Christmas music has always been a key feature of celebration in the festive season. The older most popular songs have been reworked multiple times, yet what is it about these songs that instigate such a desire in the general public to revive the same music year upon year? Why are so many Christmas songs so popular and why are so many artists trying their hand at the genre?


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The tradition of singing Christmas carols has been around for many centuries. A period of celebration is a natural instinct, and carols were often a key feature of festivities, originally a pagan tradition and not one associated solely with the Christmas period. The Christian community adopted the carol format and the Christmas carol, as we now know it, was developed. It became custom to take the carols to the streets and sing at neighbours’ doors, to spread the Christmas cheer to the wider community and this continued throughout the 1900s, and is still, albeit rarely and mainly confined to the Church, a feature of Christmas celebration today.

From the carol, more festive songs came into being, such as Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus taking a more light-hearted approach and a step back from the religious imagery that saturated the carol.

The commercialisation of the Christmas song arguably began in the 1970s with the introduction of the Top of the Pops Christmas special. The Christmas song was not widely regarded by many artists in this period as a credible form of music, especially with the high proportion of novelty Christmas songs throughout the 1960s. However, this began to change with the population’s increasing appreciation for pop music. The duel for Christmas Number One between Slade and Wizzard featured on the televised pop music show in 1973; it has been reported widely that Slade amongst many others still accrue a vast sum of money each season in royalties and performing rights for Merry Xmas Everybody. As the “Christmas Number One” became more of a concern to the music industry and the public, it became a key Christmas tradition, and each year a new battle for Number One commenced. People who wouldn’t normally purchase records would partake to help their chosen song win the title of Christmas Number One.

Although talent shows such as the X Factor, and its predecessor Pop Idol, hijacked the Christmas Number One for a period of time, the successful campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Killing In The Name Of to Number One took back control of the chart from what many came to perceive as the Simon Cowell pop machine, and a dumbing down of musical variety.

In more recent years, we are experiencing the Christmas advert music trend, i.e. the siren song for consumerism. In recent years, we have seen Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love, Elton John’s Your Song, Oasis’ Half The World Away, and The Beatles Golden Slumbers to name a few be subjected to the Christmas advert reworking by artists Gabrielle Aplin, Ellie Goulding, Aurora and Elbow. This process involves slowing down the pace, adding a sense of tranquility, which lend themselves nicely to the emotive narrative on screen. For what sells better than a heart-wrenching Christmas advert’s accompanying song, played on repeat across radio and TV to encourage you towards spending money at their establishment? And with this repetition, the song becomes incorporated into the Christmas music canon.

The Christmas advert song definitely has recurring features; however, there does not appear to be a typical formula to every Christmas song. In terms of instrumentation, most feature jingle bells, or in the least some form of tinkling higher pitched piano keys mimicking that sleigh bell sound (Last Christmas, Sleigh Ride, All I Want For Christmas Is You, Happy Xmas (War Is Over), Wonderful Christmastime, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, …). Lyrics often focus on the joy of the season, describing festive cheer, with an inclusion of cosy imagery and Christmas iconography that has come to be associated with the season, such as the tree, gifts, snow, decorations, Santa in his many guises, the fireplace, stockings, love, sleigh bells, etc.

Some of the nation’s most loved Christmas songs however appear to invert the traditional tales of joy and festive cheer. Wham’s Last Christmas is a tale of woe and heartbreak; The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York begins with an upbeat tale of love and adoration between two protagonists, suddenly taking a drastic turn for the worse and evolves into a tale of hate and despise for one another.

Christmas songs, however, tend to lend themselves to the period in which they are written, for example Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) brings a politicised narrative of protest at the Vietnam War into the Christmas music canon by promoting messages of peace. Do They Know It’s Christmas? was a charity single to raise money for the famine victims in Ethiopia, and therefore the lyrics are full of pathos, with the heart-breaking ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’ refrain reminding those more fortunate of the terrible situations others are experiencing.

The new renditions, and attempts at creating a lasting classic, either via the reworking of a much loved Christmas song, or the crafting of an original, have recently given us such treats as Courtney Barnett’s Boxing Day Blues, with its heavy focus on the bass drum, and jangling guitar, and Slow Club’s reworking of Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), with a much heavier sound than is typical for most Christmas songs, but with soaring soulful vocals and the big choral backing in keeping with tradition and familiarity. In 2008, Fleet Foxes provided us with the joy of White Winter Hymnal, which although is not inherently Christmas-related is definitely seasonal – the track incorporates building choral harmonies that are so intrinsic to that Christmas song vibe. Sweet Baboo in 2015 gave us Don’t Be Alone (This Christmas), which starts with a bass line that introduces the ever familiar jingle bells and a merrily upbeat piano line. Detailing Christmas Day as the loneliest night of all incorporates once again that desire for company at Christmas time, yet also utilises that pastiche style, demonstrating the other side of what can be a difficult time at Christmas. In 2016, Low gave us Some Hearts (at Christmas Time) with choral backing vocals, finger-plucked guitar and wavering synths, with a tear-inducing main vocal line over the top.

The nostalgic return season after season to the same Christmas songs is a return to the familiar and to tradition: the reminder that despite the fact another year is almost over, we still have cause to celebrate. Christmas songs as a canon are a critical part of the season’s excitement; they have a strong appeal, and aid in the building of festive cheer. Their popularity is unquestionable.


Enter our MINIRIG x Trackd Christmas Song Contest and be in with a chance of winning the incredible portable bluetooth speakers from MINIRIG.

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