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15 December 2017

What are the best Christmas songs if you’re very depressed about the world?

The existential Christmas playlist.

By Jonn Elledge

I found myself tearing up at a Christmas song the other day. Worse, it was one by a comedian.

This happens at some point most Decembers, to be fair. Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” has the same power to reduce to me to a gibbering but festive wreck that the last three minutes of It’s A Wonderful Life does.

Which is weird, in its way, because most of the first couple of verses are about organised religion being a load of old horse shit. Some samples:

And yes I have all of the usual objections

To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,

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Are taught to externalise blame

And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong

But I quite like the songs

I mean, it’s hardly “Little Donkey”, is it? But it’s got a lovely bit of piano music in it, and it ends up as a joyous hymn to the notions of home and family and how that’s what Christmas is really all about. And I appreciate that this is the sort of thing that will have some of you eye-rolling, because you’re cynical or you don’t have those things or simply because you really fucking hate Christmas – but it gets me, every time.

So I was sorting through some broken decorations, trying to disguise my deeply undignified sniffling, when the thought occurred that there’s actually a whole genre of Christmas songs like this. They don’t generally sound anything like each other. They often don’t have much in common in terms of their apparent subject matter, either. But they do share certain themes.

For starters, they’re don’t tend to go big on the imagery we traditionally associate with Christmas. No snowmen, Santa Claus or reindeer. No big parties, no happy romances, absolutely no Baby Jesus. (“White Wine in the Sun”, significantly, uses imagery taken from what Christmas is actually like in the southern hemisphere, rather than pretending there might be a freak snowstorm in Western Australia on Midsummer’s Day.)

When these songs do talk about those things they tend to suggest, either by hinting or by stating explicitly, that the traditional idea of Christmas is a lie. Some of them sound jolly – but if you actually listen to the lyrics, they’re often deeply miserable.

But having interrogated the concept a bit, they conclude that there is a true meaning of Christmas after all – albeit one that’s bittersweet, a relief from the horrors of the world. Christmas is brilliant, these songs seem to say – just, not in the straightforward way Noddy Holder likes to pretend it is.

So what’s on the existential Christmas playlist? I think you can make an argument for Jona Lewie’s “Stop the Cavalry”, but it’s a marginal case, since it’s an anti-war protest song that isn’t really about Christmas at all. The line “Wish I was at home for Christmas” was a last-minute addition, thrown onto the tape in the hope of a Christmas hit. That puts it in the same box as East 17’s “Stay Another Day”, with its bells and its video with all that snow in it.

There’s a better case for “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, which is a deeply depressing tale of alcoholism, disappointment and domestic abuse. But the twist is the unexpected joy of the chorus. The couple singing clearly aren’t going to make it to next Christmas together – it’s not clear they’re going to make it to next Christmas apart – but for this one moment at least on Christmas Day they seem happy.

“Don’t Let The Bells End” by The Darkness is doing something similar. You might never have noticed this, because like everything The Darkness ever did, it’s all jaunty and hidden behind a veneer of irony, but the lyrics to this one are horrible:

Feigning joy and surprise at the gifts we despise over mulled wine with you

On the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month

The sleigh bells are in time, ringing true

How we cling each Noel to that snowflake’s hope in hell​

That it won’t end.

This relationship is clearly fucked. But as with Shane and Kirsty, they’re holding it together for Christmas, and so the singer is praying that Christmas will somehow, miraculously, last. It’s “Well I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day” but for people on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

(Unrelated thought that always amuses me this time of year: the school choir on the latter song are now all about 55 and statistically speaking voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.)

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is another obvious candidate for the no-really-I’m-honestly-fine party playlist. It feels like it says something about the Beatles’ post-breakup careers that Paul McCartney’s Christmas offering is a cheery but vacuous ditty about how wonderful Christmastime is, while John Lennon did a cod-profound song about how war is, like, bad.

I’m not entirely sold on the message if I’m honest – I, too, would like an end to war, but 5,000 years of recorded history suggest to me that it’s a bit more difficult to achieve than the line “if you want it” suggests.

But once again, it’s a song suggesting that, even if Christmas is a lie, the ideals it’s meant to stand for – love, peace, togetherness, and all that jazz – are the important ones. It didn’t do much when first released in 1972, but a couple of weeks after Lennon’s death in 1980, it came very close to topping the charts.

(Another unrelated thought: I realised the other day, with a sort of dull horror, that Lennon might also have gone a bit Brexit in his old age, and found myself shuddering.)

My favourite of the lot, though, is Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas”, a song which is not, in fact, about someone who literally believes in Father Christmas.

This one more than any of the others is explicitly about how Christmas is not what it’s meant to be – how the whole thing’s just a story we tell to children, to shield them from the pain of a miserable world. What’s more, it came out in 1975. It’s a song about how Christmas was not what it used to be from before I was even born.

They sold me a dream of Christmas

They sold me a silent night

And they told me a fairy story

‘til I believed in the Israelite

And I believed in Father Christmas

And I looked at the sky with excited eyes

‘til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn

And I saw him and through his disguise

But in the end, the song isn’t really about that lie. As with Lennon’s offering, it’s about the hope that things can be better – that we can make things better.

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’ll be snow at Christmas

They said there’ll be peace on Earth

Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell

The Christmas we get we deserve

Lake pretends he’s so hard and cynical that he can’t help but see through this festive nonsense – but at the end of the day, his song is still called “I Believe In Father Christmas”.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. I don’t have any great conclusion to build to.

It’s just that it’s been a difficult year – for me, for the world, for many of the people I love. Maybe next year will be better. Maybe it won’t. But these few weeks each year, there’s joy and good company and fairy lights, twinkling in the darkness. And for now, perhaps, that’s enough.

All I’m trying to say really is, I really like Christmas. It’s sentimental, I know – but I just really like it.

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