Picky Bastard’s Fran Slater recently expressed a raging disdain for Christmas music and other features of the festive season. He’s quite right about some things: Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year and it shouldn’t start up before December. However, I strongly disagree on the core issues here, not least the dig at Christmas pudding – it’s delicious and you get to pour hard liquor over it and set it on fire.
There are many things I would change about Christmas but music isn’t one of them. Christmas is the only big national festival in the UK, the one time in the year where a celebration takes over. Brazil has Carnival, India has Holi, we have Christmas. Yeah, we’re shit, but when your culture gives you turkey, make stuffing.
A proper cultural celebration is a total sensory experience: the colours, the food, the smells and the sounds. Music is obviously essential. Our Christmas canon is an entire kaleidoscope of songs and there is extreme stylistic variation amongst the many that get heavy annual rotation. Christmas playlists and compilations feature songs from at least the last eight decades – ‘Frosty the Snowman’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ were all written in the 1940s – and is the only context in which disco, Irish folk, pop, soul, swing, Motown, glam rock, and classical can be appropriately put together.
There’s also emotional range. Christmas music is certainly weighted on the unashamedly merry side (it’s a celebration after all), but alongside the likes of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ there’ll be Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ and ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 – written about the suicide of Tony Mortimer’s older brother and a rare festive staple with no explicit link to the season. Elsewhere Radio 4 did an excellent programme on River by Joni Mitchell providing solace when the enforced jollity of the season is too much to bear. Whatever you’re feeling, there will be a festive song out there that speaks to your mood.
I’m not defending the quality and integrity of all festive tunes or even arguing that the majority are good. No one wishes it could be Christmas every day, Cliff Richards is unbearable, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ is an unrelenting dirge. Conversely I could unpack the genius of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’, but Slate, Time and Quartz have done it for me.
Critical opinions aren’t really the point though. The music will exist as long as Christmas as a cultural tradition exists, and as with any shared experience it’s about connection: it’s drunkenly belting out Slade with your pals, rockin’ around the Christmas tree with your nan/kids/dog/etc or hearing ‘Last Christmas’ after you’ve had your heart broken. Whether we like it or not, these musical behemoths come around year after year as part of a celebration and (ideally) pause for reflection in the bleakest depths of winter. Christmas songs are a timeless tradition and as such – Scrooges take note – they connect us to the people around us and our past, present, and future selves.
Words by Fliss Clarke