Almost wherever you are from the first of November to the last day of Christmas, you will not be able to escape the annual festive hits such as Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’. I’ll admit, it’s not my personal favourite. In the Anglo-centric selection, I am more partial to classic winter standards like ‘White Christmas’, but also enjoy a foray into Spanish gipsy folk ‘villancicos’. If you’re shopping in Debenhams and you feel like you’re hearing the same song over and over again, you’re probably not far off from the truth. Many American Christmas songs take their inspiration from the same place, namely Phil Spector’s album A Christmas Gift for You, originally released in 1963 (though it took inspiration from the Christmas standards of the 1920s and ‘30s). In Gibraltar we have the luxury to be able to head home and be immersed in the choral sounds of the Andalucian yuletide, until all songs begin to sound the same. In order to try to answer what constitutes a Christmas song, we can take the two most popular Christmas songs in history as case studies, compare and contrast them, and see if it is possible to answer the question in any satisfactory way.
We can look first to the best-selling single of all time (that’s including non-holiday themed singles), according to Guinness World Records, which happens to be Bing Crosby’s 1942 version of ‘White Christmas’. The song was written in 1940 by Irving Berlin, a legendary songwriter who grew up in Brooklyn as a Jew, experiencing Christmastide from an outsider’s perspective. Before the song, longing for snow and sleigh bells were not a common feature of holiday tunes. Berlin’s composition was the first major hit of holiday songs that captured a more secular and personal sentimentality, specifically during wartime in the case of ‘White Christmas’. Of course, the snow and glistening treetops is secondary. In many places, Gibraltar included obviously, it doesn’t even snow! And even in places where snow is a feature of the holiday season, it is rarely synonymous with the warmth that Berlin’s song induces to the listener. Written during the Second World War when families were hoping for their sons to get home safely, the primary theme is that of dreaming for a better future.
While ‘White Christmas’ could be seen as the advent of the popular Christmas song, it differs in mood from ditties like ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’, which is strikingly similar to ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ from the aforementioned Phil Spector album. Carey’s standard features the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ technique with a wide range of instrumentation, including sleigh bells and gospel-esque choral accompaniment, contrasting with the acapella-style introduction. It does not have the World War Two backdrop, but it is somewhat based on longing, or more precisely on ‘want’.
Emma Green of the Atlantic writes that “Christmas is a time of material and affection-based excess, yet the song is narrowly focused on just one thing: getting to be with a specific person; you…’Want’ is a sort of Hegelian dialectic of Christmastime desire, taking the conflicting notions of abundance and specificity and packaging them into an earworm for the generations.” Essentially, the song itself is a reflection of the modern zeitgeist whenever Christmas rolls around ever year – we want it to be an innocent, simple and special time with loved ones but it is also a time when we must consume, spend and want more than we have throughout the course of a calendar year… though I’m not sure that Carey intended for her song to have that sort of philosophical interpretation.
So what do ‘White Christmas’ and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ have in common? Well, for starters, they both have ‘Christmas’ in the title. Obvious point but a large part of what makes a Christmas song is that it is packaged for the season, and sold as such. It is a kind of social construction, initially controlled by record companies and radio channels but now accepted as mere convention – it is not Christmas if there are no Christmas songs (i.e. songs written for the purpose of being played during Christmas) playing on loop! I cannot think of modern popular songs that were written without the intention of being Christmas-themed as now being considered as Christmas songs. But within the themes of the Christmas songs we have discussed, we can pick out a core element that is shared and fundamental to both songs: dreaming.
The dream may be desire-driven in the case of Carey’s song, or it might be a harking back to simpler times of peace and simple contentment. Either way, the significance of Christmas for many, as reflected in the music, is about detaching oneself briefly from the contemporary struggles of reality in order to dream about another one. It could be about loosening budget restrictions to buy the newest toys or eating copious amounts of food that you would not normally do at any other time of year. Simply, Christmas is escapism – where we create a new but temporary reality of optimism, unabashed love, and unsustainable diets. In an age of instability and crises, Christmas and its music satisfies a part of the human consciousness that would be otherwise abandoned – the ability to dream of the ideal and “make my wish come true”. If we can’t hope for better during Christmas, can we at all?