be serious. For example, light-hearted movies have funny scenes and happy endings. Most Christmas songs (like the ones in this post) are light-hearted too!

4. “The Christmas Song” (1946) – Nat King Cole

This song describes the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of Christmas.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose

Berries covered in frost

"Frost" is a thin layer of ice that appears when the weather is very cold. You may have heard it in the phrase, "frostbite."

In the past, people said that frost was caused by an imaginary spirit called "Jack Frost."

"Nipping" means "lightly biting." These days, it's uncommon to hear "the cold is nipping my nose."

But you will hear people describe the weather as "nippy" when it's chilly and they feel like the cold air is lightly biting at their skin.

19th century picture of Jack Frost

5. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1949) - Gene Autry

This song is about a reindeer called "Rudolph" who has a bright red nose, which the other reindeers make fun of. However, they start to respect him when one Christmas, his bright nose allows him to lead everyone through the fog.

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows

If something glows, it produces a soft and steady light. We usually use "glow" to talk about things that gently light up in the dark, like fireflies at night and stars in the sky. You can see more example sentences in our dictionary entry for "glow."

6. "Frosty the Snowman" (1950) - Gene Autry

This song is about a magical snowman who plays with the children. Like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Frosty is also a very famous symbol of Christmas.

Frosty the Snowman
Is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow,
but the children know
How he came to life one day

In the song, "come to life" describes how Frosty went from a pile of snow to a living, dancing snowman. You can use this phrase to describe other things that become active or alive. For example, here's a news article about a volcano which "came to life on March 19" this year.

7. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (1952) - Jimmy Boyd

This is a song is about a boy who sees his mother kissing Santa Claus on Christmas night. Of course, he doesn't know that Santa is just his father in a costume!

I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus
Underneath the mistletoe last night

Mistletoe hanging from a door frame

"Mistletoe" is a type of plant that is hung on the ceiling as a Christmas decoration. This word is not used much in daily life, but everyone knows that when two people stand under a mistletoe, they're supposed to kiss. When you watch Christmas movies this season, make sure to look out for this!

8. "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" (1958) - Brenda Lee

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is about people dancing and enjoying Christmas.

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday.
Everyone dancing merrily, in a new old fashioned way

"Merrily" is the adverb form of the word "merry." "Merry" is like "happy" but with a more cheerful and lively feeling. Just think of a merry-go-round and you'll get the idea.

These days, we rarely use the word "merry" except during Christmas.

A child enjoying a merry-go-round

9. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1963) - Andy Williams

This song talks about all the things that make Christmas great.

It's the most wonderful time of the year
There be much mistletoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It's the most wonderful time of the year

Native English speakers don't actually say that their hearts "glow." However, it is used to describe people when they look especially happy or healthy. For example, the writer of this song most likely wanted to express that people "glow" with happiness during Christmas.

A more common phrase that starts with "glow with" is "glow with pride": e.g. "Tom's parents glowed with pride when he won first place in the competition."

Another popular English expression that appears in this verse is "loved ones," which means the people you love. It's often used in Christmas greetings: e.g. "Happy holidays to you and your loved ones!"

10. "All I Want for Christmas is You" (1994) - Mariah Carey

This song is about someone who doesn't need presents for Christmas and just wants to be with their lover.

I just want you for my own
More than you could ever know
Make my wish come true
All I want for Christmas is you

"Come true" means "become real." Wishes, hopes, and predictions are all things that can come true, but this phrase is most often used to talk about dreams becoming reality: e.g. "My dream of moving to Hawaii finally came true."

There's also the phrase "dream come true," which refers to an event that you have wanted to happen for a long time. For example, winning the Nobel Prize is a dream come true for many researchers, and for many of us, winning the lottery would probably be a dream come true.

Want to Learn More Popular English Phrases While Having Fun?

For more popular English phrases you can use this Christmas season, check out our free lessons on holiday foods and traditions around the world.

And make sure to take these lessons with an online English tutor. Engoo tutors come from over 100 countries, so you can practice English conversation while learning about different cultures. Find out more about us here.