If you’re yet to deck the halls, the boughs of holly are still decorating the forest rather than your sitting room and the Christmas-tree seller’s money belt is still £25 (€30) lighter than it could be, the best way to get in the festive mood and fast-track your Christmas season is to switch on the radio.
Christmas records have been wafting out of in-store speakers, cab windows and cafés for weeks and they’re finally starting to make sense. The sentiment of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” seems salient now you’ve had your festive work party; “Driving Home for Christmas” seems like the right way to be heading, the King’s College Choir in Cambridge’s over-enunciated descant seems just the ticket rather than that teeny bit toe-curling.
So what makes a good Christmas song? Well, not being too good is key. There’s a kitschness to Christmas that’s not the opposite of quality but a sister to silliness (see Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”).
Smells and bells in both musical and metaphorical form are also important at Christmas. This is when you can add the extras that would seem extraneous in other seasons. “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, belted out by Mariah Carey with the full compliment of trills and vocal tricks seems just about suitable when there are sleigh bells and choirs in (and on) the mix. Like wearing a reindeer-busy Christmas jumper for sitting around the house, this is a time when there’s almost no such thing as too much.
As for sleigh bells? A few go a long way. The appearance of this piece of most-reliably reminiscent percussion guarantees Christmas on a disc but going overboard, rather than putting you in the mood, might well simply make you feel like you’re following a farting reindeer through an Austrian forest on a cold, dark night. That’s a whole different breed of reliably reminiscent percussion and one that, to my knowledge, has yet to score a Christmas hit or get shoppers in the plastic-flexing mood at this time of year.
And when is a Christmas number one not really a Christmas song at all? Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a necessarily unusual beast, perhaps, considering the message it’s singing about, but if it weren’t for chorus and the odd sleigh bell there’s not a lot to suggest in which season it should sit. Although, “Do They Know It’s Pentecost?” might well not have been so catchy.
In this vein, see also London trio East 17 who got to number one in the British Christmas charts of 1994 with “Stay Another Day”, a song that was quite good but genuinely sad. (Merry Christmas, cats!) “Stay Another Day” contained not a jot of Christmas sentiment in its lyrics, not a hint of sleigh bell in its production and not a breath of vocal show-offery in its delivery yet there it sat at the top spot for what seemed years (but was actually only five weeks). The video was all about parkas and fake snow, though. At least I think it was snow. They did have a bit of a reputation as party animals, those boys.
This year, my recommendation would be the return of 1980s pop princess and girl-next-door Kim Wilde, whose Wilde Winter Songbook is neither deep, crisp or even but catchy, slushy and not even really that cool – just like Christmas itself.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle