Christmas truly is, as they say, the most wonderful time of the year. I could spill a lot of ink trying to figure out just why that is, but some truths are far too ineffable for the pen or the keys to capture. What I am sure of—and can ably express with the written word—is that much of Christmas’s glory is rooted in the music that comes with it. Not “Jingle Bells” and all that other indolent detritus of the season, but rather true works of art based on myriad ideas of Christmas. Here are some of my favourites:
I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake
This one is a musical tour de force, Christmas or not. The symphonic crescendo and everything that builds up to it are spellbinding. And then there are the lyrics, which are surely not the typical maudlin nonsense one thinks of when pondering Christmas music.
“I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave New Year. All anguish, pain, and sadness leave your heart and let your road be clear. They said there’d be snow at Christmas. They said there’d be peace on earth. Hallelujah, Noël, be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.”
Fairytale of New York – The Pogues
“It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank.”
Every character in the song is drunk. Every person making the song—including all of “the boys of the NYPD choir”—was drunk. All of it in Irish brogue. Need I say more? I needn’t, but I hasten to add you won’t find many Christmas songs with anything like this bit in them:
“You scumbag, you maggot. You cheap, lousy faggot. Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.”
Father Christmas – The Kinks
A brilliant challenge to the consumerist Christmas —wrapped up, of course, in pure 70’s guitar rock.
“But the last time I played Father Christmas, I stood outside a department store. A gang of kids came over and mugged me, and knocked my reindeer to the floor. They said, ‘Father Christmas, give us some money, don’t mess around with your silly toys. We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over. We want your bread, so don’t make us annoyed. Give all the toys to the little rich boys.’ … Have yourself a merry, merry Christmas, have yourself a good time. But remember the kids who got nothing while you’re drinking down your wine.”
The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – David Bowie & Bing Crosby
The melody is enchanting, the lyrics are poignant, and it serves as a constant reminder that—somehow and somewhere—the Starman once performed alongside the original Crooner. Whoever dreamt that one up deserves our undying admiration.
“Every Child must be made aware. Every child must be made to care, care enough for his fellow man, to give all the love that he can. I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too. He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of good will live in peace, live in peace again. Peace on earth, can it be? Can it be?”
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love
I must admit, this makes the cut because it is one of my family Christmas staples. A cover version made it onto a Christmas playlist some years ago, and my cousin explained to us all that Darlene Love had been appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman every year for some two decades to perform the song on the last show before Christmas. And so tuning in for her Late Show performances became a brief tradition—Dave retired five or so years later—but playing one or two of her several versions on December 24th and 25th has become a tradition in its own right.
Wonderful Christmastime – Paul McCartney
Sir Paul gives us a catchy pop tune all about that feeling a Christmastime spent with friends and family imparts. What’s not to like?
“The mood is right, the spirit’s up, we’re here tonight, and that’s enough. Simply having a wonderful Christmastime. The party’s on, the feeling’s here, that only comes this time of year. Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.”
A Christmas Song – Jethro Tull
Another brilliant challenge to the consumerist and self-indulgent ethos that has regrettably come to define much of the Christmas experience. It was written at the turn of the twenty-first century and hits closer to home every year.
“You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making: that Christmas spirit is not what you drink. So how can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry? And how can smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong? And if I’ve just messed up your thoughtless pleasures, remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song… Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will ya?”
Thank God it’s Christmas – Queen
This one sits somewhere between passionate embrace and entreaty for peace, made all the more powerful and beautiful by Freddie Mercury’s immaculate vocals. Though unchanged for three decades, it seems to make its point more profoundly this Christmas:
“Oh, my love, we’ve had our share of tears. Oh, my friends, we’ve had our hopes and fears. Oh, my friends, it’s been a long, hard year. But now it’s Christmas, yes it’s Christmas, thank God it’s Christmas … Oh, my love, we live in troubled days. Oh, my friends, we have the strangest ways. Oh, my friends, on this one day of days, thank God it’s Christmas, yes it’s Christmas. Thank God it’s Christmas, for one day.”
The Twelve Days of Christmas – Bob & Doug Mackenzie
Christmas always needs a dash of comedy. Everyone loves a Canadian classic, and this Bob & Doug track is certainly that.
“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: six packs of two-fours, five golden touques, four pounds of back bacon, three French toasts, two turtlenecks, and a beer in a tree.”
Cool Yule; Christmas Night in Harlem; Christmas in New Orleans – Louis Armstrong
I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday – Wizzard
Last Man at the Party; Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow – Jethro Tull
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade
Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d be a Turkey at Christmas?) – Elton John
I’ll be Home on Christmas Day – Elvis Presely
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (Live) – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band