Behind many a seasonal hit can be sadness, says Dave Randall
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to escape its soundtrack. A poetic cliché would have Christmas songs arriving like a reassuring blanket of powdery snow just in time to herald the festivities.
In reality, their presence can feel more like an unwelcome pea-souper, blown into shops on warm winds weeks before even a mention of mince pies has passed anyone’s lips. There’s no doubt that festive music is one means by which retailers seek to elongate this season of spending. It reminds us just how important the holiday is to commerce.
But what other insights do our favourite seasonal songs offer? Well, for one thing, they suggest that Christmas is largely a secular affair. Only a small minority of holiday hits make any reference to religion and fair few of the most popular were penned by secular Jewish songwriters.
Many focus on romantic love. Mariah Carey claims not to care about pressies; all she wants for Christmas is You. From the first plinky synths and drum machine beats of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, listeners of a certain age are transported back to school discos and the pain of unrequited love.
One or two hits such as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Slade’s irritatingly ubiquitous Merry Christmas Everybody try to persuade us that everyone is having fun. But others point to a more complex reality.
The Pogues Fairytale of New York centres on the bickering of a booze and drug addled couple, while Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry describes the privations and pointlessness of war from the perspective of a soldier who wishes he was at home for Christmas.
In truth Christmas can be a trying time. Turkey and tinsel perhaps, but trials and tribulations too. For starters there’s the cost of it. The pressure to spend-spend-spend can seem crushing for many of us – particularly those who have borne the brunt of a decade of austerity with pay-freezes and cuts in state help.
Many songs remind us that as well as raising financial anxieties, the season can also accentuate feelings of loneliness. An example is the highest earning Christmas song of all time, White Christmas, made famous by Bing Crosby. It is a song steeped in nostalgia, regret and a yearning for times past.
For its writer Irving Berlin, the heartache was personal – his first child died a cot death on Christmas day. However, the feeling of loss resonated with millions who also felt that something essential is missing in the modern world. Indeed, it is striking just how many seasonal hits describe the loneliness that lurks just beyond the sleigh bells and mistletoe.
This time last year I used this column to encourage party people to look out for each other during this period of drunken debauchery. Of course we should do that again now and always. But let’s also look out for those who aren’t at the party – people in our neighbourhoods who, for whatever reasons, are less able to get out and who may be isolated. Let’s make time to offer them a cuppa and chat. Perhaps even a sing-song.
That really would be a meaningful use of music at this time of the year.
Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music