Tis the season, as they say. Along with fairy lights, fir trees and bitterly cold weather, nothing quite cries ‘December’ like the relentless and inescapable playing of cheesy Christmas songs from every conceivable direction. And, for this very reason, Christmas music is a profitable business; every artist seems to want to jump on the Christmas music bandwagon at some point or other. Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is perhaps the Holy Grail, raking in an estimated £376,000 per year in royalties and acting as the only song of the last 25 years to have truly entered the Christmas music canon.
But, obligatory cynicism aside, what exactly is it about Christmas music that makes it so… Christmassy? We’ll start with the obvious: festive lyrics, upbeat rhythms, use of major keys and basic diatonic harmonies (to give it that comfortable, familiar feeling), and simple nostalgia play no small part. But we can go deeper.
Timbre, the ever-vague ‘sound’ or ‘character’ of the music unrelated to pitch or intensity, plays a bigger part than most ever consider. The now-iconic opening of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ for instance, is played on a celesta. You might recognise this instrument – a type of keyboard developed in the 19th century – from its other famous use in the equally-festive ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ by Tchaikovsky. The association thus spans over 100 years, and now shows up in a shocking number of Christmas tunes.
Similarly, the unrelenting sleigh bells of Shakin’ Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, among others, screams Christmas like no other sound. The sweeping strings of Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ and the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ undoubtedly give one that warm, fuzzy Yuletide feeling, as a result of the fame of the former and similar holiday classics from the trad-pop era.
Perhaps a relic of 80s synthpop, a steady quaver pulse (or rhythmic ostinato, if you want to get technical) can now have distinctively wintery connotations. See Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’.
Even something as simple as a major scale descending from the tonic – as in Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ and the soundtracks to various Christmas movies – is used to evoke the image of snowflakes falling and the childlike excitement that comes with it.
None of these features are, of course, inherently Christmassy, or indeed only employed for festive reasons. Rather, their cultural connotations and associations have been moulded by decades of popular Christmas music, into defining what exactly a Christmas song should sound like. So merry Christmas one and all, and I truly hope this article hasn’t sucked the magic out of your favourite Christmas song too much.