Is the Christmas Song Dead?

With every Christmas the winter snow falls to let Mariah Carey know she’s suddenly relevant again. Every year without fail, those Christmas songs that we love, love to hate, and just genuinely hate with a passion (I’m looking at you ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’) provide the soundtrack to our holidays. But, have you, with increasing frequency in recent years, found yourself asking: “What was the last good, original Christmas song to be released”?

Now, we won’t waste time debating what the correct answer to such a philosophical question may be- I think we’re all quite happy to accept that it’s obviously ‘Christmas Lights’ by Coldplay, or even Justin Bieber’s ‘Mistletoe’ if we’re allowing children to compete in the competition. But it’s true that very few of the Christmas songs recorded in recent years are slipping into popular consciousness. That isn’t to say that artists aren’t releasing Christmas tunes anymore- SIA recently brought out a whole album entitled Everyday Is Christmas, and artists like Michael Bublé, Kylie Minogue, Gwen Stefani and something called The Vamps have all recently filled literally tens of stockings across the globe. So, although new Christmas songs are present, why is it that we only seem to hear the same old ‘classics’ every single year?

To answer, it’s useful to return to the start. The Christmas song tradition began with the likes of ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, ‘Let It Snow’ and ‘White Christmas’ (which remains today as the greatest selling single of all time). The combination of monetarily consumable music with a holiday season built on the back of unbridled capitalism was nothing short of genius, and once they realised it made money, the music industry beat that reindeer like a dead horse all over Lapland. The result of this tradition is an oversaturated market: there are over 1 million tracks on Spotify that can be identified as ‘Christmas Songs’. Of course, there are duplicates here – 2,000 of those songs are the exact same recording of Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ – but it’s clear our musical libraries are so flooded with the sounds of timeless Christmas songs that almost everything else is lost beneath the torrent.

With this oversaturated market, it’s extremely difficult to record and release something new, something unique, something long-lasting, because it’s all been done before. ‘Underneath the Tree’? Mud already covered the theme of festive heartbreak with ‘Lonely this Christmas’. ‘One More Sleep’? ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ had Christmas eve all wrapped up over 70 years ago. Even David Bowie found it hard to break into the Christmas song market with ‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’, considering that Dean Martin had already made all other creepy duets redundant with ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. It seems like almost all the song ideas that tie in external themes to a Christmas setting have been taken, and that modern artists are having to explore even more niche topics just to be original.

It’s all quite simple really… the ‘classics’ got there first. We recycle the same customs at Christmas, so it makes sense to recycle the same songs as well. Those Crimbo tunes that arrived first alongside the emergence of widespread physical forms of music media were therefore the ones to be played each year until they slipped into the general Christmas discourse, becoming synonymous with the season ever since.

On top of that, Christmas songs seem to operate according to an exhaustible checklist. Since Christmas is a holiday built on tradition, its features are remarkably static and rarely shift, meaning that songs wishing to embrace the Christmas spirit must do so using the same themes, lyrics, and instruments as all those that came before. It’s an excessively limiting notion- there’s only so many sounds you can bash out of some rusty sleigh bells; only so many times you can reference Santa before he becomes more of an ethereal idea than a real man (don’t believe the doubters, Santa is real); only a finite amount of words that will rhyme with ‘mistletoe’, ‘stocking’, ‘tree’, ‘sleigh’, ‘presents’, ‘turkey’, ‘crackers’, ‘elf’, and ‘Christmas’ itself. This extends to the world of festive music videos as well. An unquantifiable fuck-ton of fake snow? Check. Some confused, quite possibly underpaid kids singing in a choir? Check. Every direction you look in the land of Christmas music, the view is exactly the same: a homogenous sheet of white Christmases and Feliz Navidads with little room in the inn for anything else.

However, saying the market is saturated is not to take away from the success of the ‘classics’- it’s important to remember that these songs are also just very good at what they do. Are there any flaws at all to ‘Last Christmas’? To ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’? To ‘Mary’s Boy Child’? If there are, families and experts alike are yet to find them. And when a song hits its target with perfection, it doesn’t go away. Think about it- this isn’t just the case for Christmas songs. Go to any primary school disco (preferably one you’re invited to- The Gryphon definitely DOES NOT endorse breaking and entering onto private school property) and you’ll still find the ‘Cha Cha Slide’ or the ‘Macarena’ sending children into anarchic fits of knee sliding rage. The DJs know it works, and it’s the same with those behind the decks on the radio or at Christmas parties across the country. People are more likely to stay tuned in or busting shapes on the dance floor if they’re listening to an absolute banger that they know all the words to than something they’ve never heard before.

Some stats to confirm this: out of the 163 songs present on a Wikipedia List of Christmas hit singles in the United Kingdom, only 31 of the songs were released after the millennium. On the ‘Christmas Party’ playlist on Spotify (one of the largest festive themed playlists on the site), of the 13 songs that were recorded post-2000, five are covers, one is Ariana Grande’s seminal ‘Santa Tell Me’, and the rest are shit. The most popular Spotify Christmas playlist is ‘Christmas Classics’ and it has 600,000 more followers than the second most popular festive playlist- because there’s nothing worse than being trusted as the Christmas party Spotify DJ and putting on a Christmas playlist, only to hear Meghan Trainor sing some worthless song about a turkey having not being enough bass. The people will not be happy. Ruining Christmas? That’s on you.

Perhaps it’s just a generational thing. There’s something rather unserious and gimmicky about Christmas songs, something that was wonderful in the 50s, acceptable in the 80s, but borderline silly at the end of the noughties. Nowadays, Christmas songs and festive themed albums are seen more as an exploitative grasp at fickle audiences rather than an authentic showcase of musical intent. Are popular artists willing to take that step anymore? Not only that, the landscape of popular music has changed as well, shifting from the traditional four-chord pop songs that transpose nicely into the Christmas song aesthetic, to the realms of hip-hop, R&B and Dancehall. It’s much more difficult to convert ‘Bad and Boujee’ into a Christmas song than, for instance, Little Mix’s ‘Love Me Like You’- the ‘Christmas Mix’ of which differs from the original song only in that it features a hefty amount of jingling and a dock off bell reminding you that Christmas has, indeed, arrived.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christmas is about nostalgia, about telling each other stories and indulging in childhood memories of Christmas. The soundtrack for these memories has always been the classic Christmas tunes. So, who the fuck in their right mind would spend even a single second of present-giving, feast-eating, snowman-building and song-singing to the backdrop of anything other than the ‘classics’? Pop on some ‘Last Christmas’ and fuck off.

In short, the modern Christmas song may be dead, but only because its ancestors have succeeded in keeping the spirit of Christmas alive for so many years, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Merry Christmas x

Robert Cairns