Unwrapping Your Favourite Christmas songs

By Gareth Bellamy
December 20, 2017 6:00 AM ‐ ChristmasLong Reads

This article is more than six years old and was last updated in December 2018.

Wham! - 'Last Christmas'
Christmas songs – impossible to avoid, sometimes hard to love. We're taking a closer look at some of those Christmas classics that play a part of everyone's Christmas.

You've had thought that perhaps with the advent(!) of downloads and streaming, what tracks appear in our charts at Christmas would lose some impact. But considering what chart antics Ed Sheeran has pulled off this year, with multiple versions of the same track and recording a cover of Fairytale of New York, it still looks like who gets the Christmas Number One spot is important for many artists and music buyers.

Wham! - 'Last Christmas'

Wham! - 'Last Christmas'. The bittersweet Christmas track given extra poignancy by George Michael's death on Christmas Day 2016.
Number of times it mentions the word Christmas - 7
Mentions of Santa - 0
Jingle Bells – 75%

On the face of it, you wouldn't have thought a synthpop tale of seasonal heartbreak and misery would have the makings of a modern Christmas classic, but that fails to take into account the songwriting genius of George Michael, who sadly died on Christmas Day 2016.
Last Christmas has become a modern Christmas standard, but why?

The song opens with a chorus of four repeated lines which state how last Christmas he gave his heart to someone who gave it away, and that this year he's keeping it for someone special. In those four lines we learn: 

a) George Michael was economical with his lyrics – those four lines, repeated twice each time, are repeated a further two times in the song! (That's lyrical value for money Lidl would be impressed by!)
b) From the get-go he's established the back story to the whole song. Last Christmas he fell in love with someone but that didn't work out. This year he's determined to make a better go of things this year to spare his suffering.
c) Establishes hope for all ardent George fans that maybe they could be 'THE ONE' that George is hoping to meet this Christmas!

George sounds quite resigned at the start of the song. This event happened a year ago, it's all past history, and yet, he seems a bit pre-occupied with last year, doesn't he? "Tell me baby, do you recognise me? Well, it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me."

"(Merry Christmas!) I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying, "I love you, " I meant it"

This was no ordinary Christmas gift he gave – we know from the repeated chorus it was his heart and love, not a £5 set of earrings from Elizabeth Duke! Christmas ramped up his feelings, as it does to all of us.

We quickly move on to: "But if you kissed me now, I know you'd fool me again."

So he was dumped – but despite what he told us in the opening chorus, he still holds feelings for this person. It's almost like he wants them to snog him under the mistletoe!  George, get a grip, and get a grip he does, as before too long he's telling us "Now I've found a real love you'll never fool me again." You go girl!

And yet, he seems doomed to repeat the errors of his past as we know he's going to pull off the same trick next Christmas, because by the time we get to the final section of the song George is telling us

"Next year I'll give it to someone
I'll give it to someone special."

So this year isn't going to work out either, he's holding out for next year?

So, in essence:
Last year, he fell in love with someone, they broke his heart. He was badly hurt by this. He still has feelings for them. He kind of wants them to get back with him... but he's currently got someone... He'll give them his love this year... but that won't work out, so he'd hoping next year it will.

Maybe he should have called the song 'Doomed Love by the Christmas Fireside'?

Many argue that this song isn't really about Christmas, it's a break up song that just happens to be set at Christmas. There are no religious elements in the song. And the video is basically a depiction of a skiing holiday with too much hairspray. Well, yes, but also, no! The fact that it's set at Christmas is critical to the emotional impact of the story George is telling us. Emotions run higher at Christmas, so the love he gave meant so much more.

Often expectations for Christmas are set artificially high. The family, the gifts, the celebration, relationships... The pressure is immense, so for any of us who ever feel we come up short, this song is for you!

Originally released as a double A-side single, with Everything She Wants. A clever marketing move as the second Christmas is over, nobody wants to hear Christmas tracks. You simply had to flip the disc and off you go, another single!

The single was kept off the number one spot in the UK by Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?", a track which also features George singing. In a characteristic show of generosity, the Wham boys gave their earnings from Last Christmas to Ethiopia famine appeal.

The track has re-entered the British charts a further 14 years since 1985 and we can expect it to be repeating on the charts as often as your sprouts will on Christmas afternoon.

Mariah Carey – 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'

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Mariah Carey – 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'. The one Christmas track it's impossible to avoid.
Number of times the word Christmas is mentioned - 9
Mentions of Santa - 2
Jingle Bells – 1

One of those songs that feels like it's always been part of Christmas despite being written and released in 1994. The appeal of the song has often been attributed to the fact it's difficult to pin it down to a specific genre or era.

The song sounds like a mix of classic Christmas songs (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!) stirred up with 60s Motown, or even The Jackson 5's 'Santa Clause Is Coming To Town.'

The song is also heavily influenced by the Phil Spector 'Wall of Sound' production from the 60s.  Phil Spector released one of the definitive Christmas albums in 1963, 'A Christmas Gift For You', so if you're looking for inspiration for a Christmas song, that's not a bad place to start.

Mix all that lot together, and you've got a veritable fruit cake of a track!

The track, and the album it came from, 'Merry Christmas', almost didn't happen as Carey's record label were concerned as Christmas albums were often seen as cash-ins released by artists as their career wanes. But determined to prove them wrong, Carey crammed her house with Christmas decorations in the summer of 1994 whilst penning the original tracks for the album. She, and co-writer Walter Afanasieff apparently got the chords, structure and melody down in fifteen minutes. Not bad going considering most of us take longer than that for a coffee break.

To date the song has sold over 16 million copies, and netted over $60 million in royalties with numerous cover versions released around the world.

In the UK in 1994, the song peaked at #2, (held off the top spot by East 17's Stay Another Day), but has regularly re-entered the charts since. By the end of January 2017 it had spent seventy-eight weeks in the UK charts.

The continuing success of the song over twenty years since its release date means you're out of luck if you're one of the people who can't stand it, it appears to be on every radio station and playing in every shop throughout December. Bah humbug indeed!

East 17 – 'Stay Another Day'

East 17 – 'Stay Another Day'. The Christmas song that isn't about Christmas
Number of times the word Christmas is mentioned - 0
Children's Choir Singing – 0
Jingle Bells – +100

Famous for keeping Mariah Carey off the Xmas number one spot in 1994, 'Stay' is a notable Christmas track for a number of reasons. 
1) The word Christmas is never mentioned in the lyrics.
2) There's hardly any percussion in the track.
3) If you take the jingle bells off the song, it's not a Christmas song at all, except for the video!

East 17 were a boy band who surfaced in 1991, consisting of singer/songwriter Tony Mortimer, lead singer Brian Harvey, and two blokes who stood around at the back of the stage in silly hats doing sod all. They were seen as a 'rough' group of lads when compared to the much more neatly groomed Take That.

Whilst everyone thinks of 'Stay' as downbeat song about being dumped at the worst time of the year (now where could they have got that idea from??), the song was actually written about the suicide of songwriter Tony Mortimer's brother, Ollie. He tweaked the lyrics slightly, but the song never references Christmas at all. It was only the presence of bells that mark this out as a Christmas song. That, and the decision to release it in time to have a chance of getting it the Christmas number one spot. Also the fact that in the video they're all wearing huge winter coats and dancing about in fake snow. Apart from that, no, it's not a Christmas song.

Again, like Wham!'s Last Christmas, the song exploits the fact that everyone is meant to feel happy and joyous at Christmas. So, if anything hasn't quite worked out how you planned, this could be the song for you! A Song which reminds you of happier days, like before East 17's lead singer Brian Harvey ran over himself after eating three baked potatoes.

Pogues - 'Fairytale of New York'

Pogues - 'Fairytale of New York'. A life of misery and suffering set to Irish folk music!
Number of times the word Christmas is mentioned - 7
Mentions of Santa  – 0
Jingle Bells – 0

99% of the musical output of The Pogues has been a fusion of traditional Irish music and punk rock. But they will probably go down in the history books for their Christmas track 'Fairytale of New York.' A perennial favourite, it's now been covered by the closest person we have to Elvis in the UK, guitar-slinging troubadour Ed Sheeran, the ingredients for the song were unlikely to have given rise to such a regular fixture of the holiday season. No jingle bells, children's choir or talking of gifts. Instead we have a pisshead in a police cell, a couple arguing, thwarted ambition and ruined dreams. Happy f**king Christmas!!!

The song took two years to write by banjo player Jem Finer and Pogues frontman, the walking advert for seeing your dentist regularly, Shane MacGowan. One story has it that the band's producer at the time, Elvis Costello, bet the band they couldn't write a Christmas song. Whether that's true or not, the lengthy gestation of the track meant that by the time they'd got round to recording it, the band's bass player, Cait O'Riordan, who was to sing the female part of the song, had left the band. Whilst working on a demo version of the song, producer Steve Lillywhite then took the track home and got his wife Kirsty MacColl to record a guide vocal for the female part. The band were so impressed with voice that they agreed she should be the voice of the song. MacGowan then re-recorded his track alongside MacColl's tape – the two never sung the track together in the studio, and the rest is Christmas history.

On its original release in 1987, the track was kept from the number one spot at Christmas by the Pet Shop Boys cover of the Elvis classic 'Always On My Mind' – not a track you hear very often on Christmas compilations. But with it appearing on pretty much every Christmas compilation, and creeping up the Christmas charts every year in this era of downloads, it's easy to say which track has had the bigger impact on our Christmas listening.

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