Something very strange starts to happen every year as we approach Christmas, a certain select list of songs gets repeated over and over again. There’s simply no other time that this happens, when we all collectively revisit the same songs from years past. While it’s a fairly flexible list, there is still only so many songs people can put out about Christmas specifically, which perhaps explains the stretching to songs such as long forgotten boy-band East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day,’ or the spin on war protest song ‘Stop the Cavalry’ into being Christmas themed. Still, this relatively small list of songs can generally be divided into two kinds: the fun and cheesy party music, and the melancholy classics.
Now that we have heard them so many times, these songs usually wash over us, with the lyrics blurring into the gentle, soothing rhythms of the music. But ‘White Christmas,’ for one example, is in its words a surprisingly sad song of loss for being cherished as a quintessential Christmas classic. The singer is not enjoying their perfect Christmas, but ‘dreaming’ of it, yearning for ‘the ones I used to know.’ Those iconic Christmas themed images of ‘tree tops’ that ‘glisten’ and ‘sleigh bells’ ringing out ‘in the snow’ are framed by this opening. They do not exist within the song, but have been lost, now only the stuff of dreams. This gives a poignant but very tragic implied meaning to the second verse’s wish that our ‘days be merry and bright,’ because the singer has abandoned their hope for their own dream and transferred it to us, wishing for our ‘Christmases’ to ‘be white’. Remembering the past and only granting thoughts of the future to others, this singer may have accepted that the Christmas they loved is gone forever.
The melancholy here is not just a mark of earlier attitudes and cultural moods (although one could certainly argue the influence of the Second World War when Irving Berlin first wrote it). Michael Bublé’s Christmas album, easily the most significant recent addition to the canon of popular Christmas music, still retains traces of this mood, despite its generally very upbeat musical tone. The titles alone of some of the songs covered reflect this, such as ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ or ‘Blue Christmas.’ Even if the production and Bublé’s singing glosses over these elements with a style that is always celebratory, their presence remains.
Not to mention what is consistently voted the most popular Christmas song every year, ‘Fairytale of New York.’ The story, beginning in a police station drunk tank on Christmas Eve, about the love of two poor heavy drinking and drug using lovers, is remorselessly melancholic and delivers on its ironic title. It may have a hopeful, and very moving, last verse, but as with ‘White Christmas,’ we have to question if this is the true ending. The opening of the song creates the same distance as ‘White Christmas,’ implying that the speaker is lost now and can only dream of ‘a better time / where all our dreams come true.’ Nonetheless, ‘Fairytale’ is not quite as finite as ‘White Christmas,’ and one of the reasons for its popularity might be that this hope still seems so real and reachable.
The strange thing is that it is these songs, the ones that portray their melancholy so vividly, that tend to stick the most and are considered as the most ‘Christmassy.’ This has to be a paradox, as our shared cultural idea of Christmas does not have any place for this kind of disappointment and estrangement to go unresolved by the time midnight falls on Christmas Day. And yet, this tone still appeals to so many of us, even if it is unconscious.
Is this because, in some way, it matches what our actual experience of Christmas is? It only takes the briefest of closer looks to see that the promise of Christmas as told to us is just too huge to be fulfilled. As children, if we are very lucky, Christmas can be magical and perfect, all its potential realised. But, as we get older, life becomes more complex. The simplicity of our lives as children allows for such a perfect Christmas, but the complexity of our older lives simply does not, or, at least, not wholly and every time. Think of how much is demanded: for everyone to be at one single home regardless of other ties, for everyone to be on good terms, to rise to the challenge of the adverts that confidently assume we all have enough money to afford everything on offer for our loved ones.
Even if all these things are achieved, there is still the unenviable task of feeding and entertaining the whole Christmas party. Last year’s Asda Christmas advert may have played the idea of a mum heroically organising everything for laughs, but the advert uncomfortably showed how brutal such a burden is. While there are many Christmas stories in movies or books of people missing or expecting bad Christmases, a happy ending always resolves issues. The season just does not really allow anyone to sit it out.
The power of melancholy Christmas songs is in their finding the gap between the promise and the experience. It might not be all bad, but it’s not all good either. We cherish what we do have and regret what we don’t, hoping for a better one next year and reflecting on the year we have just lived, just as in John Lennon’s song ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over).’ When we are older, we can’t have it all, at least, not every year. There are still great surprises, but also disappointments, and we cannot expect everything anymore, even if our culture is determined to promise it to us. There’s a great beauty in understanding and expressing that, and it’s part of the brilliance of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ because it doesn’t have to be a big one.